“Racism cannot just be shaken out of the fabric of society because, like dust from a rug, it dissipates into the air for a bit and then settles right back where it was, growing thicker with time. Police reform is a start, but it is not enough. We need to dismantle broken systems and start over. We need to make our voices heard, through multiple organizations, using many different tactics. We need to demand that America gets a new rug.” — Bill Russell
When current NBA players speak out against racism and social injustice, they might face criticism from right-wing media, like Laura Ingram’s infamous “shut up and dribble” tirade, but they have the backing of their union and of the league.
That wasn’t the case in the 1950s and 1960s when Bill Russell risked not only his livelihood, but his very life, to demand equal treatment and respect.
When Milwaukee Bucks players refused to leave their locker room in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in August 2018, the NBA canceled not only the Bucks’ playoff game against the Orlando Magic, but every game that day. The WNBA, Major League Baseball, NHL and Major League Soccer responded with boycotts of their own.
Sixty years earlier in 1961, Black players were refused service in their hotel’s restaurant just before an exhibition game in Lexington, Kentucky. Russell, along with four of his Black teammates and two Black members of the opposing St. Louis Hawks, walked out, but the game went ahead as scheduled. One of the striking Hawks, rookie Cleo Hill, never played another season.
After the walkout, Celtics owner Walter Brown vowed “never to subject my players to that embarrassment again.”
That was the same year Russell first met a 14-year-old who idolized him: Lew Alcindor, later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who kept a 1956 photo of Russell, then a University of San Francisco track and field star, competing in the high jump.
“There was something else about that photo that affected me even more than Bill’s amazing performance,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote. “If you do a search of the image, you’ll find that most versions are cropped to frame Bill flying up over the bar. Yet, if you see the complete photo, you’ll see about three dozen white people watching him, most of them frowning, glaring, or just staring. But standing beside the post is one young Black kid with a smile on his face. A kid who suddenly saw the possibilities for achievement, despite a crowd of mostly white faces who maybe saw the future of sports in America — and didn’t like what they saw.”
Abdul-Jabbar would join Russell in what became to be known as the Cleveland Summit of 1967 — a meeting of the nation’s top Black athletes regarding Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be drafted into the Army. After subjecting Ali to tough questioning about his motives and beliefs, the group decided to back his decision.
Russell later told Sports Illustrated, “I envy Muhammad Ali. He faces a possible five years in jail and he has been stripped of his heavyweight championship, but I still envy him. He has something I have never been able to attain and something very few people I know possess. He has an 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.”
Any serious debate about the greatest NBA player of all time surely would cite Russell’s record 11 championship rings and his unrivaled defensive stats. But what made Russell the GOAT, to quote Washington Post sports columnist Thomas Boswell, “was ferocious, indomitable seriousness of purpose, wedded to elite intelligence … His presence, his competitive menace, his fearless, reckless abandon in midair and his desire to glare into the opponent’s psyche and break some crucial gear made him exhilarate and frightening to watch.”
Russell never put his love for the game above the fight for dignity and racial justice. In his final years, he was heartened by the wave of Black Lives Matter protests that swept the nation. As we mourn his passing, we share his unflagging hope that that these kinds of strange days are forever behind us, and that real, lasting change will finally be realized.”
Morial is president/CEO of the National Urban League.