Bill Russell was sports’ ultimate winner, champion for change

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By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist

Black players weren’t expected to become basketball superstars, back in the America of the 1950s and 60s, when intolerance was uniform, inherent and everywhere. 

That didn’t stop Bill Russell.

On his way to an extraordinary tally of 11 NBA titles, Russell, whose death at the age of 88 was announced via social media on Sunday, became the hardwood’s first Black celebrity, by sheer weight of achievement, athleticism, brilliance and fearlessness.

American sports — heck, this country’s entire way of life — is designed to laud victory above most else. No one symbolized winning more than Russell, because he chased it so relentlessly, pulled it off so skillfully and repeated it so incredibly often. What’s more unfathomable, 11 championships, or eight in a row (1959-66)? Take your pick. 

Russell won when his team was favored and did it one more time, unforgettably, when they weren’t. The Boston Celtics weren’t supposed to add a final ring to Russell’s haul in 1969, coming up against the original NBA superteam, a Los Angeles Lakers squad boasting Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. 

That didn’t stop Russell, by then player-coach, who played all 48 minutes and snatched 21 rebounds to orchestrate a Game 7 stunner for the ages before heading off into retirement.

Years earlier, Russell wasn’t supposed to become a basketball sensation. As a 5-foot-10 high schooler, he believed a job in the shipyards was the likeliest outcome for his future. That didn’t stop him, and neither did light recruitment from colleges, leading San Francisco to a pair of national championships and the United States to a 1956 Olympic gold. 

Black men were not expected to become head coaches, with the visual of white players taking instruction from a non-white general deemed to be too jarring for standing sensibilities. That didn’t stop Russell, hand-picked for the Celtics job by Red Auerbach himself, when the veteran tactical maestro eventually stepped down and sought a successor.  

Those were drastically different times, and while America’s conversation on race is not close to being settled, Russell faced a level of discrimination no current player, thankfully, could imagine.

In 1961, outraged as Black Celtics players being denied entry to a restaurant in Lexington, Ky., he fronted a player protest. Two years later, he joined Martin Luther King Jr. and fellow star athletes Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in supporting Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be drafted for the Vietnam War. 

Russell was a committed civil rights figurehead, but it came at a cost. He faced intolerance in Boston and would often describe himself as playing for the Celtics as opposed to representing the city.

When the team would travel for road games, the Russell family home would be a frequent target for vandalism. In one incident, his home was spray-painted with racist graffiti, with the attackers destroying his trophy cabinet and defecating in his bed. 

Russell wasn’t what white society wanted, never seeing it as his role to be a smiling, compliant, uncomplaining, nodding athlete. Current Celtics player Jaylen Brown personally thanked Russell two years ago, saying he inspired him to be an activist-athlete. 

Russell wouldn’t sign autographs but would engage in conversation, a fact noted in a file started on him by the FBI due to his status as a prominent Black man who could potentially sway public opinion. 

That didn’t stop him — and it didn’t silence him either. 

History is so difficult because by its very nature, we analyze what came before through the prism of a different time and a different set of realties: today’s. 

It is impossible to say for certain how the journeys of Michael Jordan, or Magic Johnson, or LeBron James, who have become cultural icons and business tycoons, might have looked if not for the path walked by Russell. 

Similarly, there is no definitive answer as to which parts of Russell’s life should be spoken about most now that he is gone. Does it inappropriately downplay his on-court majesty to focus more on the personal trials he faced and overcame? Or does placing the greatest weight on a collection of championships equal to Jordan and Johnson’s combined number obscure his immense — and vital — cultural impact?  

“For all the winning, Bill’s understanding of the struggle is what illuminated his life,” read a statement posted by his family.

Certainly, basketball looked different before Russell came on the scene. Unthinkable as it seems now, the game wasn’t — conventional thinking held — supposed to be played with a vertical emphasis back when Russell joined the NBA as the No. 2 overall draft pick in 1956. Defensive players weren’t supposed to leave their feet. That didn’t stop Russell.  

Handling, speed and movement were the core virtues of the game, the added dimension of airspace was simply not a vital part of things. Russell, by then a shade under 6-10, changed all that. 

He innovated the technique by which a big defender would slide across to create difficulty for driving attackers and would swat away ball after ball, sometimes with unbridled force and more often with guided nuance, tipping it neatly into the hands of a nearby teammate.  

He could elevate like no one before, possessing a leaping ability so prodigious that he could hoist himself aloft and kick the bottom of the net. 

No one rose higher, either in terms of feet and inches, or into the storied annals of basketball. 

For those around the game who enjoyed his company — he would still regularly appear at Finals MVP ceremonies, with the award named in his honor — it is a loss and a sadness. For everyone else, it is chance to commemorate and celebrate an incredible life.  

In terms of legacy, everything Russell achieved lasts and lingers. There is no end. His story will go on, as strong and timeless as ever. As each passing year begets more cause to rank the greats, the difficulty of winning even one title makes the number of 11 seem ever more mystical. Russell is there now and always, member of the club within the club, spoken of among the greatest of the greats. 

In that sense, not even the eternal forces of time and death could stop him. No surprise there — for nothing ever could.

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. You can subscribe to the daily newsletter here.


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