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Long Road To Boston

 

The history of the NBA is littered with giant, brash personalities who dominated the league. Players like Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe Bryant, and Michael Jordan were dominant both on the court and in the locker room as leaders of men, willing their teams to victories when all seemed to be lost. However, not every great basketball player is wired the same way.  Players like Tim Duncan and Stephen Curry are able to lead their teams to championships through quiet determination and an unparalleled competitive fire and will to win. Perhaps the greatest example of this leadership style is Bill Russell, one of the greatest basketball players of all time.

An incredible defender and rebounder, and a legend for the Boston Celtics, Russell won eleven championships in thirteen years as a player/coach, a mark that has never been approached by another player. Playing in the NBA in the 50’s and 60’s, Russell became one of the sport’s first true black stars, and this would prove to be both a blessing and a curse for a soft spoken man who would come to serve as an icon for both his abilities on the basketball court and his powerful ideals that would turn him into an advocate for the lost and disenfranchised.

Bill Russell was born in West Monroe, Louisiana, and would spend his early childhood there.[1] Russell’s father, Charles, worked as a janitor in a paper bag factory.[2] When Russell was nine, his family left Louisiana and moved out west to Oakland, California, so his father could seek employment opportunities in the naval shipyards.[3] While attending McClymonds High School, Russell was encouraged to join the basketball team, and by all accounts, was the worst player on the team.[4] Russell never gave up, and improved each year before finally making the varsity team his junior year, using his incredible athleticism and basketball IQ to gain a role on the team as a defensive center. Russell would eventually earn a full athletic scholarship to the University of San Francisco, and it would be the only college scholarship he was offered.[5] When he arrived at USF, Russell had little offensive game to speak of. However, the system that head coach Phil Woolpert ran proved to be an exact match for Russell’s skills. A hard-nosed, defensive coach, Woolpert allowed Russell to use his incredible athleticism and jumping ability to shut down opposing teams.  Russell became the first “rim protector” in basketball, as he would help off his man to block and alter shots at the rim if any of his teammates were beaten off the dribble. The combination of Russell’s defensive dominance and the inspired play of his teammate and friend, K.C. Jones (who would later play with Russell on the Celtics), would help lead USF to a then-record fifty-five game win streak, including national championships in 1955 and 1956. [6]

However, Russell’s time in college would be marred by racism and would plant the seeds that would grow into the fierce determination and will to overcome that would define his later years. Russell played in college in the 1950’s, and many were uncomfortable with USF dominating college basketball with black players. Russell, K.C. Jones, and Hal Perry, were black starters for this historic USF team, and many whites of the time felt it was an affront to the game.[7] Russell and his teammates had pennies thrown at them by white spectators, racial slurs shouted at them from the stands, and regularly received hate mail.[8] To make matters worse, USF was a predominantly white school, and Russell and Hal Perry were the only black members of their freshmen class.[9] Russell also would be deeply affected by racism he experienced within the team itself. Russell felt coach Woolpert had avoided naming K.C. Jones as captain of the team because he was black, despite the fact the team had voted Jones as captain.[10] Russell and the team would also experience racism on the road. While attending a basketball tournament in Oklahoma, the USF players learned that the hotel they where scheduled to stay at excluded blacks. Instead of break up the team, everyone voted to stay at the dormitories of the local university.[11]

Despite all the racism experienced by Russell during his college career, perhaps nothing stung him so hard as his trip through the Jim Crow South after meeting the President of the United States following the 1955 season at USF. Russell had met with President Dwight Eisenhower, who had singled out Russell for his incredible skills and specifically asked him to play for the U.S. team at the upcoming Olympics.[12] Russell was incredibly honored, but the trip home through the south would change his outlook on society and light the fire for justice in his heart. Enduring the humiliation and hurt of being treated like a second-class citizen in the country whose president had just honored him left a lasting impact on Russell and finally galvanized him to speak up on civil rights.

When Russell decided to leave USF and enter the NBA, he instantly became one of the most highly touted prospects ever. Red Auerbach, the legendary coach and manager of the Boston Celtics, felt Russell was just what the team needed to become a dominant force against George Mikan and the Minneapolis Lakers. The Rochester Royals were slated to pick first in the draft, but they already had big man Maurice Stokes on their roster and would not draft Russell because he demanded too large a contract.[13] Up next were the St. Louis Hawks, who were never going to draft Russell due to the popularity of Bob Petit, their signature big man and one of the greatest players of all time. Auerbach convinced the Hawks to trade him the second pick in the draft (essentially the draft rights to Russell), for a center named Ed McCauley and another player named Cliff Hagan.[14]

Russell’s arrival in Boston was incredibly anticipated, and he would deliver in spades. Russell immediately began to dominate the league, racking up blocks and rebounds by the dozen while ushering in a new type of “fast-break offense” focused around the transition game.

Russell’s dominance of the NBA would prove to be only one facet of his impact on society. Russell also helped open the gateway for black players into the NBA. When he entered the league, Russell was the only black player on the Celtics, and one of only fifteen in the entire NBA.[15] Russell would become a black hero, a symbol of what Aram Goudsouzian calls “black possibility.”[16] Russell would always diffuse praise to his teammates, and would always compliment other players in the press, and would try to serve as a gracious “black ambassador” in race relations throughout the league.

The Celtics would come to represent greater issues than wins and losses on the basketball court.  The Celtics became a sort of microcosm of racial integration and civil rights in society, with many pointing to their accomplishments while being a racially integrated group, which by the early 1960’s had included K.C Jones and Sam Jones, both black players.[17] Russell himself would use his notability and influence as a weapon against injustice in service to civil rights. In 1963, Russell led a civil rights march from Roxbury (a neighborhood in Boston), to Boston Common where a rights rally was being held.[18] Also in 1963, Russell attended the March on Washington with Martin Luther King Jr., where he declined an invitation to stand at the podium as MLK gave his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.[19]

Bill Russell has accomplished more in his basketball career than perhaps any other player ever. He was the sports’ first black superstar, and is quite possibly its greatest player ever. However, that is not what made him special. What made him special was his courage and his conviction to stand up for himself and to lend his powerful voice to others who could or would not be heard. Russell’s greatness does not just lie in his athletic ability; it lies in his powerful actions and all he has done for racial equality in America.  Despite the agony and expectations hoisted upon him, Russell always carried himself with pride and poise while serving as a beacon of hope and possibility in a world where those values can be hard to find.

All info taken from the following sources:

Goudsouzian, Aram. “Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution.” American Studies 47, no. 3/4 (October/November 2006): 61-85. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40643954.

Goudsouzian, Aram. “The House That Russell Built: Bill Russell, the University of San Francisco, and the Winning Streak That Changed College Basketball.” California History 84, no. 4 (2007): 4-25. doi:10.2307/25161913.

Russell, Bill, and Taylor Branch. Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man. New York: Random House, 1979.

Taylor, John. The Rivalry: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and the Golden Age of Basketball. New York: Random House, 2005.

[1] John Taylor, The Rivalry, (New York: Random House, 2005), 52

[2] John Taylor, The Rivalry, (New York: Random House, 2005),  52

[3] John Taylor, The Rivalry, (New York: Random House, 2005),  52

[4] John Taylor, The Rivalry, (New York: Random House, 2005),  53

[5] John Taylor, The Rivalry, (New York: Random House, 2005), 56

[6] Aram Goudsouzian, “The House That Russell Built: Bill Russell, the University of San Francisco, and the Winning Streak That Changed College Basketball.” California History 84, no. 4 (2007): 4

[7] Aram Goudsouzian, “Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution,” American Studies 47, no. 3/4 (2006): 62.

[8] John Taylor, The Rivalry, (New York: Random House, 2005), 60.

[9] Aram Goudsouzian, “The House That Russell Built: Bill Russell, the University of San Francisco, and the Winning Streak That Changed College Basketball.” California History 84, no. 4 (2007): 7.

[10] Aram Goudsouzian, “The House That Russell Built: Bill Russell, the University of San Francisco, and the Winning Streak That Changed College Basketball.” California History 84, no. 4 (2007): 12.

[11] Aram Goudsouzian, “The House That Russell Built: Bill Russell, the University of San Francisco, and the Winning Streak That Changed College Basketball.” California History 84, no. 4 (2007): 11.

[12] John Taylor, The Rivalry, (New York: Random House, 2005),  65.

[13] John Taylor, The Rivalry, (New York: Random House, 2005),  69.

[14] John Taylor, The Rivalry, (New York: Random House, 2005),  70.

[15]Aram Goudsouzian, “Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution,” American Studies 47, no. 3/4 (2006): 65.

[16] Aram Goudsouzian, “Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution,” American Studies 47, no. 3/4 (2006): 65.

[17] Aram Goudsouzian, “Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution,” American Studies 47, no. 3/4 (2006): 70.

[18] Aram Goudsouzian, “Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution,” American Studies 47, no. 3/4 (2006): 70.

[19] Aram Goudsouzian, “Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution,” American Studies 47, no. 3/4 (2006): 70.

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