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Bostonian of the Year

The enduring promise of Bill Russell, a giant of Celtics basketball and American civil rights

He was a legend who stood tall against injustice. He took a knee against supremacy. He was centered and steadfast in his mission to make us better.

Bill Russell at a 1966 press conference announcing that he was named coach of the Celtics.AP/File

Globe Magazine
‎2022 Bostonian of the year

The promise of Bill Russell, chooser of dreams over deference

He was a legend who stood tall against injustice. He took a knee against supremacy. He was centered and steadfast in his mission to make us better.

Your soul remembers what the world wants you to forget. And in America, erasure is a tool poised to preserve oppression.

Bill Russell knew racism is a hate that scars generations if you don’t name it, face it, and change it.

The legendary Celtic disrupted both the game and American injustice. The center, typically the tallest player on a basketball team, was so much more with Russell in position. He raised the game. The first Black head coach in modern American professional sports and an Olympic gold medalist, with two NCAA championships and 11 NBA titles.

He stood tall against injustice. He took a knee against supremacy. He was centered and steadfast in his mission to make us better, entering the NBA as the civil rights era was rising.

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We were given the best of him, while Boston showed Russell the worst. How can you make yourself at home in a city where racists call you slurs and break into your home and defecate in your bed, as vandals did in 1963?

The haunts of Jim Crow, still loud and wrong in a city that wears the facade of freedom fighting, wielded white supremacy in Russell’s face when he was with the Celtics.

The same evil sticks with us today as we witness the stains of brutality against Black people, queer people, Asian people, Jewish people, and still have the audacity to deny it, to look away.

Russell did not find fear useful. There is nothing to be gained by running away from the problem. He never shrunk or fell at the will of his competitors or oppressors, leading the FBI to label him as “an arrogant Negro.” Racists hate it when those they seek to disempower dare to love themselves.

Russell understood the power he held in loving himself, his family, and humanity enough to take space and make space. To fly high and block the shots taken at him on the court and in life, to clear the way for those of us still here and those of us yet to come. To cackle that infectious laugh, delighting in joy we deserve.

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In 2020, in the wake of the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, in the early chapters of the pandemic, Russell, at 86, wrote in the Globe Magazine on the need for lasting, transformative change. “Let me remind you of that unfulfilled promise, the one right there in the Declaration of Independence: ‘All men are created equal . . . they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’

“I’ve been waiting my whole life for America to live up to that promise.”

He didn’t just wait. He kept reaching for it and teaching us to do the same.

Having marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and traveled to Africa in support of the decolonization movement, Russell understood intersectionality before the concept was coined.

Bill Russell was among the prominent athletes to show support for Muhammad Ali, who was stripped of his heavyweight title after refusing to serve in the Vietnam War, at a press conference. Front row from left: Russell, Ali, Jim Brown, and Lew Alcindor, who later took the name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Back row, from left: Carl Stokes, a Democratic state representative at the time; Walter Beach of the Cleveland Browns; Bobby Mitchell, who played for Washington's NFL team; Sid Williams of the Cleveland Browns; Curtis McClinton of the Kansas City Chiefs; Willie Davis of the Green Bay Packers; Jim Shorter, a former Cleveland Browns player; and John Wooten of the Cleveland Browns.Bettmann Archive

He used his power to protect our most vulnerable as a founding board member of MENTOR, a Boston-based nonprofit dedicated to the betterment of young people. He fought the cap on Black players in the league. He stood with Muhammad Ali during Vietnam. He knelt with Colin Kaepernick. He never quit calling on us to fight — to remember what is at stake. Our lives.

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We celebrate Russell, who, in the face of the ugliest adversity, fought for and lived a beautiful life for himself and for us.

We honor anyone daring to dream, to love, to inch toward liberation in the face of oppression, carrying on the ball Russell passed in an effort to fulfill America’s broken promise.

Bostonian of the year: Honorable mentions

TOP PHOTO CREDITS

AP Photo/File, Larry C. Morris/The New York Times, Rizer George/Globe Staff, Frank Obrien, Globe library, Paul Connell/Globe Staff, Dan Goshtigian/Globe Staff, John Bohn/Globe Staff



Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com. Follow her @sincerelyjenee and on Instagram @abeautifulresistance.