By Ken Reed

When I heard that laugh, I knew instantly that Bill Russell was near me. I turned around and there he was, one of the greatest basketball players and civil rights activists of all-time.

I had never met Russell but as it turned out, I was fortunate to be placed next to him at a luncheon in Washington D.C. We were both in town to lobby Congress for funding to boost K-12 physical education across the country.

As a former college basketball player and son of a basketball coach, I couldn’t help myself, I wanted to talk about his amazing career with the Boston Celtics. But Russell would quickly bring the conversation back to physical education and why I was an advocate for it. I told him about the growing mound of research showing that fit kids perform better academically, have fewer behavioral problems and miss fewer days of school. Russell, who always looked in great shape, no matter his age, let out one of his hearty laughs and said “Right on.”

At the time of that luncheon, I knew Russell had done some impressive things off the court as well. I knew he was a civil rights activist but I didn’t realize the extent of his efforts until I returned home and did some research on Bill Russell.

First, let’s get his basketball resume out of the way: 11 NBA championships in 13 years, two NCAA championships and an Olympic gold medal. NBA commissioner Adam Silver called Russell the “greatest champion in all of team sports.”

Team is the key word in that quote. Russell’s “team first” approach resulted in Russell winning five MVP awards to go along with his 11 title rings and 12 All-Star game appearances. The NBA Finals MVP award is named after Bill Russell.

Russell was the consummate team player. He didn’t care about individual stats or showboating. He didn’t slam the shots he blocked out of bounds like today’s players — giving the ball right back to the opposition in the process. No, Russell would block the shot and keep it in bounds, usually in places he or his teammates could retrieve it and start a fast break the other way. He was the ultimate defensive player, anchoring the Celtics defense and helping teammates who had been beaten to the hoop.

Russell made everyone on his teams better players. And Russell was a team player and champion off the court as well.

“Bill stood for something much bigger than sports; the values of equality, respect and inclusion that he stamped into the DNA in our league,” said Silver.

It was in Russell’s makeup to help other people. In many ways, he was basketball’s Jackie Robinson when it came to civil rights. He was the NBA’s first black head coach. He was part of the first all-Black starting lineup in league history. Russell marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., and was asked to stand on the stage for King’s “I Have a Dream” speech but he declined, not wanting any of the spotlight to be deflected his way. He supported Muhammad Ali’s conscientious objection to being drafted for the Vietnam war when Ali was the subject of intense hatred for that stand. He went to Mississippi after Medgar Evers was murdered and racial tensions were very high and led an integrated basketball clinic for kids.

“I have to, because a man has to do what he thinks is right,” Russell said at the time.

As Matt Vautour wrote:

“Russell wasn’t just risking endorsement opportunities or even his ability to play professional basketball. He was literally putting his life in danger by standing up at a time when civil rights leaders were assassination targets.”

Vautour added this gem:

“Michael Jordan built his brand on not alienating anyone that might buy Nike or Jordan Brand products. Russell lost money by taking his stands, but he made Boston and the United States richer places.”

Indeed he did. Rachel Robinson recognized Russell’s civil rights work when her husband Jackie died. She asked Russell to be one of the pallbearers at Jackie’s funeral.

By the end of his life his greatness had been widely recognized. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and many other awards for his service to humanity.

“Bill Russell was the greatest all around professional athlete and all around citizen advocate for justice in professional sports history,” said Ralph Nader upon learning of Russell’s passing. “He should be a model for today’s single-gauged superstars.”

“His mind was bigger than basketball,” added civil rights historian and author Taylor Branch of Russell.

Russell kept fighting for other people until the day he died. In his final year, Russell sold his memorabilia collection at auction for $7.4 million according to ESPN to benefit organizations he cared deeply about, MENTOR, a foundation he created that helps create mentoring relationships, and Boston Celtics United for Social Justice.

His last tweet was directed to Rachel Robinson: “Wishing a very special friend and humanitarian a Very Happy 100th Birthday!”

It’s never easy summoning the courage to take a stand and do the right thing. Russell did it as well — and as often — as anyone.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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