NBA

What made Bill Russell a hero

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Few can bring down Charles Barkley, the former NBA MVP and legendary outspoken host. But NBA icon Bill Russell, who died Sunday at the age of 88, was once called Barkley and that’s exactly what he did.

“He called me. ‘Charles Barkley, this is Bill Russell.’ I said, ‘Oh, Mr. Russell,’ Barkley told me. “He said, ‘I need you to shut the fuck up. ‘ I said, ‘Okay.’

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Russell had seen Barkley on television complaining about the amount he was paying in taxes. Russell was unhappy with Barkley’s comments.

“[Russell] said, ‘Son, let me tell you something,’ Barkley said. “’You grew up poor. You went to public school, and I bet the police came to your neighborhood when someone called the cops. I said, ‘Yes, Mr. Russell.’ He said, ‘Someone was paying these people and you had no money. I never want to see your black ass on TV complaining about taxes again. And I never did.”

Russell’s record – 11 NBA championships as a player and coach with the Boston Celtics – has come to define victory. More than that, however, his fierce dedication to speaking out against racial injustice, his deep sense of integrity and righteousness, have long been considered the benchmark for athlete activism. Today, many black athletes revere Russell and consider him their North Star.

In 2018, when I was a sportswriter at ESPN, I asked the late Kobe Bryant what he learned from Bill Russell about leadership. Russell had been the NBA’s first black head coach, while still a player – and he had suffered painful and humiliating racist abuse, even as he made the Celtics a powerhouse. Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash in 2020, told me:

He was dealing with a lot of racial issues in Boston. Stories of people throwing things at him during the game and shouting crazy things at him on the pitch. So [I asked him] how did you handle that? He said, “Well, I internalized it. I felt like the best thing I could do was use it as fuel, instead of just having an emotional outburst against them. I decided to use it as energy to improve my performance.

In an article for SLAM magazine in 2020, Russell wrote, “The Boston Celtics have proven themselves to be an organization of good people – from Walter Brown to Red Auerbach to most of my teammates. I can’t say the same for the fans or the city. Russell endured being called “baboon”, “coon”, and “nigger” during games. When Celtics fans were asked how the team could increase attendance, Russell recalled, more than half said, “to have fewer black guys on the team.” And he recounted how, while he and his family were living in Reading, Massachusetts, a predominantly white town north of Boston, “bigots broke into the house, spray-painted ‘Nigga’ on the walls, shit in our bed.

The experience only seemed to make Russell more determined to use his voice to raise awareness of this country’s deep-rooted racial issues. In 1967, he participated in the Cleveland Summit, a gathering of prominent black athletes organized by NFL running back Jim Brown. Russell was among those who stood in solidarity with boxer Muhammad Ali, who had been stripped of his heavyweight title and accused of refusing to serve in the Vietnam War.

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Long before LeBron James posted a photo of his 2012 Miami Heat team wearing hoodies to commemorate Trayvon Martin, the black teenager who wore a hoodie when he was killed by a vigilante who claimed self-defense, Russell walked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and spoke about the treatment of black people in America in the 1950s and 1960s.

Long before the University of Missouri football team threatened to boycott in 2015 due to the university president’s mishandling of racism on campus, Russell oversaw the first basketball camp- ball embedded in Jackson, Mississippi, after the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963. Russell continued the initiative despite death threats.

And long before NBA players forced the league to halt play in 2020 after the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old black resident of Kenosha, Wisconsin, Russell had led a boycott joined his Black Celtics teammates and the Black St. Louis Hawks players, after a restaurant in Lexington, Kentucky, refused to serve Russell and his teammates before the exhibition game. (The game proceeded without them, with only white players participating.)

According to Gary Pomerantz’s 2018 book, The Last Pass: Cousy, Russell, the Celtics and what matters in the endRussell responded to a reporter’s question about the boycott by saying:

One of the ways the American black has tried to show that he is a human being is to show our race to the people through entertainment, and thus to be accepted. I realize that we are accepted as artists, but we are not accepted as people in some places. Negroes are fighting for their rights – a fight for survival – in a changing world. I’m with these niggers.

This feeling of solidarity with other black athletes never left Russell, even after his basketball career ended. In tribute to Colin Kaepernick’s protest, Russell posted a photo of himself taking a knee while wearing the Presidential Medal of Freedom he received from President Barack Obama in 2011. (Full disclosure: I’m a producer of the ESPN documentary series that Kaepernick and director Spike Lee are doing on banishment professional football.) When the NBA players didn’t play after Blake’s shot, Russell tweeted how proud he was of them for “standing up for what’s right”.

Although players of this generation were largely spared the same humiliating and painful racism that Russell experienced when he became the NBA’s first black superstar, his influence is fundamental to black athlete activism.

“It’s easy to get woken up when you’re making $40 million or $50 million a year,” Barkley told me. “I have a lot of respect for the guys who are speaking now. But when you’re making $5,000 a year and living in the America he was then, that’s what makes him a hero.

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