A couple of years ago, I got into one of those ill-advised political exchanges with strangers on Twitter — in this case, some older Boston sports fans. They were arguing that the activism of contemporary professional athletes was categorically different from the activism of Bill Russell, the Celtics great who died on Sunday at 88.
The controversy that sparked my Twitter dust-up was a story about the Milwaukee Bucks, who had decided to boycott the playoffs in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. But the Tweeters’ list of grievances stretched back four years earlier — to NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem. In their minds, today’s protesting athletes were overpaid brats who disrespected their country and sport. Bill Russell’s activism, they argued, had always been quietly graceful.
This is the ever-repeating history of social justice in America: Those who are content with the status quo revile activism in the moment and co-opt it in remembrance.
Take Martin Luther King, Jr. Fifty years ago he was the most dangerous man in America — a radical with a 75% public disapproval rating at the time of his death, who had “gone too far” by opposing the Vietnam War and questioning the underpinnings of capitalism. Today, he’s a universally embraced icon whose words are consistently taken out of context and reduced to soundbites, often to justify right-wing stances on efforts to disenfranchise voters, erase history and crack down on public protest. And sometimes to sell cars.
On the occasion of Bill Russell’s death, let’s break that pattern by remembering in detail just how radical and pioneering Russell was in his time — and continued to be right up until the end.
Despite what it might have cost him in goodwill from white America, Russell was unapologetically political — and unapologetically Black — throughout his career.
Consider the reactions to his death by other athletes. Almost all have focused more on his politics and racial trailblazing than his hoops. For an 11-time NBA champion and five-time league MVP — who single-handedly transformed the way basketball was played — that focus is telling. Bill Russell is the greatest athlete best remembered for something other than his athletic greatness.
He was the first Black head coach in a major American sports league. He paved the way for other athletes to speak out politically, and helped turn the NBA into our country’s most politically progressive major sport. This may all seem majestically noble in retrospect, but his legacy is undermined if we fail to contextualize just how deeply unwelcome his actions were by white America at the time.
Russell looked back on his days playing in the deeply, and often violently, segregated city of Boston as a “traumatizing experience.” Racial slurs from the stands were the least of the abuse he and other Black teammates received on their home court. In 1963, as Russell vividly later recalled, “Bigots broke into [my] house, spray-painted ‘Nigga’ on the walls [and] s--- in our bed.”
Support from white teammates, meanwhile, was iffy at best. In 1961, when Russell, Satch Sanders, K.C. Jones and Sam Jones boycotted an exhibition game in Lexington, Kentucky after being denied service at their hotel restaurant, the rest of the team chose to go ahead and play. Celtics star Bob Cousy sent a letter of apology to Russell 55 years later.
Despite what it might have cost him in goodwill from white America, Russell was unapologetically political — and unapologetically Black — throughout his career. In 1963, at the height of his NBA greatness, he ignored death threats when he helped to open an integrated basketball camp in Jackson, Mississippi, where Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers had just been murdered. A few months later, he sat front and center for Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
In 1967, Russell joined Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul Jabbar in supporting Muhammad Ali in his refusal to fight in Vietnam. Though the full story behind the famous photograph of that press conference is more complicated than most remember, the power of the image of Black athletic community in resistance is deservedly iconic.
Just as with Dr. King, there aren’t many left in America who would dare to publicly criticize the political stances taken by Bill Russell during the 1950s and ‘60s. Those 15 or so years neatly cordoned off in American history textbooks as “the Civil Rights era” have become enshrined in popular memory as an age of righteous protest which prevailed. Enough years have passed for white Americans to psychologically distance ourselves from our openly segregationist forebears.
And enough years have passed for my aforementioned Twitter companions to assert some imagined difference between the protests of the past and present.
Bill Russell knew better. In 2017, at the age of 83, he donned his Presidential Medal of Freedom and bent a rickety knee to join the ranks of Colin Kaepernick and other contemporary athletes in protest of police murder and systemic racism. “Proud to take a knee, and to stand tall against social injustice,” he tweeted -- with photographic evidence.
In his 88 glorious, outspoken years, Bill Russell defined his own legacy by remaining unabashedly political and by overtly connecting the racial justice fights of the past, to the fights of the present. He was a great basketball player and strategist — arguably the greatest ever — but he was an even greater leader.
To remember him as anything less than the political radical he was, is to dishonor the terms by which he chose to live his life.