At 88, Bill Russell was no longer only a basketball legend and a world-class athlete; he was so much more. Both in and outside of professional sports, Russell was an outspoken advocate for racial equality.
Obama awarded Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House in February 2011. Those in attendance were informed about Russell’s record 11 NBA championships, more than any other player in the history of basketball. The Boston Celtics were the team on which all of these championships were won.
A more lasting impression was made on President Obama by Russell’s non-sporting achievements, such as his participation in the March on Washington in support of Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali, and his boycott of a Kentucky State University basketball game in protest of a coffee shop that refused to serve his Black teammates.
President Obama praised him in 2011 for his perseverance in the face of adversity, saying, “He remained focused on making the teammates who he loved better players, and made possible the success of so many who would follow.” Children on Boston’s streets will one day see a statue dedicated to Bill Russell the man, as well as Bill Russell the athlete.
The first civil rights boycott of a video game occurred.
Lexington, Ky., hosted a preseason exhibition game between the Boston Celtics and the Kentucky Wildcats in October of 1961. Two Boston Bruins of color, Sam Jones and Tom Sanders, were turned away from the hotel’s café before the game because they were black.
Ten Times a Champion, Mark C. Bodanza’s biography of Sam Jones, claims that Jones and Sanders left the match feeling embarrassed and enraged. On their way back to their hotel rooms, Russell and K.C. Jones ran into the two and talked about what transpired in the café.
Red Auerbach was informed of the occurrence by the four men, who called the hotel management. Despite being allowed to dine at the hotel, the players had no intention of staying and instead booked a flight home.
According to the Basketball Network, this was the first time a game had been skipped in support of a civil rights demonstration. As soon as the players arrived back in Boston, they were greeted by a largely white throng that had cheered them on in their decision.
According to Bodanza’s account of Russell’s press conference the following day: “Or the status quo will prevail until we express our displeasure of this type of behavior. Because we are human, we deserve to be treated the same as everyone else. I sincerely hope that this kind of mistreatment will never occur again. If that happens again, we’ll do the same thing.”
The incident was brought up over 60 years later when Russell praised another NBA team for speaking out. After a police officer fatally shot a Black man in Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Bucks decided not to play in the playoff game against Orlando the next month.
As the NBA players did yesterday, Russell walked out of an exhibition game in 1961. “I am one of the few persons who have made a decision of this magnitude.”
At this time, Russell was at the height of his fame.
Russell was in the March on Washington in 1963, where Martin Luther King made his “I Have a Dream” address, sitting next to Russell.
Russell spoke to students in favor of a one-day Black student boycott of Boston’s public schools to protest segregation in the same year, and this was another important action. In 1966, he was involved in organizing the graduation and delivering the commencement speech at a primarily black high school in Boston.
Formed an integrated basketball camp in Mississippi in the wake of Medgar Evers’ death in 1963.
Russell and other famous African-Americans gathered in Cleveland in 1967 when Muhammad Ali declined to participate in the Vietnam War. Rather than disavowing Ali’s ideas on civil rights and religious freedom, Russell backed his decision to serve time in prison.
He continued to speak out in later years.
In 2017, he shared a photo of himself kneeling in support of protesters in the NFL, wearing his Presidential Medal of Freedom.
By taking a knee and standing up against social injustice, Russell said he was proud.