Bill Russell, activist for the ages
The courage of the basketball legend continues to make an impact to this day
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in July 2019. Bill Russell died on July 31, 2022, at age 88, his family announced.
OAKLAND, Calif. — Walking through the hallways of McClymonds High School in Oakland is like touring a National Mall of African American excellence. There is a poster celebrating Marcus Garvey, Madam C. J. Walker and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Banners from Meharry Medical College, UCLA and Princeton hang from the ceiling.
In one classroom, there’s an entire showcase for former McClymonds sports stars and other notable alumni, including football player Marcus Peters, Jim Hines, an Olympic gold medalist in track, and Lionel Wilson, the first black mayor of Oakland, baseball Hall of Famer Frank Robinson and a rapper by the name of Stanley Burrell, aka MC Hammer.
Also pictured is Bill Russell, Class of 1952, who led the McClymonds Warriors to back-to-back state championships during his junior and senior seasons in 1951 and 1952. He went on to become an Olympic gold medalist. The first black head coach in all American professional sports. Humanitarian. NBA legend.
A celebrated champion who single-handedly revolutionized the game of basketball, Russell used his heightened platform as an NBA star to fight back against the same overt racism and inequality that plague the country today. In the face of fan violence, possible career jeopardy and even FBI surveillance, Russell believed his responsibility as an athlete, and as a human being, was to leave things better for those who came after him.
On Thursday, Russell added to his legacy at the 2019 ESPYS, receiving the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, given annually to those who “stand up for their beliefs no matter what the cost.”
Former U.S. President Barack Obama, former Georgetown coach John Thompson, NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and actor Samuel L. Jackson participated in a video tribute, which focused on the impact of Russell’s brave words and actions.
“Russell didn’t wait until he was safe to stand up for what was right,” Thompson said on the video. “Russell did that in the midst of winning 11 championships. He represented things that were right while he had something to lose.”
Kobe Bryant, who introduced the video and called Russell a mentor, added that: “Bill has led the way that inspires us, the next generation, to follow his lead.”
The multitude of stars in attendance saluted Russell, who sat in a balcony high above the stage, with a long standing ovation. Russell stood and smiled, waving his hand in appreciation.
“The thing that most affected me was that he approached injustice with passion, but he expressed himself rationally rather than with anger,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote in an email to The Undefeated. “Anger never persuaded anyone to your side, but logic did. That was an approach I tried to adopt.”
Player activism has been on the rise again in recent years, in no small part because of the actions of those such as Colin Kaepernick, LeBron James, Maya Moore and nearly the entire Golden State Warriors team. Their efforts have led to intensified attention on racial and gender injustice across the nation, building off the work of those who came before them. Not just Russell: Ashe, Abdul-Jabbar, Muhammad Ali, Althea Gibson and many others.
Russell, though, stands out as one of the pioneers.
One who is still a strong presence to this day, even at 85 years old.
One could make an entire Family Feud board out of the racist insults lobbed at Russell throughout his playing career: baboon, coon, the N-word, chocolate boy, black gorilla. That type of jeering wasn’t foreign to a man born in the Deep South; Russell’s father, Charles, was told by his white boss at a Louisiana factory that he couldn’t get a raise because “I can’t pay a n—– no more than I pay a white boy.”
But it went way beyond jeering. As a basketball star, Russell infamously never signed autographs for fans, writing in The Saturday Evening Post, one of the most widely circulated magazines at the time, in 1964, that he refused to “misrepresent myself. I refuse to smile and be nice to the kiddies. I don’t think it is incumbent upon me to set a good example for anybody’s kids but my own.” The FBI, which opened a file on the NBA player, referred to Russell as “an arrogant Negro” for such a stance.
During that period of time, black players were regularly not allowed into the same establishments as their white teammates. In 1961, black Celtics players were denied service at a Kentucky hotel restaurant, which led to Russell and the others to decide to simply leave rather than play in a scheduled exhibition game.
Russell’s treatment at the hands of Bostonians may have been the worst. Just years before Boston public schools were court-mandated to integrate and decades before school busing led to widespread riots throughout the city, Russell moved his family to an Irish Catholic neighborhood in Reading, Massachusetts, 16 miles north of Boston, after the 1956-57 season. The Russells were the only black family in their neighborhood for many years, their kids were the lone African Americans at their school and police regularly followed Russell as he drove through town.
Years later, even after Russell helped deliver six NBA championships in seven seasons, vandals broke into the Reading home, defecating on the beds and walls and destroying many of his trophies. As would happen to James more than 50 years later, the intruders also spray-painted the N-word on the walls.
“Not only am I tall enough to make a lot of people uncomfortable,” he wrote in Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man, his 1979 autobiography, “but I am also black, and infamous as an athlete.”
Russell could be a mean man, as sportswriters in the ’50s and ’60s can attest, but he could never be mistaken for a hothead. He was stoic in the face of racism, taking a certain type of joy in how he would handle overt racism. At a time when many white Americans subscribed to the notion that blacks were better off as slaves in America than free people in Africa, Russell vehemently disagreed with that line of thinking, never seeing himself as a victim and never acquiescing to racism. His mother, Katie, told him no one, not even white men, were better than him.
Famed sports sociologist Harry Edwards, who wrote the foreword for Aram Goudsouzian’s 2010 book King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution, calls Russell one of the smartest people he’s ever come across in his 50 years as an academic.
“He was always ahead of that game, in terms of his disposition towards people. And, in part, it was a consequence of his brilliance,” Edwards said over the phone. “I’ve known some brilliant athletes — I don’t mean brilliant in the sense of brilliant about the game — I’m talking about brilliant in the sense of my colleagues, people that I have lectured and worked with at Berkeley and at Harvard and at the University of Pennsylvania, UCLA. Brilliant in the sense of being analytically astute and informed. And I put Bill Russell right at the top of that list.
“He is probably the most brilliant, intellectually, athlete that I have ever come across, and one of the most brilliant people that I’ve come across.”
Russell, well-read on account of his mother, studied the Haitian revolutionary Henri Christophe and had a close relationship with Huey P. Newton, the Black Panther Party co-founder. His future activism was even foreshadowed at birth: William Felton Russell was named after Felton Clark, the former president of historically black Southern University. He would name his only daughter, Karen Kenyatta Russell, after Jomo Kenyatta, an anti-colonialist who became prime minister of Kenya.
There was a calculatedness to his militancy. Charles Russell and his father — Russell’s paternal grandfather, Charles Russell Sr. — never believed in showing deference to white people. The elder Charles, a sharecropper, once single-handedly stood up to the Ku Klux Klan and threatened a white man with a shotgun for refusing to sell him lumber. The younger Charles chased a white gas station attendant for cursing at him.
A product of the Great Migration, the Russells moved from Monroe, Louisiana, on a segregated train to an Oakland that went from a pre-World War II bustling black middle class to postwar redevelopment in which many jobs disappeared and many black people were forced from their homes. Growing up in the projects in West Oakland, Russell had a front-row seat to the black experience in the Bay Area at the time. When Russell was just a boy, his mother made him physically fight a group of bullies to teach him how to stand up for himself — the embodiment of “Town Business.”
While a library card to the Oakland Public Library was Russell’s most prized possession growing up, he was also regularly called the N-word by Oakland police, and as a child, Russell recalled in Second Wind, he saw a white judge giving a black kid in Oakland 66 years in prison for possession of marijuana. Even the geography of the Bay wasn’t lost on a young Russell: San Francisco, just a 30-minute drive over the Bay Bridge, was an “exotic land” compared with his hometown of West Oakland.
But Russell’s father taught him to choose his battles wisely, which, long story short, was illustrated by Charles Russell punching a stubborn mule in the face. (If the younger Russell couldn’t avoid a fight while playing for the Celtics, he’d wait until the last quarter so as to not affect the outcome of the game.)
He couldn’t respond to hate with hate; he had to restrain his anger. When businesses refused him service, he just left. When people questioned his humanity, he made no effort to defend it. “I have never worked to be understood, or accepted, or liked,” Russell wrote in Red and Me: My Coach, My Lifelong Friend, a 2009 book he co-authored with writer Alan Steinberg.
Russell believed institutional racism in a segregated society caused more harm than individual actors, so he became an active member of the NAACP; stood with Ali at the famed “Cleveland Summit” to support the boxer’s refusal to be drafted into the Army; traveled to Jackson, Mississippi, in the wake of the assassination of activist Medgar Evers to run a basketball clinic; and supported two landmark pieces of federal civil rights legislation: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.
He was the first NBA player to visit Africa traveling with the U.S. State Department to conduct basketball clinics in Libya, Ethiopia, Guinea, and Liberia, where he invested in a rubber plantation that employed only Africans. Since then, the NBA has helped develop the game of basketball on the continent of Africa through the Basketball Without Borders program, opened an office in South Africa and announced the Basketball Africa League, set to launch in 2020.
“He was one of the icons that carried that struggle forward,” Edwards said. “And I hope that one of the things that will come from this Courage Award is that the young athletes today will recognize this didn’t start with Kaepernick and [Michael] Bennett and those guys. It didn’t start with me and [Tommie] Smith and [John] Carlos and Muhammad Ali. It started at the turn of the 20th century, went through Jackie Robinson, and the heir to that whole Robinson struggle was Bill Russell.”
Russell’s activism still resonates today.
Andre Iguodala — who won the NBA Finals MVP award, which bears Russell’s name, in 2015 with Golden State — understands the significance of Russell’s impact.
“He had to really deal with that, not being able to eat at certain places or stay at certain places, not being able to react or defend himself,” Iguodala said in early June. “So just that mindset alone says a lot about a person, and I don’t think any of us would be able to keep ourselves poised and mild-mannered in that type of climate.”
In 2017, a photo was posted from Russell’s Twitter account of him kneeling on the floor of his home in solidarity with Kaepernick, whose demonstrations during the national anthem the previous year nearly caused a national crisis. (Ironically enough, Los Angeles Lakers legend Jerry West told Sports Illustrated in 1999 that there was a “grace” to how Russell used to stand straight for “The Star-Spangled Banner.”)
Russell was quoted in Gary M. Pomerantz’s 2018 book, The Last Pass: Cousy, Russell, the Celtics, and What Matters in the End, as saying, “We have got to make the white population uncomfortable and keep it uncomfortable, because that is the only way to get their attention.”
Kaepernick’s protest, against racial inequality and police violence stemming from a rash of police-involved shootings of unarmed black men, was about forcing Americans, mostly white, to confront the inequalities faced by black Americans.
“What he did for his country and for society and the African American community,” said Golden State coach Steve Kerr, who has also used his platform to speak out against social injustices, “it just dwarfs what he accomplished on the court.”
Brian McGhee, a program manager for the Oakland Unified School District and a 1985 McClymonds graduate, said Russell is an unofficial part of the course curriculum at McClymonds and Oakland at large. His history is deeply ingrained and talked about in classes when it comes to the importance of both social activism and education.
Russell has always stressed education. He’s both the son of a man whose schoolhouse was burned down by racists and the father of a graduate of Harvard Law School.
After the McClymonds boys basketball team won the state championship in 2008, Russell came back to the school to speak to the players about civil rights engagement. It was the first of two times that McGhee met Russell.
As one might expect, the larger-than-life figure left a lasting impression on McGhee, who views Russell as someone who could win a Nobel Peace Prize.
“Meeting him that day,” he said, “it was like meeting God.”