Bill Russell was a legend on the court, having succeeded in imprinting his winning temperament in the very DNA of the NBA. A player who shaped the future of his league during the 1960s… but also a man, involved in the fight for the rights of the African-American community. Throughout his life, Bill has never accepted being disrespected and will have acted with this idea to improve the social situation of his family. Back to one of the suns in the history of the league.
When he arrives in the NBA, Bill Russell arrives in a league that is still overwhelmingly white. In a country that still practices racial segregation. You will grant us, it is not a context of the most favorable to play serenely at the time. Determined to break the codes through sport, Bill will very quickly make everyone understand that when it comes to orange balls, there is no plethora of opponents as strong as him. The titles pile up very quickly, and fame with it. At a time when the African-American community is the target of discriminatory measures in many states, seeing a black man dominating a major league is a real revolution for North American sport. This position, Russell will never use it to put himself forward. No, he will use it to promote his fight, namely that of equality for all. From his youth, Bilou was marked by racism. This racism that will push his parents to move from Louisiana to California. This racism from his college students who boo him when he plays college basketball. This racism which will often be the object of insults in NBA halls during his career. Bill Russell could have slammed the door, but he didn’t. On the contrary, since he took up the cause of equality head on and used all his notoriety to carry it. One of the climaxes of this fight for his family to lead a better life? The refusal to play a gala game in 1961 in Lexington, Kentucky, after he and some of his African-American teammates were not served because of the color of their skin at a local restaurant. Two years after Elgin Baylor, Bill Russell will also have been one of the pioneers in the use of sport to try to advance society as a whole. We also remember the moment during which he took the side of a Mohammed Ali refusing to leave to fight in Vietnam, a very strong position in a country then very marked by this conflict.
He won’t tolerate anything that discriminates in any way, even going so far as to antagonize Celtics fans and the city of Boston for decades. Often the victim of insults in the Boston Garden, he will describe himself as ” a Celtics player, not the Boston Celtics“. Faced with a press very often opposed to the taking of such positions by what was then only an athlete, no ounce of ground will be released. Even in the sometimes traumatic moments when it comes to hate, like the times when vandals came to tag the player’s house with racial slurs. Led by such a determined man, the Celtics – as an organization – will be responsible for some very big breakthroughs in league history. In 1964, the C’s were the first team to field an all-African-American major five. In 1966, Red Auerbach made him the first black coach in the history of professional team sport in the United States. As a player-coach, Bill Russell will win three new titles. Just two years after the Civil Rights Act who will officially abolish segregation, the success of such an appointment is resounding. However – and as explained above – his relationship with Boston will not be improved.
What was Bill Russell’s life like while he was racking up 11 rings? His daughter writes: pic.twitter.com/ETKKvEbDfX
— austin walker (@austin_walker) July 31, 2022
Marked by the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr then Robert Kennedy at the end of the sixties, he will put an abrupt end to his career after the title of 1969, and will not take part in the festivities which awaited him in Massachusetts. Putting his fight before his own situation, he will not participate in the honorary ceremony of 1972 during which his jersey was removed. A ceremony that took place in a very small committee, without an audience and without cameras. For only answer, Bill will say ” that he is not that type of person“Although his complicated relationship with C’s fans also played a big part in In 1975, he would refuse to participate in his induction into the Hall of Fame, the ultimate recognition for a basketball player. He will similarly refuse the ring that accompanies this honor, explaining that he should not be the first black to receive this distinction. He will not recover it until 2019, after Chuck Cooper – the first African-American drafted in the NBA – was finally integrated into the pantheon of the orange ball. For a ceremony in his presence at the TD Garden, it will be necessary to wait until 1999. It is only at the dawn of the 21st century that Bill will agree to gradually return to Beantown. His determined fight for equality will have paved the way for other players thereafter, such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who will be recognized for his societal positions.
Bill Russell is also a smile, a benevolence that shone on the NBA for nearly sixty years. We mentioned earlier the humility of the gentleman, and know that he will never have shown bitterness in the face of the new generations either. Always adopting the posture of the benevolent patriarch, his aura will hover over the NBA and he will always see with a good eye the multiplication of talents in the league, especially African-Americans. Always with a touch of humor, like tonight in 2017 at the NBA Awards. He had told Shaq’, David Robinson, Dikembe Mutombo, KAJ and Alonzo Mourning that he would have “kicked their asses” on a pitch. For a man with more rings than fingers – 11 titles – it is more discretion than vanity that will characterize him. His reconciliation with the city of Boston and his return to it on the occasion of a few walks and appearances in the hall of the Celtics in recent years are also proof that the man has been able to make peace with himself. He will participate fairly regularly in NBA promotional actions, being the symbol of the first generations to have walked the floors. In fact, it’s a bit the foundations of the league that are shaking today. Russell was a must, the very embodiment of the values of the league. Respect, equality, competitiveness. Here, for example, are a few that he magnificently embodied throughout his life. The NBA was a bit like you, Mr. Bill Russell. You have enabled many things. Make no mistake: without Russell, the league would probably not look the same today.
Bill Russell, thank you for everything and everyone. You have shaped the NBA and paved the way for a lot of things. Sports activism? You were there, as a precursor. A legend has passed away, but the memories of an immense champion who always put the collective ahead of the individual will remain. Everywhere, all the time.
Source: ESPN, The Washington Post