Bill Russell’s Civil Rights legacy rivals his on-court accolades originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
Bill Russell is the most successful player in NBA history who helped the Boston Celtics win 11 championships during his 13-year career. But you could argue he made a bigger impact off the court.
The Basketball Hall of Famer, who passed away last July at age 88, played an active role in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and continued to advocate for racial justice after his playing career ended. Russell was one of the first professional athletes who used his platform for causes outside sports and paved the way for future generations of athletes to follow suit.
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Revisit Bill Russell’s career stats, highlights and records
Much as he changed the game of basketball with his unique style of play, Russell was a trailblazer in the arena of Civil Rights whose off-court legacy will live on for years to come. Here's a look at Russell's many off-court accomplishments and his continued devotion to promoting racial justice in America.
Editor's Note: Bill Russell will be honored on several occasions in February, first in a Netflix documentary titled, "Bill Russell: Legend" that drops Feb. 8, and again on Feb. 12 with "Bill Russell Night" at TD Garden during the Celtics' game against the Memphis Grizzlies. NBC Sports Boston is publishing a three-part series honoring Russell's incredible life both on and off the court.
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Bill Russell's role in the Civil Rights movement
Russell helped organize the first player boycott in October 1961, when two of his Celtics teammates, Sam Jones and Tom Sanders, were refused service at a hotel cafe in Lexington, Ky., because they were Black. Jones and Sanders relayed their experience to Russell and K.C. Jones, who conferred with Celtics head coach Red Auerbach and made the decision to fly back to Boston instead of playing their preseason game against the St. Louis Hawks.
In 1963, Russell attended the March on Washington, where he heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his famous "I Have A Dream" speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Russell said that King even invited Russell to join him on the stage during his speech, but Russell respectfully declined.
In 1967, Russell joined fellow NBA player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, NFL star Jim Brown and several other prominent Black athletes at the Cleveland Summit to support Muhammad Ali's decision not to serve in the Vietnam War. The event marked one of the first examples of professional athletes using their platforms to take a stand on issues outside sports.
How Bill Russell dealt with racism as a player and coach
Russell constantly dealt with discrimination throughout his NBA career -- and on several occasions took action. In the video below, former Celtics teammates Tommy Heinsohn and Sam Jones recalled an incident in which Russell received the key to the city of Marion, Indiana. After Russell was denied service at a hotel restaurant, he went to the mayor of Marion's house, woke him up and returned the key.
Russell became the first Black coach in NBA history in 1966 when he replaced Red Auerbach to become the Celtics' player/coach. After a second-round exit in 1967, Russell led the C's to back-to-back championships in 1968 and 1969. When asked at the time about the significance of him being the NBA's first Black coach, Russell responded:
"It will only be important to me when coaches are hired and fired and race is not one of the ways (we) describe them."
Bill Russell's off-court awards and honors
In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his success on the court and his role in the Civil Rights movement.
"He endured insults and vandalism, but he kept on focusing on making the teammates who he loved better players, and made possible the success of so many who would follow," Obama said of Russell. "I hope that one day, in the streets of Boston, children will look up at a statue built not only to Bill Russell the player, but Bill Russell the man."
Just two years later, Russell got his statue, with the NBA legend returning to Boston to help unveil a sculpture created by artist Ann Hirsch that featured 11 granite blocks for each of Russell's 11 championships.
In 2017, Russell was awarded the NBA's inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award. Only three other players have received the award since: Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.
Bill Russell's 21st century activism
Russell continued to advocate for racial justice well after his playing career ended. In 2017, Russell tweeted a photo of himself kneeling while wearing the Presidential Medal of Freedom to support San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who protested inequality and police brutality by taking a knee during the national anthem before games beginning in 2016.
In August 2020, Russell spoke out in support of Milwaukee Bucks players who boycotted their playoff game against the Orlando Magic after the police shooting of Jacob Blake.
Russell had fierce conviction and wasn't afraid to act on that conviction, which helped him become one of the most influential figures of his time -- both on and off the court.