fb-pixel Skip to main content
Bostonian of the Year

Feeling the brunt of staggering racism, Bill Russell always stood tall

He felt he was good enough to perform on the floor for fans in Boston, but would he be welcome into their homes? Would they allow their kids to play with his?

Russell with President Obama in 2013, ahead of the unveiling of a city hall statue in Russell's honor.The White House

When Bill Russell was acquired by the Celtics in 1956, it would begin a 66-year relationship with the city of Boston, a relationship that was mostly strained and uncomfortable, as Russell felt the brunt of racism and discrimination that America offered Black Americans. Russell never felt the support or adulation that Boston fans showered on Bob Cousy or Tom Heinsohn. He felt he was good enough to perform on the floor for fans in Boston, but would he be welcome into their homes? Would they allow their kids to play with his?

One major incident that deeply influenced his opinion on the city occurred in 1963, when Russell was on a family road trip and his Boston-area home was vandalized with racial epithets spray-painted on the walls — the intruders even defecated on his bed. That caused Russell to lose faith in the city. While he led the Celtics to 11 championships, broke barriers in becoming the NBA’s first Black head coach and first Black coach to lead a team to a championship, he was never content with how he was treated by some Bostonians.

When the Celtics organization decided to retire his number in 1972, Russell demanded that no fans attend the ceremony. So his No. 6 was raised to the rafters in front of general manager Red Auerbach and a few of his teammates prior to a 1972 game, one that Russell just happened to be in town announcing for ABC. While Boston slowly progressed as a city that was accepting for people of color and specifically Black Americans, Russell believed the progress wasn’t fast enough. He wasn’t going to give Boston a break on this one.


As times changed, Russell’s stance softened, although, understandably, he was never completely content with diversity and inclusion in America, let alone in the city of Boston. Russell never felt fully appreciated as a player and social activist until later in his life.


Cousy, in his autobiography, expressed regret that he wasn’t closer to Russell during their careers, that he didn’t attempt to comprehend better Russell’s struggles with discrimination and acceptance. In February 2016, Cousy wrote Russell a letter apologizing for his lack of support during those trying times. Russell, then in his mid-80s, responded to Cousy on a phone call years later. The two talked, Russell accepted his apology. They shared a laugh.

Russell had forgiven Cousy and in many ways, his relationship with Boston improved. The Celtics invited him back to several reunions and he occasionally accepted. He attended Celtics games, and approved his statue unveiling at City Hall, giving President Obama a preview before the official ceremony.

In 1999, Russell participated in a second retirement of his number at the then-FleetCenter, in front of thousands of fans and guests including Auerbach, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Wilt Chamberlain. The proceeds went to the youth mentoring programs Russell supported. The standing ovation brought tears to his eyes.

Bostonian of the year: Honorable mentions

Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.