No one was greater at the intersection of sport and social justice than Bill Russell, the basketball legend who died Sunday at 88.
There has been no greater 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 swing over to Michael Jordan. But Russell laid out a plan not just for dominance on the pitch, but as “a black man in society steadfast and unafraid to use his voice not just when it mattered, but when it absolutely mattered.” necessary,” says Justin Tinsley, senior culture reporter for ESPN. Countryside.
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I reached out to Tinsley – a 2004 graduate of Matoaca High School in Chesterfield County and an alumnus of Hampton University – not just because of his expertise in sports and culture, but because I wanted 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 in a phone interview Tuesday.
“He was a black superhero in every sense of the imagination.”
And then Tinsley taught me things an old-timer like me didn’t know, like 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 took up position opposite the camp, but “Bill Russell had already received 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 “in part because he knew Medgar would have been there had he been alive.”
Russell was among the African-American celebrities – Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier also come to mind – who put their resources and their 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 responses, Russell, soccer star Jim Brown, basketball star Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and the other socially responsible athletes publicly supported Ali.
There was an immediacy to the cause of social justice that athletes like Russell could not ignore. A year before Russell led his team to a gold medal at the 1956 Summer Olympics, 14-year-old Emmett Till was kidnapped, tortured and murdered in Mississippi. And 10 months after the so-called Cleveland Summit, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.
Athletic success did not shield Russell from the indignities, or worse, that came with being black in America. While winning all those titles in Boston, he returned from a road trip to find his home in Reading, Massachusetts, had been broken into, 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 fierce pride, power and dignity. The FBI found him so threatening that they kept a file on him, describing Russell as “an arrogant nigger who won’t sign autographs for white kids,” his daughter, Karen Russell, wrote in the New York TimesMagazine.
America, which once viewed him with suspicion, would later bestow Russell with its highest civilian honor. President Barack Obama awarded Russell 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 on Sunday I listened to retired basketball star Kenny Smith recall how Russell berated him for protesting against the recruitment of European players by the NBA. Russell told Smith that as an African American he should never be against inclusion.
Black men of my father’s generation were invariably rooted for the Celtics of basketball and the Dodgers of baseball because of their role in breaking down racial barriers. Russell would also be the NBA’s first black head coach. We projected our inflated hopes, dreams and expectations onto these athletes.
Somewhere along the way — when the sport became incredibly lucrative — the outspoken black athlete became rarer. It was an era personified by Michael Jordan’s quote, “Republicans buy sneakers too.”
“I think it was during that time, especially in the ’90s, when the sport became hyper-corporatized,” said Tinsley, author of the 2022 biography of rapper The Notorious BIG, “It Was All a Dream: Biggie and the World”. It did.
“I will say this about Governor Glenn Youngkin: He can certainly choose them,” writes columnist Michael Paul Williams.
But about a decade ago – Tinsley traces this back to the murder of teenager Trayvon Martin – athletes started speaking out again. The murder of Mike Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, the death of Sandra Bland while in a jail cell in Waller County, Texas, and the rise of Donald Trump further spurred of activism, including that of footballer Colin Kaepernick, whose kneeling silence protesting police brutality during the national anthem appears to have gotten him blackballed by the NFL.
“We’re seeing a realization among athletes now that maybe for a 20-year period wasn’t there.” said Tinsley. “You start to understand that self-esteem is worth more than the number of millions you get paid a year. How do you want to be remembered in society: someone who was about the dollar , or for the betterment of the society in which we live?”
Bill Russell, steadfast and fearless, has always understood this. He was a game changer on and off the pitch. That makes him the GOAT in my book.
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