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How Bill Russell changed the game

On December 22, 1956, William Felton “Bill” Russell dressed in Boston Celtics green for the first time. Fans couldn’t anticipate the impact the then-rookie would have on the NBA, the basketball giants that followed him, and the social practices that would shape how a professional athlete can make a difference. Russell, who died July 31 at age 88, was known during his basketball career as a solid scorer and a tough defensive player. He will also be remembered as an agent of change.

Gen Z would call Russell a walking bucket. He was among the best, winning 11 rings in 13 seasons, becoming the epitome of hardwood success. Highlights of his prowess on the court are many, but the 1964 NBA Finals perfectly sums up his time as a competitor. Against his eternal rival Wilt Chamberlain, Russell averaged 25.2 rebounds, 11.2 points and 5.0 assists in 5 games.

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“I attended his games every time the Celtics played the Knicks at Madison Square Garden,” Kareem Abdul Jabbar, another basketball star and friend of Russell’s, wrote for Atlantic. “I used to watch them for four to five years when they were training in my school gymnasium. I learned to dominate in the paint by applying defensive pressure.

As he revolutionized the center position, away from the field, he was also dedicated to helping improve the lives of black Americans. Once referred to by the US government as “Felton X,” a riff on the name Malcolm X, Russell has solidified himself as someone unafraid to speak out about prejudice.

Before Colin Kaepernick stood at the intersection of sport and social justice, Russell talked about inequity. In 1961 he became the first player to boycott a professional game in the name of human rights, and in 1967 he, Jim Brown of the Cleveland Browns, and others came together in support of Muhammad Ali and his Vietnam War protest.

How Bill Russell changed the game
At a meeting of the Black Industrial and Economic Union hosted by soccer great Jim Brown, a group of African-American athletes from different sports came together to lend their support and hear boxer Muhammad Ali give the reasons of his rejection of the draft during the Vietnam War, Cleveland, June 4, 1967. From left, basketball player Bill Russell, boxing champion Muhammad Ali and basketball player Kareem Abdul Jabbar. (Photo by Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images)

During a 1970 episode of PBS’s “Black Journal,” Russell spoke about the need for the black community to organize against injustice, saying, “It’s not about putting this off to ten years. It’s not about delaying it because… it’s now or never. His sense of urgency in the face of racism was, and remains, necessary.

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Additionally, when the honors committee voted to induct Russell into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975, he opted out of the ceremony and accepted the ring. He thought others should have received the privilege first. He specifically recalled Chuck Cooper, the first black player to be drafted to an NBA team. Cooper was inducted posthumously in 2019 and Russell received his ring the same year. “Good to see progress,” Russell wrote on Twitter in 2019.

In 2011, former President Barack Obama awarded Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom and summed up his legacy. “He endured insults and vandalism, but he continued to focus on making the teammates he loved better players, and made success possible for so many who would follow,” he said. “I hope one day, on the streets of Boston, children will look up at a statue built not just for Bill Russell the player, but Bill Russell the man.”

Today we remember Bill Russell, the player, and also continue to learn from Bill Russell, the man. May we all keep her conviction, bravery and commitment to equality close to our hearts.

TOPICS: Bill RussellNBA