An all-time great, on the court and off
Bill Russell, the former Boston Celtic and one of the towering icons of American sports, passed away yesterday at the age of 88. Russell was born in Louisiana in 1934 and moved with his family to Oakland as part of the Great Migration, when Russell was nine. He was a superstar in college, leading the University of San Francisco to back-to-back NCAA men’s basketball championships in 1955 and 1956. In 1956, he led the United States Olympic basketball team to the gold medal before joining the Celtics as, at the time, its only Black player. Russell’s feats on the basketball court remain unparalleled. As a player, he led Boston to eleven NBA championships, more than Michael Jordan and LeBron James combined. Russell was also the Celtics' head coach for the last two of those championships, the first Black coach in a major American sports league. He was inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame in 1975, the first Black player to be so honored, though he did not acknowledge that career achievement until many years later.1
Many Black athletes in Russell’s era endured an endless torrent of the most vile racist abuse. Russell, because of his physical stature (he was 6’ 10”) and high profile status, was a particular target throughout his career.
Russell wasn’t content to just “shut up and play,” as many athletes are chastised to do when they speak out on important societal issues. In its obituary yesterday, the Times noted:
Russell was uncompromising when it came to his principles. “There are two societies in this country, and I have to recognize it, to see life for what it is and not go stark, raving mad,” he told Sport magazine in 1963, referring to the racial divide. “I don’t work for acceptance. I am what I am. If you like it, that’s nice. If not, I couldn’t care less.”
Russell also took part in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and was seated in the front row of the crowd to hear the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. He went to Mississippi after the civil rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered and worked with Evers’s brother, Charles, to open an integrated basketball camp in Jackson. He was among a group of prominent Black athletes who supported Muhammad Ali when Ali refused induction into the armed forces during the Vietnam War.
The Times doesn’t mention it, but the context in which Russell supported Ali was a legendary gathering of athletes, the Cleveland Summit, which took place in June of 1967. The Summit, comprising about a dozen individuals, mostly star Black athletes including Russell and the collegian Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul Jabbar) was called by Jim Brown, still regarded by many as the greatest football player ever. Brown, who’d played in Cleveland, had retired from the NFL in 1965 to pursue an acting career.2 Brown was an outspoken public figure who summoned Ali and the rest of the group after Ali was stripped of his heavyweight championship title because, as the Times wrote, Ali refused to fight in Vietnam, on religious and ethical grounds.
There has been a lot of myth-making about the Summit in subsequent decades. As it happens, the participants gathered with a mix of motives that day, including economic ones, since one possible proposal was that Ali would avoid conviction for draft evasion if he agreed to box in a series of exhibitions for the military, and would do so as part of a broadcasting arrangement that some of those gathered had a financial stake in (Russell himself had no such stake). After meeting with Ali for several hours behind closed doors, however, Brown, Russell, Alcindor and the other attendees held a press conference to announce their support for Ali, who rejected any arrangement to water down his opposition to the war and would shortly be convicted and sentenced to five years in prison (Ali avoided serving time while appealing his case and had his license to box restored in 1970. The Supreme Court threw out his conviction in 1971).
Whatever mythology surrounds the Summit, it represented a kind of apotheosis - an unparalleled generation of superstar Black athletes willing to stand in solidarity to speak out against a racist society in a context in which doing so carried significant costs, including standing shoulder to shoulder with Ali, perhaps the most reviled figure in America at the time.
It wasn’t just Ali who was excoriated for having the gall to be a successful Black athlete who refused to be obsequiously grateful to American society for his good fortune. Brent Musburger, a famous and widely beloved sports broadcaster for essentially my entire life, was a young columnist for the Chicago American newspaper in 1968. When the Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-fisted gloves in Mexico City that summer - in what is now probably the most iconic sports protest of all time - to call attention to America’s racist system as part of a larger movement for human rights, Musburger decried Smith and Carlos’ actions, calling them “black-skinned stormtroopers.”
In that atmosphere, for athletes who otherwise were immensely successful and well-paid, it would have been very easy to steer clear of the controversy and opprobrium that Ali and his stances attracted. There was little to be gained and much to be lost to stand with Ali at the very moment when hatred of Ali was at its peak.
Though Russell didn't say much about the Cleveland Summit in subsequent years, at the time, he wrote:
"I envy Muhammad Ali. ... He has something I have never been able to attain and something very few people possess. He has absolute and sincere faith. I'm not worried about Muhammad Ali. He is better equipped than anyone I know to withstand the trials in store for him. What I'm worried about is the rest of us."
After decades mostly on the proverbial sidelines, since the Trayvon Martin killing in 2012 and the subsequent emergence of Black Lives Matter, there has been an upswell of athlete activism including, most famously Colin Kaepernick, who essentially sacrificed his professional football career when he began taking a knee in 2016 to protest police killings of African Americans. In 2017, on one of the numerous occasions when Trump attacked Kaepernick and other players for such protests, the then 83-year old Russell had himself photographed taking a knee in support of Kaepernick and others, with the nice added touch that, while doing so, Russell wore the Presidential Medal of Freedom he’d received from President Obama in 2011.
Bill Russell was one of the greatest basketball players of all time. He was also a soft-spoken but central figure in a legendary generation of athletes of conscience, a man of intelligence, courage and conviction.
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Russell finally accepted his Hall of Fame ring at a private ceremony in 2019. He waited over four decades because he did not believe he should have been the first Black player to be inducted into the Hall.
Brown was just 29 and still in his prime when he quit. He also wasn't *quite* as great on screen as he was on the gridiron.