No one stood taller at the intersection of sports and social justice than Bill Russell, the basketball legend who died Sunday at 88.
There was no bigger winner in professional team sports than Russell, who won 11 NBA championships in 13 seasons with the Boston Celtics. Debates over the NBA’s GOAT — the Greatest of All Time — invariably sway toward Michael Jordan. But Russell set a blueprint not just for on-court dominance but as “a Black man in society unwavering and unafraid to use his voice not only when it mattered, but when it was absolutely necessary,” says Justin Tinsley, senior culture reporter for ESPN’s Andscape.
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I reached out to Tinsley not only because of his expertise in matters of sports and culture, but because I desired a younger perspective on the death of an icon.
“He retired about 20 years before I was born, but I know how important he was,” Tinsley said during a phone interview Tuesday.
“He was a Black superhero in every sense of the imagination.”
And then, Tinsley schooled me on things an old head like myself didn’t know, such as Russell’s close friendship with civil rights leader Medgar Evers, the NAACP’s first field officer in Mississippi.
After Evers was assassinated by a white supremacist on June 12, 1963, Russell asked Evers’ family what he could do to continue his legacy. “One of the answers was an integrated basketball camp in Mississippi,” Tinsley said.
The Ku Klux Klan posted up across from the camp, but “Bill Russell had already been receiving death threats; it was nothing new to him,” Tinsley said. “Whenever the Evers family needed anything, Bill Russell was there.” In fact, Russell attended the March on Washington in August 1963 “partially because he knew Medgar would have been there if he were alive.”
Russell was among African-American celebrities — Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier also come to mind — who put their resources and lives on the line for the civil rights movement. In 1967, he joined a group of Black athletes in Cleveland to grill Muhammad Ali after the boxing champion refused to be drafted during the Vietnam War. Satisfied with Ali’s answers, Russell, football star Jim Brown, basketball star Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and the other socially-conscious athletes publicly stood by Ali.
There was an immediacy to the social justice cause that athletes like Russell could not ignore. A year before Russell led his team to a gold medal in the 1956 Summer Olympics, 14-year-old Emmett Till was abducted, tortured and murdered in Mississippi. And 10 months after the so-called Cleveland Summit, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in Memphis.
Athletic success did not shield Russell from the indignities, or worse, that came with being Black in America. In the midst of winning all those titles in Boston, he came home from a road trip and found that his Reading, Massachusetts, home had been burglarized, with racial epithets painted on the wall. The burglars left an even more sordid parting gift; they defecated in Russell’s bed.
As a child, even to my unschooled eyes, Russell projected a fierce pride, power and dignity. The FBI found him so threatening that it kept a file on him, describing Russell as “an arrogant Negro who won’t sign autographs for white children,” his daughter, Karen Russell, wrote in The New York Times Magazine.
The America that once viewed him with suspicion would later confer Russell with its highest civilian honor. President Barack Obama awarded Russell with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Russell was the peacemaker behind Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant squashing their beef on Martin Luther King Day 2006. And Sunday, I listened to retired basketball star Kenny Smith recall how Russell admonished him for grousing about the NBA’s recruitment of European players. Russell told Smith that as an African American, he should never be against inclusion.
Black men of my father’s generation invariably rooted for basketball’s Celtics and baseball’s Dodgers because of their roles in breaking racial barriers. Russell would also be the NBA’s first Black head coach. We projected our outsize hopes, dreams and expectations upon these athletes.
Somewhere along the way — when sports became unimaginably lucrative — the outspoken Black athlete became rarer. It was an era personified by the Michael Jordan quote, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
“I think it was during that time period, especially in the ‘90s, when sports became hyper-corporatized,” said Tinsley, author of the 2022 biography on the rapper The Notorious B.I.G., ”It Was All a Dream: Biggie and the World That Made Him.”
“We’re seeing an awareness in athletes now that maybe, for a 20-year span, wasn’t there.” Tinsley said. “You start to understand self-worth is worth more than how many millions you get paid a year. How do you want to be remembered in society: Somebody who was just about the dollar, or for the betterment of the society we live in?”
Bill Russell, unwavering and unafraid, always understood that. He was a gamechanger on and off the court. That makes him the GOAT in my book.