Bill Russell’s radical life and legacy

Black Power activist and National Basketball Association Hall of Fame member Bill Russell passed away on July 31 at the age of 88. 

Known as one of the most dominant players in NBA history, he was an 11-time champion in 13 years, giving him the most championships in any North American pro sports league. Russell was the league’s first Black coach.

Less often discussed are Russell’s contributions to struggles against racism and war.

‘You must make the price of injustice too high to pay

In a Slam Magazine article Russell penned just months after George Floyd was murdered, he recalled lessons learned as a youth and star athlete. One time his father, Charles, was repeatedly ignored by a racist icehouse attendant who then called Charles “a boy” and threatened to shoot him. Charles Russell stood his ground, picking up a tire iron and got out of the car. The attendant ran away.

What Russell said he learned from this and other things he saw or experienced was twofold: “First, that you must make the price of injustice too high to pay, and second, that such events are not reflective of your character, but of the character of the perpetrator.”

While playing at the University of San Francisco, Russell was denied a much-deserved Player of the Year award. When Russell joined the Boston Celtics he was the team’s only Black player. His coaches and most teammates were far more accepting than the city and white fans. Game after game, Russell was told to “go back to Africa” by fans – who frequently hurled slurs at him.

At a time when more Black players were being drafted, the NBA placed a quota on how many Black men could be on a team. Russell’s complaint led to change.

Russell also led a boycott of a game in 1961 after bigots in Kentucky refused service to Black Celtics players. “I’ll never forget having to drive through the day and night to get some place, ignoring the cries of my still young children, because there was no place to stop to eat or rest, no hotel or restaurant that would accept our Blackness. None of my medals or championships could shield my children from White Supremacy,” said Russell.

In Reading, Massachusetts, bigots broke into his house and trashed it. None of this deterred his activism. 

After Medgar Evers was assassinated in 1963 by the Ku Klux Klan, Charlie Evers, Medgar’s brother, asked Russell to start an integrated basketball camp, which he did. Russell marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Washington and supported Muhammad Ali’s refusal to fight in Washington’s war against the people of Vietnam.

Russell recalled, “After that, the death threats started coming. I said then that I wasn’t scared of the kind of men who come in the dark of night.”

Russell stood up to racist vigilantes and police alike. He was pulled over in Los Angeles in the early 1970s by an officer who “suspected” the vehicle was stolen. A crowd formed while Russell held his hands up high. Upon checking his driver’s license, the officer was embarrassed to find out he’d racially profiled the Celtics legend. 

Russell linked his experiences to the U.S. legacy of slavery and colonialism: 

“You don’t need me to tell you that racist police officers are a problem, and you don’t need me to tell you that such racism is pervasive throughout not just police departments, but every American institution because every American institution was built on the backs of Black and Brown people.”

Russell lives on through struggles on and off the court

Bill Russell inspired many athletes who stood up to racism. This includes Celtics star Jaylen Brown, Colin Kaepernick, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf.

Russell saw the bigger picture as well. He said, “Police reform is a start, but it is not enough. We need to dismantle broken systems and start over.”

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