Legendary Boston Celtics center Bill Russell remains as one of the greatest basketball players ever, winning an astounding 11 championships, 5 MVP awards and 12 All-Star appearances in his 13-year career.
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Along with his various accolades and still-prominent stature in the game, Russell also holds the honorable distinction of being the first African-American coach in the NBA 46 years ago today.
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Surly Celtics Coach Red Auerbach, who also broke racial barriers in drafting the first Black NBA player in Chuck Cooper in 1950 and introducing an all-Black starting lineup in 1964, sought out other White players on his team to coach after his abrupt retirement before the 1966-67 season. After they refused, he asked Russell, who was still an active player, to coach the team. Russell accepted the position and signed the contract, saying to reporters in a famous quote, “”I wasn’t offered the job because I am a Negro, I was offered it because Red figured I could do it.”
That season, Russell’s biggest rival was fellow big man Wilt Chamberlain who then played for the Philadelphia 76ers. The 76ers were on a tear that year, winning a record 68 games and vanquished the Celtics four games to one in the Eastern Conference Finals. Russell was said to have visited Chamberlain after the game and congratulated him on the win. It was also the year when Russell became first Black coach in the NBA. Given the racial tensions of the time, this act was easily among the top racial coups of the decade.
As player-coach, Russell would get his revenge against Chamberlain by defeating the Sixers in the 1967-68 Eastern Division finals, even though Black players on both sides of the ball struggled with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Facing the Jerry West-led Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals, Russell would win title number 10 in over 12 years of playing. Russell would also win Sports Illlustrated’s Sportsman Of The Year award as well, cementing his name firmly in the annals of basketball history.
The 1968-69 season would be Russell’s last, and he capped it by winning his 11th championship title, defeating Jerry West and familiar rival Wilt Chamberlain in thrilling fashion. Never comfortable in the spotlight or with the media, Russell would skip the victory parade and abruptly ended his career, saying he owed the Celtics or the adoring public nothing. It was reported that Russell internalized a lot of events such as the JFK assassination, the loss of Dr. King, his failing marriage and other factors. Although many see Russell as the grandfatherly man who hugged Kevin Garnett at the end of the 2008 NBA championship, Russell was not a gracious media presence. Unlike the flashier Chamberlain, who relished the spotlight, Russell preferred to let his game speak for him.
After mending the fences with Boston, his number 6 jersey was retired in 1972 and he was inducted into the NBA Hall Of Fame in 1975, although he wasn’t present to accept the award. Much like his playing days, Russell believed the game was bigger than him and kept away from the fanfare that seemed to follow him.
Russell led the way for other Black coaches such as Lenny Wilkens and his Boston teammate K.C. Jones. Beyond his contribution to the game on the playing end, Russell’s coaching job ushered in a new wave of African-American prominence in a game that was largely dominated by Whites at one time. For that, the game owes Bill Russell a great debt.
Thank you, Bill Russell.