Remembering NBA legend and civil rights pioneer Bill Russell

Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell stands court side during a tribute in his honor in the second quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Milwaukee Bucks in Boston, Nov. 1, 2013. Photo: The Associated Press
By Robert C. Jones Jr.

Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell stands court side during a tribute in his honor in the second quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Milwaukee Bucks in Boston, Nov. 1, 2013. Photo: The Associated Press

Remembering NBA legend and civil rights pioneer Bill Russell

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
The legendary center, who helped the famed Boston Celtics win 11 NBA titles, was as dominant and impactful off the basketball court as he was on it, members of the University of Miami community recall.

Backstage inside a Texas college campus venue eight years ago, the two men talked as if they were longtime acquaintances. And in a sense, they were. After all, it wasn’t their first encounter.

Bill Russell, the legendary NBA Hall of Famer who revolutionized the game of basketball, and Donald Spivey, the University of Miami Distinguished Professor of History who, among his many areas of expertise, often studies the impact of Black athletes on sport and society, had met and conversed on several occasions. 

When their paths crossed once more back in 2014, Russell was about to give a lecture on civil rights and sports. “He was warm, spirited, and matter-of-fact,” Spivey recalled.

It would be the last time the two would converse.

William Felton Russell, who won two NCAA titles and an Olympic gold medal, led the Boston Celtics to 11 NBA championships (two as player-coach), and was just as impactful off the hardwood, taking part in civil rights marches with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., passed away Sunday at the age of 88.

“He always educated me on what was happening inside of sports both during his playing and coaching days and in retirement,” Spivey said of their brief but bountiful conversations with Russell. “He exuded a political consciousness that went far beyond basketball, and he always gets attention in the courses I teach on the history of sport. To leave him out would be malpractice.”

Speedy and agile, the 6-foot-9-inch Russell was a defensive-oriented center, often blocking multiple shots on the same possession.

His one-on-one battles in the low post against the 7-foot-1-inch Wilt Chamberlain captivated fans the world over, with the two big men meeting 142 times. 

“I saw the great games that pitted Russell against Wilt,” Spivey said. “But my deepest respect of Russell came for what he did beyond the court.” 

Russell, who grew up in the Jim Crow South and faced prejudice on many occasions, once accused the NBA of implementing a quota system to limit the number of Black players on each team. He marched with King, supported Muhammad Ali when the boxer refused induction into the U.S. Army, and, despite receiving death threats, ran an integrated youth basketball camp in Jackson, Miss., in 1963 not long after civil rights leader Medgar Evers was killed. 

“Every NBA player should know that he owes Bill Russell for the pioneering work he did on and off the court,” Spivey said. “They enjoy huge salaries today because of the demands of Russell. I only wish that today’s NBA stars shared his same political consciousness. They need to realize, as Russell said on numerous occasions, that they have a responsibility beyond the accolades they receive on the court or on the athletic field or for knocking the ball out the park.” 

Jomills Braddock, a professor of sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences, whose vast area of research includes the sociology of sport, echoed Spivey’s sentiments, saying that Russell not only “played a transformative role” in basketball but also in the civil rights movement.

“Despite contemporary debates about whether, Michael, Kobe, or LeBron is the G.O.A.T. in basketball, Bill Russell’s accomplishments are unparalleled,” Braddock said. “Russell’s statesmanship, civil rights activism, and dignity placed him at the center of the national movement for racial justice. He did not shy away from being a role model, and in so many ways, he was an ambassador for his sport, his community, and his nation. I would be surprised if the activism shown by young athletes like LeBron James and Colin Kaepernick among others was not inspired by Bill Russell.”

Russell, said Marvin Dawkins, professor of sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences, “should be best remembered first for his love for freedom and second for his great achievements as a basketball icon.” 

“He was among the socially conscious Black athletes who, during the 1960s, identified themselves as being committed to the struggle for freedom, equality, and justice for all, especially for Black people who were being openly denied their civil rights,” explained Dawkins, who teaches the course The Black Athlete in White America, which examines racism in sports across major time periods.  

Dawkins noted Russell’s support of Ali, explaining that his presence at a press conference to back the then-heavyweight champion was indicative of his social activism. 

“One of a kind” is how University of Miami men’s basketball coach Jim Larrañaga remembers Russell.

“Back in Russell’s playing days, there were a number of players who were very gifted mentally, but I think Russell was one of a kind—his mental preparation, the way he could visualize things, the way he planned things,” Larrañaga stated. 

When he was a freshman basketball player for Providence College, Larrañaga once attended a game at the then-Boston Garden to see Russell play, watching in awe at the center’s remarkable defensive prowess in a matchup against a young 6-foot-9-inch Elvin Hayes, who would go on to achieve NBA stardom of his own.

On one possession, “The Big E,” as Hayes was called, caught a pass from one of his San Diego Rockets teammates, as Russell guarded him in the low post.

“I saw Russell back up, and I thought that was unusual,” Larrañaga remembered. “I was sitting courtside, and thought to myself, ‘Geez, he [Russell] is going to give The Big E the turnaround jump shot.’ But Russell went up and caught it. He didn’t block it. He caught the ball out of The Big E’s hands. He had timed it so perfectly. He evidently had envisioned the move and the shot that The Big E was going to take. And he planned to not only block it, but catch it, and intimidate Elvin Hayes. The Celtics went on to win big.” 

It was such knowledge of the game that led the Celtics to name Russell, who played for the franchise for 13 seasons (1956-1969), its head coach in 1966, making him the first Black man to rise to that position in a major professional sport in the United States.

Said Braddock, “Just one of many notable milestones in a life well lived.”