HomeSportNBA superstar Bill Russell was a legend off the court as a...

NBA superstar Bill Russell was a legend off the court as a racial rights crusader

Bill Russell, who passed away at the age of 88, was much more than a basketball superstar and a world-class athlete. A dedicated human rights activist, Russell fought against racial inequality in and outside of professional sports.

In February 2011, Barack Obama presented Russell with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the East Room of the White House. He told the audience about Russell’s record 11 NBA titles, more than any player in history. All championships were for the Boston Celtics.

However, the president was more influenced by Russell’s life than his sporting achievements: marches with Martin Luther King Jr.; standing up for Muhammad Ali; And a game was boycotted in Kentucky after his black peers were denied service in a coffee shop.

“He tolerated abuse and vandalism, but continued to focus on loving teammates as better players and made the success of many possible,” Obama said in 2011. “And I hope that one day, in the streets of Boston, children will see a statue not only of player Bill Russell, but also of Bill Russell the Man.”

Civil rights’ first gaming boycott

In October 1961, the Boston Celtics were in Lexington, Kentucky for a Precision Exhibition game. Before the game, Sam Jones and Tom Sanders, two black members of the Boston team, were denied service when they tried to grab a bite to eat at a hotel cafe.

According to the biography of Sam Jones, ten-time champion Mark K. Bodanza, Jones and Sanders walked away humiliated and angry. Both Russell and K.S. Jones was on his way back to his hotel room and explained what had happened at the cafe.

The four men reported the incident to Celtics coach Red Auerbach, who informed the hotel management about the incident. Although the players were eventually allowed to eat at the hotel, they wanted nothing to do with the establishment and preferred to fly home.

According to the Basketball Network, it was the first boycott of the game due to civil rights protests. When the players returned to Boston, they were greeted by a predominantly white crowd who supported their decision.

The next day, Russell told reporters, according to Bodenz, “we must show our disapproval of this treatment or the status quo will prevail. We all have equal rights and privileges and we deserve to be treated accordingly. I hope so.” That we will never have to be victims of this kind of violence again. But if it happens, we will not hesitate to take the same action again.”

Nearly 60 years later, Russell referred to the incident when he commended another NBA team for speaking up. In August 2020, the Milwaukee Bucks opted not to enter the court in a playoff game against Orlando after police shot and killed a black man in Wisconsin.

“In [1961] I walked out of the exhibition game, as did the [NBA] players yesterday,” Russell wrote. “I’m one of the few people who knows what it’s like to make such an important decision.”

Many of Russell’s most notable actions took place in the 1960s.

Russell was in Washington in March of 1963, sitting next to King as he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Another notable action came when Russell spoke to students in support of a one-day boycott by black students in Boston’s public schools to protest segregation that same year. He dealt with local issues in Boston, including participating in graduation planning and speaking to predominantly black high school graduates in 1966.

After Medgar Evers was killed in 1963, Russell traveled to Mississippi to open an integrated basketball camp with Evers’ brother.

In 1967, when boxing legend Muhammad Ali refused to participate in America’s Vietnam War, Russell joined other prominent black celebrities in Cleveland to meet Ali. Russell supported Ali’s decision to go to prison instead of condemning his civil rights and religious freedom beliefs.

Later in life he continued to speak.

In 2017, he posted a photo of himself holding the Presidential Medal of Freedom, kneeling in solidarity with protesters in the NFL.

“Proud to kneel and stand upright against social injustice,” Russell wrote.

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