More Than an Athlete: Bill Russell

By John Drumm

Bill Russell was a phenomenal NBA player: an 11-time NBA Champion, two-time NCAA Champion, five-time NBA MVP, and twelve time-all-star, all in thirteen years. His resume explains itself, and puts him in the argument for being one of the best basketball players of all time. Russell even has the accolade of having won more championships than all but two teams in the NBA.

Russell was a part of a Celtics squad that competed in some of the most heated NBA rivalries of his time. His bouts with the Los Angeles Lakers, against teams that included Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain, were the beginning of the NBA’s most famous rivalry. Russell managed to average eighteen points and twenty three rebounds in one of his best seasons. 

Bill Russell was more than just a basketball player, however. During his time playing in the NBA, the civil rights movement was in full swing. Bill, alongside many other Black athletes such as Kareem Abdul-Jabar and Muhammad Ali, showed his support to the movement. 

Bill Russell’s fight against racism started at a very young age, beginning in Louisiana after he experienced a large amount of racism during the 1930s. Russell was frequently robbed and threatened with his life. 

As Bill went through college and started dominating on the basketball court, he couldn’t escape racism even as an elite athlete. When he was eventually drafted into the NBA by the Boston Celtics, he joined a team and organization of white people, him being the only Black person on the team at the time. He said, “The Boston Celtics proved to be an organization of good people––from Walter Brown to Red Auerbach, to most of my teammates. I cannot say the same about the fans or the city.” Bill would often be called many racial slurs at games. Russel used their hatred as a way to fuel his competitive spirit on the court.. 

A few years later more Black athletes the NBA, and the Celtics especially, which Russell was a large advocate of. He complained about the quota for how many Black people could be on the team, and it was changed. As the organization got more progressive, however, the fans mindset stayed the same. The Celtics organization polled fans asking how they could get more people to view their games and almost 50% of people answered have fewer Black people on the team. Bill still wouldn’t let the fans get to him, and he said he didn’t play for the fans, he played for the Celtics organization.

 Playing during the Jim Crow era was not easy for Bill Russel, or any Black player for that matter. One of the most famous examples of Russel’s stand against racism was in 1961 when the team was set to play an exhibition game in Kentucky. In the team’s hotel, two of the players Sam Jones and Thomas Sanders were refused service at the coffee shop in the hotel lobby which claimed it could not serve them because of their race. After Russell heard the news, he was infuriated and rightfully so. He stormed to the Celtics office and immediately demanded that the team protest the game. Seven NBA players would participate in the protest originally, with five of them being from the Celtics and two from the opposing team, the Atlanta Hawks. They would leave the hotel and protest until their voice was heard. These brave men wanted it to finally be known that black NBA players would stand up for themselves.

 A day after the 1961 protest, Bill Russell said, “We’ve got to show our disapproval of this kind of treatment or else the status quo will prevail. We have the same rights and privileges as anyone else and deserve to be treated accordingly. I hope we never have to go through this abuse again.” “But if it happens,” he continued, “we won’t hesitate to take the same action again.” Their voices were heard, and this was just one of many steps in the right direction for equality. 

No matter how good of a player Bill Russell was, his actions off the court can not be overlooked. His bravery in his 1961 protest and taking action during the Jim Crow Era is just another amazing achievement alongside his championships and MVPs.