Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Black History Month: Bill Russell

LeBron James last year said that he wanted to change his jersey from No. 23 to No. 6 because he feels that Michael Jordan's number should be retired. As a student of the game, I was disappointed he didn't have a better respect for No. 6 because if he did, he'd know that the man who made that number famous did just as much for the game as MJ.

There are three things you need to know about Bill Russell. First, he's the greatest individual champion in sports history. Second, despite No. 1, he's the greatest embodiment of team-first philosophy in sports history. Third, he fought as hard to uplift humanity as he did his Celtics.

When he was drafted by the Celtics in 1956, Russell was a strange case. A big man who was more renowned for his rebounding and defense that his offense. He came to a city that was slow to integration as the Red Sox would be the last to do so with Pumpsie Green in 1959.

But Russell's story starts earlier - his family left the South to avoid racism and moved to Oakland. His White HS coach treated him with dignity and molded him into a ballplayer to avoid getting into trouble (that same coach would do the same thing a few years later with a kid named Curt Flood). That set the stage for one of the greatest college careers ever as Russell and KC Jones led the Univ. of San Francisco to back-to-back NCAA Titles.

It was there he learned the value of team first over the individual. He was snubbed for an individual award despite averaging over 20 points and rebounds and being a shot blocker. According to him "that let me know that if I were to accept these as the final judges of my career I would die a bitter old man." So as a result, he was more driven to help his team simply win.

If you know Black History you know that Oakland is one of the centers of Black culture. There's a vibe from the athletes and citizens who are from there that says "Not only will we not take racism lying down, we will show you how to fight it with our intelligent anger."

Russell was the first to emerge from Oakland to gain prominence and no matter how big a star he became, he showed people that you conquered stereotypes dead on. Not just with your play but with your words and actions.

Hewas the first Black superstar in the NBA - a shot-blocking, rebounding force who keyed the Celtics offense by playing a new concept of help defense. While Bob Cousy ran the show with amazing handles, Russell was the engine of the dynasty that won 11 rings in 13 years.

His famous rivalry with Wilt Chamberlain was great for the game of basketball - the two greatest at their craft colliding like Goliaths and showing America that Blacks played a beautiful game of skill not just raw ability.

It's important to note that Russell was mentored by progressive White coaches. His college coach, Phil Woolpert, was the first to start 3 Black players in a game. And of course, his pro coach is one of the greatest minds in basketball. Red Auerbach spit in the face of racism many times in his career, including having the balls to start 5 Black players in a game. Their friendship is as legendary as their on-court partnership.

Off the court, Russell faced a hostile Boston press corps and a city that was slow to embrace their champion. After his house was vandalized, he famously called the city a "flea market of racism." An ironic twist from that part of the country being at the forefront of the abolitionist movement a century earlier. I guess if Ted Williams didn't get a pass, why should the Boston media let this Black man not suffer it even worse.

Russell  wasn't afraid to speak his mind on the issues of the day as he marched with Dr. King and others to fight racism while supporting Muhammad Ali's decision to avoid the draft for Vietnam. One of my favorite photos is this shot of Russell, Jim Brown, a UCLA sophomore named Lew Alcindor, Dodgers outfielder Willie Davis and others surrounding Ali to meet with and show solidarity for him. Black Power wasn't a slogan to them, it was action and they weren't letting their brother hang out to dry.

If Russell saw an injustice, he attacked like he did a shot on the court. He demanded respect and never withered in the face of abuse. I heard a story that he didn't believe in signing autographs, but handshakes and genuine conversation.

He made history as the first Black coach of a major sports team in the modern era in 1967. What did he do? Just win two more rings as a player-coach and show that he could lead his team as well as any coach in the league. And for the record, Bill Russell never lost a Game 7 elimination game.

Yet he never forgot the racism he faced. He avoided Boston for years after his retirement, even on the day his jersey was retired. But as time wore on, that relationship warmed and Russell began to receive what he always wanted - respect as a man who sacrificed for the good of the team and winning.

Is it any surprise that when Kevin Garnett came to Boston, he sought out Russell for leadership and counsel before transforming into him on the court en route to being Defensive Player of the Year in 2008? Yes, that year hurt as a Lakers fan but as a hoops fan who watched KG since Day One, I was on-the-low happy for him

For a man who achieved so many firsts in his career for African-Americans, it's only fitting he became the first NBA Player to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honor. I'm betting that President Obama was proud to place it around his neck as he knew that Russell was one of many who made his position possible.

His resume is below but here's what it doesn't say. He and KC Jones (who played with him in Boston and coached them to two titles in the 80's) are arguably the greatest 1-2 tandem in basketball history. A fighter for civil rights and equality while serving as a tireless ambassador of the NBA. He encouraged Shaq to end his feud with Kobe Bryant. The NBA Finals MVP is fittingly named after him.

As Black History Month comes to a close, I've always wanted to do a big piece on somebody or something worth telling that doesn't get told. In past years at my paper, I focused on Curt Flood, the New York Rens (basketball's first paid pro team) and Don Barksdale, the first Black All-American and later NBA All-Star. This year, I pay tribute to the champion of champions and a man who deserves to be recognized as one of the greatest men to ever wear a jersey.

He's as important to Boston's sports history as Ted Williams and deserves more recognition around the city. To America, Russell took Jackie Robinson's mantle and showed sports fans that Blacks could be both leaders AND winners (even if it came at the expense of my Lakers).

He was also the first star product of the Oakland scene - the same scene that produced great Black athletes and leaders such as Frank Robinson, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Angela Davis, Rickey Henderson, Dave Stewart, Gary Payton, Jason Kidd and current California District Attorney Kamala Harris.

More importantly, he was a key part of the crop of Black athletes in the 60's that stared racism in the eyeball, fought it with their intelligence and their actions and survived to make their sports and their country better for it. Those are my inspirations who stood on the shoulders of the Negro Leagues and Rube Foster, the New York Rens and the NFL's first Black player and coach Fritz Pollard.

Bill Russell lived to make his father proud. Of his titles, he was proudest most of being captain of the Celtics. Individual honors be darned, he was about the greater good. For that, he deserved to be celebrated and recognized and held up as the best of America.

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