Bill Russell (1934-2022): basketball legend, civil rights activist
August 2, 2022 9:15 AM   Subscribe

Bill Russell, winningest champion in American pro sports history, first Black head coach in the NBA, outspoken advocate for racial justice, has died. (Washington Post obituary)... The family's announcement from his twitter; His friend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's tribute (substack)... 1987 NYT article by his daughter Karen Russell about the racism they faced in Boston when he was bringing 11 NBA titles to the city.

It's hard to overstate Russell's importance and the crap he dealt with, and if you don't know him, it's worth reading about him.

The "greatest winner in American pro sports history" appellation is because he elevated the play of every team he was ever on so much -- both by being great himself and by getting his teammates to play better -- that when it mattered, his team won. In his career from college to the Olympics to the NBA, he played in 21 win-or-go-home games (single-elimination games in the NCAA tournament or the Olympics, or a series-deciding Game 5 or 7 during the NBA playoffs) ...and the team Russell was on won every single one of those games.
posted by LobsterMitten (40 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
posted by Atom Eyes at 9:22 AM on August 2

From the WaPo obit:
During his career, Mr. Russell made 12 NBA All-Star Game appearances,
What they leave out is that before the 1964 All-Star Game -- the first to be televised -- Russell organized a strike among the other players that forced the NBA to provide a pension plan.
posted by Etrigan at 9:32 AM on August 2 [16 favorites]


I enjoyed this article by Jack Hamilton, The Unfathomable Greatness of Bill Russell. Excerpt:
Beyond having otherworldly defensive timing Russell was a psychological master of the blocked shot, terrorizing opponents by seemingly knowing exactly what they would do, probably because he was already in their head before the game had even started. One of the most celebrated aspects of Russell’s shot-blocking was his ability to keep the ball in play and produce a live-ball turnover, scarfing up shots and then immediately turning them into outlet passes for his fast-breaking teammates.

Russell’s life and deeds outside of basketball were even more consequential than his triumphs within it. During his playing career, Russell was politically outspoken in ways that were unprecedented for a star American athlete. In 1961, he led a boycott of an exhibition game in Kentucky after two Black teammates, Sam Jones and Thomas “Satch” Sanders, were denied service at a restaurant. After Medgar Evers was assassinated in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963, Russell traveled to the city to put on an integrated basketball camp; that same summer he marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington, D.C. In 1967, he was one of the most prominent participants in the 1967 “Cleveland Summit” convened by Jim Brown in support of Muhammad Ali’s refusal to serve in Vietnam. (For a fuller account of Russell’s political activity and significance, check out Aram Goudsouzian’s terrific 2010 book King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution.)

All of this made Russell’s relationship with Boston, a city whose racial history is largely disgraceful, immensely fraught. Throughout his playing career Russell was never showered with the love that the city bestowed on its star white athletes, including some of his own teammates, and was at times subjected to jeers and racist taunts from his home crowd. When Russell and his family moved to the affluent suburb of Reading in 1963, their house was broken into and vandalized, including with racial slurs scrawled on their walls. When the Celtics retired Russell’s number in 1972, he refused to attend the ceremony, in protest of his treatment by the city. As Russell’s former teammate and longtime Celtics announcer Tommy Heinsohn put it to Sports Illustrated in 1999, “he came to Boston and won 11 championships in 13 years, and they named a fucking tunnel after Ted Williams.”
posted by Kattullus at 9:33 AM on August 2 [24 favorites]

An amazing basketball player. An even more amazing man.

It's hard to overstate Russell's importance and the crap he dealt with, and if you don't know him, it's worth reading about him.
I emphasize and reiterate this point by LobsterMitten.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:34 AM on August 2 [3 favorites]

posted by humbug at 9:43 AM on August 2

posted by briank at 9:45 AM on August 2

Also known for the 1967 Muhammad Ali Summit.

Here's an essay (contains racial slurs) he wrote in 2020 about his fight against racism.

posted by box at 9:50 AM on August 2 [1 favorite]

What was Bill Russell's life like while he was racking up 11 rings? His daughter writes:
One night we came home from a three-day weekend and found we had been robbed. Our house was in a shambles, and "N*GGA" was spray-painted on the walls. The burglars had poured beer on the pool table and ripped up the felt. They had broken into my father's trophy case and smashed most of the trophies. I was petrified and shocked at the mess; everyone was very upset. The police came, and after a while, they left. It was then that my parents pulled pack their bedcovers to discover that the burglars had defecated in their bed.

Every time the Celtics went out on the road, vandals would come and tip over our garbage cans. My father went to the police station to complain. The police told him that raccoons were responsible, so he asked where he could apply for a gun permit. The raccoons never came back.

The only time we were really scared was after my father wrote an article about racism in professional basketball for The Saturday Evening Post. He earned the nickname Felton X. We received threatening letters, and my parents notified the Federal Bureau of Investigation. What I find most telling about this episode is that years later, after Congress had passed the Freedom of Information Act, my father requested his F.B.I. file and found that he was repeatedly referred to therein as "an arrogant Negro who won't sign autographs for white children."
posted by Ahmad Khani at 9:51 AM on August 2 [11 favorites]

posted by JoeXIII007 at 10:03 AM on August 2

posted by slkinsey at 10:24 AM on August 2

posted by Silvery Fish at 10:33 AM on August 2

i have sent this thread to my child, who was gutted at the death of kobe. may they contemplate on the more important facets of ‘greatness.’ Rest in power, good sir.
posted by Silvery Fish at 10:41 AM on August 2 [4 favorites]


I want to add, this twitter thread of video clips featuring his remarkable laugh and great sense of humor.

And this other twitter thread from a guy that got to interview him as a young man.

What an absolute legend to have walked among us.
posted by DigDoug at 11:10 AM on August 2 [3 favorites]

posted by hepta at 11:22 AM on August 2


I went through a phase reading and watching everything I could get my hands on about Bill Russell. I did it to learn the history of the game I was getting into deeper.

The thing that stood out was he realized early on in his b-ball career that championships mattered to him more than individual accolades and numbers. He realized that players coming after could put up better numbers, but championships are forever. I read that he got so nervous before big games, that he used to throw up before the start.

There was a lot of hoopla about MJ when the Last Dance came out, about his competitive nature. Russell was the same. Not only was he undefeated in winner take all games, he was 28-2 in elimination games for his whole basketball career from college on.

But it is his life outside of the game that makes him an icon. He walked the walk.

Frank DeFord's appreciative profile was really poignant, especially Bill saying, "we can be friendly, but we can't be friends." He took friendship seriously.

Bill Simmons' interview is a good profile from a fan's perspective.
posted by indianbadger1 at 11:30 AM on August 2 [4 favorites]

Twitter thread from the excellent Michael Harriot about the great Bill Russell. I had no idea about his history with the high jump.
posted by Pallas Athena at 11:35 AM on August 2 [8 favorites]

As a grasshopper I was a big Celtics fan. Around 1960 at URI, I played in a preliminary game to a Celtics-Lakers exhibition game. The Celtics needed a towel boy so I volunteered. Those warm up jackets back then were heavy and almost knocked me over when thrown at me. I was / am a smallish guy. After the game I asked for autographs and was invited into the Celtics locker room. They all were literally giants to a young kid, especially Bill Russell. RIP They were all very obliging. Alas, I lost the autographs somewhere along the line.
posted by DJZouke at 11:38 AM on August 2 [10 favorites]

Basketball was never something I was interested in as a kid, and yet I knew about Bill Russell and his achievements. But it was unrelated to sports when I developed a soft spot for him--he showed up on some TV shows I'd watched, and even when he was playing himself, like on The White Shadow, there was something about him that I connected to. His final acting gig, on Miami Vice, which I was hugely into, was such a fun surprise that I didn't even care that the episode was kind of bad. Legend.
posted by kitten kaboodle at 11:38 AM on August 2

Growing up a basketball fan in a family of the same, every skill had an exemplar. Russell's signature, the blocked shot, was cited by my dad over and again, along with many others. He said Russell strove to do two things: block his opponent's first shot in the game AND to block it with control, not by swatting it into the bleachers. Own your space on the floor, take away theirs. Dominate by knowing the game and working the angles. Sure, Russell was a world-class athlete, but that's not what took wins away from Chamberlain, who was without equal as an athlete.

Watch clips of Russell positioning and fighting for a rebound. That's a master class in an essential basketball skill.

Years after it happened, I learned about Russell's reaction to Rick Barry, who, on air, saw a picture of (what he thought was) Russell as a young Olympian in Melbourne and said, "looks like some fool over there with that watermelon grin." (YT) That was in 1981, when he was 47 years of age. Pause the video at 0:27 to see the eyes a man who walked through fire to find himself enduring oafish cruelty on broadcast TV.
posted by Caxton1476 at 12:01 PM on August 2 [1 favorite]

posted by General Malaise at 12:15 PM on August 2

posted by Lyme Drop at 12:19 PM on August 2

Of his passing, a friend of mine said, "he was a great person who happened to be great at playing basketball." While I agree with that sentiment, it also feels like an understatement. He was a giant in every sense of the word.

Lots of good reads in this thread and I'll contribute to it with this piece by Michael Pina, which I found to be quite poignant. (It's a shame the book isn't readily available as a digital purchase.)
posted by limoni at 12:22 PM on August 2 [2 favorites]

The year Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points per game, Bill Russell (18.2 points per game) was given the MVP: his leadership and all around skills were that respected.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 1:00 PM on August 2 [2 favorites]

As a kid in Massachusetts I always would watch the Celtics with my dad.
The amazing Mr. Russell was always at the center of my attention.
In later years his activism schooled me.
posted by ahimsakid at 1:06 PM on August 2

posted by Windopaene at 1:08 PM on August 2

Of his passing, a friend of mine said, "he was a great person who happened to be great at playing basketball." While I agree with that sentiment, it also feels like an understatement.

Your friend was likely echoing Bill Russell's statement "I’m not a basketball player, I’m a man who plays basketball.”
posted by Ahmad Khani at 1:12 PM on August 2

posted by evilDoug at 2:18 PM on August 2

In hindsight it seems fitting that the last finals Bill got to see were his beloved Celtics, and Golden State. He won state championships with McClymonds, his Oakland high school; collegiate championships with the University of San Francisco; and then of course went on to the NBA in Boston.
posted by oneirodynia at 2:34 PM on August 2 [1 favorite]

posted by riverlife at 3:27 PM on August 2

posted by Trent Crimm, The Independent at 6:35 PM on August 2

I'd never heard of him but damn. I'm reading all these links.
posted by bendy at 7:51 PM on August 2

Pallas Athena - thanks so much for sharing the Michael Harriot twitter thread!
posted by shoesietart at 8:16 PM on August 2 [2 favorites]

posted by cashman at 3:58 AM on August 3

posted by adekllny at 8:04 AM on August 3

posted by Mutant Lobsters from Riverhead at 8:37 AM on August 3

As a lifetime MA resident and a city mouse, I hate how little we reckon with our racist history. We learn about slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation in school as southern problems, not issues that reared their ugly faces where we grew up. It makes us white kids blind to the extent that segregation is still a problem in our cities and in the state at large. Our sports teams and colleges and art scenes brim with pride about the black folks who have passed thru them, but we rarely look at the shitty side.
posted by es_de_bah at 9:15 AM on August 3 [2 favorites]

He was an amazing basketball talent, and an equally amazing individual. What a star.

posted by theora55 at 9:51 AM on August 3

posted by detachd at 6:41 PM on August 3

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