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NBA icon Bill Russell changed the game and changed society

This sports week began on a sad note as America and the basketball world mourned the loss at 88 of all-time Boston Celtics and NBA icon Bill Russell.

And it will end on a slightly awkward note which he would have laughed at; over the next few days, Premier League players are winding down on their first whistle ritual of bending a knee before games start.

As I wondered how to pay tribute to Russell, a universally admired and adored champion of basketball and civil rights, news came of the player and Premier League negotiated decision to end the anti-racism gesture that has been spear. two years ago.

From now on, the brief moment of solidarity will be limited to opening rounds like the one starting today in London and the “Say No to Racism” weeks in October and March.

I don’t know what to make of it, especially since it’s clearly a conclusion that didn’t come lightly with multiple motivations revolving in and around good faith. Also, it seemed like some of the kneeling was getting halfhearted, if we’re being honest.

From what I’ve read about Bill Russell over the years and especially this week in the obituaries pouring out in his honor, the great center who revolutionized the defensive side of basketball would have laughed his heart out. A knowing laugh, a scornful laugh extracted from decades of learning about the discomfort and pain that comes with action.

Five years ago, the cursed Trump administration’s first NFL season was embroiled in the kind of soul-searching you’d expect from a predominantly black league run by white owners, who were nearly all sympathetic to the reprobate racist occupying the White House. .

And so the players decided that the option – not applied to any of their colleagues – of bending the knee during the playing of the US national anthem would be a powerfully effective visual in protesting racial injustice.

Characteristically, the then US president called on NFL owners to fire any player who decided to deploy the part of free speech enshrined in their rights as citizens. His emotive use of terms like “son of a bitch” fit perfectly with his target audience whose sinister desire to hoard bogeymen was relentless. He’s the same guy who was recently spotted hosting the Saudi-backed LIV golf series at his country club in New Jersey, not far from the site of the September 11 attacks, directly and indirectly linked to the diet, using him and his ilk for bare-faced sportswashing.

In solidarity, Russell posted a photo of himself on Twitter, kneeling and one hand clutching the Presidential Medal of Freedom the former holder had awarded him. Just as he aligned himself firmly with Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King when they each sought change in the 1960s, he was with the footballers half a century after they stopped playing.

There is no higher civilian award in the United States than the Presidential Medal of Freedom. That day, Barack Obama described the 11-time NBA title winner as “someone who stood up for the rights and dignity of all men.” It was 2011 and neither man could have predicted how quickly the nation was about to experience the descent into a dangerous divide.

Russell’s basketball resume will always be matchless and unsurpassable. He coached the Celtics on an eight-title streak that spanned from 1959 to 1966, largely due to the fast-paced style of play he imposed on his opponents as well as his own team. He changed the game by stopping scores and creating counterattacks.

He changed the game by being the first black man to coach an NBA team, his last pair of titles as Celtic won as he combined playing and coaching in 1968 and 1969.

And all the while, he was changing the game as an activist, just as all of society was irrevocably changing around him.

Although he imposed his style of play on the league, his desire for change stemmed from what was imposed on him. His hardwood accomplishments were not the reason Obama and countless others admired him so deeply. It was the adversity he had to overcome off the pitch that set him apart.

From his earliest memories as a hated second-class citizen in Louisiana to the relative refuge of Oakland where he and his family (soon without a mother figure) migrated in the post-war panic.

Above all, he spent his professional playing days in the hostile environment presented by the staunchly Catholic Irish and Italian city of Boston. It may not have been the Jim Crow South, but it was a town that still had a lot to do. They weren’t ready for a black athlete on their basketball team and he was repeatedly reminded that he wasn’t welcome.

“To me, Boston itself was a flea market of racism,” Russell wrote in his heartbreaking 1979 memoir Second Wind. “There were all varieties, old and new, and in their most virulent form. The city had corrupt racists, mayoral cronies, brick-throwers, kick-back racists in Africa, and in college neighborhoods fake radical-chic racists (long before they appeared in New York) . Burglaries of his suburban home where he should have felt safe only ended after he told police he intended to acquire a firearms licence.

But his teammates felt safe with him. After Satch Sanders and Sam Jones were denied service at a Kentucky coffeehouse in 1961, Russell led a boycott of that night’s game, an astonishing act of protest at such an early stage of the civil rights movement.

“We have to show our disapproval of this type of treatment, otherwise the status quo will prevail,” the player said of the moment. “We have the same rights and privileges as everyone else and deserve to be treated accordingly. I hope we never have to suffer this abuse again.

“But if that happens, we won’t hesitate to take the same action again.”

Every time the Celtics faced a do-or-die playoff game when Bill Russell was in the lineup, their record was flawless. He was at his best when there was no other option but to win. His relationship with the institution he built around him was almost transactional. His loyalty was reserved for his team, his coach Red Auerbach and the Celtics. But not Boston.

For years it was a broken relationship and a sad part of his chapter there. He didn’t want the public to witness his jersey retirement and for decades declined the offer of a statue built in his honor.

As Bill Simmons noted in his highly respected sports tome, The basketball book, the post-career home where Russell chose to call home couldn’t be farther from Boston. Mercer Island across the country, 3,000 miles from Seattle, seemed like the safest bet to put all the non-basketball heartbreak behind it.

Around the time the need to kneel arose in the NFL, NBA stars were told to ‘shut up and dribble’ by right-wing loons laying down the same old grievances simmering around Russell 50 years ago. Infamously, when he was able to access the FBI file he had been obsessed with decades before, he found he was described as “an arrogant nigger who won’t sign autographs for white kids.” The same demands of the black athlete repeat themselves over and over again: “play with your team and don’t answer, don’t talk”.

In 2009, the Most Valuable Player Award for the NBA Finals Series was renamed “Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award”. This meant that until as recently as June, the sport’s great dean calmly strolled the temporary stage in the center of the pitch, into the crowd of players celebrating their victory and as they parted respectfully to make Instead, he presents the coveted trophy to the player who excelled in pushing his team to win.

It will be a much missed moment next year, but its value to gaming and society will never diminish.

@JohnWRiordan