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Among Pro Athletes, Bill Russell Was a Pioneering Activist

It’s easy to remember the shots that Bill Russell blocked or the N.B.A. championships he won. After all, there were so many of each that he is considered one of the greatest basketball players in history, and in some corners, the greatest, period.

But after his nearly nine decades of life, his most consequential legacy has less to do with the sport he dominated than his work off the court. From the time he was a young man to his death at age 88 on Sunday, Russell was a civil rights activist who consistently used his platform as a celebrity athlete to confront racism, no matter whom it alienated or what it did to his public popularity. And he was one of the first to do so.

Now, it is common for athletes across many sports to be outspoken, no doubt inspired by Russell. The N.B.A. players’ union encourages its members to be passionate about their politics, especially around social justice. Without Russell’s risking his own livelihood and enduring the cruelties he did as a Black player in the segregated Boston of the 1950s and 1960s, athlete activism would look much different today, if it existed at all.

“The blueprint was written by Russell,” the Rev. Al Sharpton said in an interview on Sunday. He continued: “It is now trendy on social media to take a stand. He did it when it was not trendy. He set the trend.”

Spike Lee, the director and longtime N.B.A. fan, said in a text message, “We are losing so many greats my head is spinning.”

Lee said Russell “is right up there with Jackie Robinson as changing the game in sports and activism in the United States of America, and we are all better because of these champions.”

Russell, a native of West Monroe, La., was a trailblazer from the moment he set foot on an N.B.A. court.

“My rookie year, in the championship series, I was the only Black player for both teams,” Russell once quipped to an audience while accepting an award in Boston. “And see what we did, we showed them diversity works.”

Russell marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 in the prime of his playing career (he played for the Celtics from 1956 to 1969). He was invited to sit onstage behind King, but he declined. That same year, Russell offered his public support for demonstrations against segregation in Boston public schools, and addressed Black students taking part in a sit-in.

When the civil rights leader Medgar Evers was assassinated, also in 1963, Russell contacted Evers’s older brother, Charles, in Jackson, Miss., and offered his assistance. The elder Evers suggested that Russell run an integrated basketball camp in the Deep South, something that would have been a significant safety risk for Russell. He said yes, and despite the death threats, went through with the camp.

Four years later, when the boxer Muhammad Ali was faced with a torrent of criticism for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War, Russell, the N.F.L. star Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor and still playing at U.C.L.A.) gathered in Cleveland and decided to support Ali. This was not a popular stance, not that Russell cared.

Russell wrote immediately afterward that he was envious of Ali.

“He has absolute and sincere faith,” Russell wrote for Sports Illustrated. “I’m not worried about Muhammad Ali. He is better equipped than anyone I know to withstand the trials in store for him. What I’m worried about is the rest of us.”

Russell’s activism made an impact on generations of athletes. That included Spencer Haywood, who played for Russell as a member of the Seattle SuperSonics, whom Russell coached for four seasons. (In 1966, Russell became the first Black coach in the N.B.A.)

Haywood said in an interview on Sunday that he and Russell would often dine at a Seattle restaurant called 13 Coins after road trips, and Russell would regale him with stories about the civil rights movement. During these dinners, Russell lauded the young player’s willingness to sue the N.B.A. in 1971 for not allowing players to enter the league until four years after their high school graduation — a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court and was eventually decided in Haywood’s favor.

“He was teaching me because he knew what I had stood up for with my Supreme Court ruling,” Haywood said. “And he admired that in me. And I was so overwhelmed by him knowing.”

Haywood said his teammates would jokingly refer to Russell as Haywood’s “daddy” because of how close they were. Sometimes, Haywood’s late-night talks with Russell came with surprising advice about activism.

“He always used to tell me about not getting too carried away because we were in the ’70s,” Haywood recalled. “He was kind of guiding me, saying: ‘Don’t go out too far right now because you are a player and you need to play the game. But you’ve made one stand and you did great in that, but don’t go too far.’ He was, like, giving me a guardrail.”

Russell never feared going too far as a player activist himself. He wasn’t deterred by the racist taunts he absorbed at games, or when vandals broke into his home, spray-painted epithets on the wall and left feces on the bed after he moved his family to Reading, Mass. When he tried to move his family to a different house nearby, some residents of the mostly white neighborhood started a petition to keep him out.

“I said then that I wasn’t scared of the kind of men who come in the dark of night,” Russell wrote for Slam magazine in 2020. “The fact is, I’ve never found fear to be useful.”

He didn’t always have the support of his teammates. In 1961, for example, the Celtics traveled to Lexington, Ky., for an exhibition game against the St. Louis Hawks. When the restaurant at the hotel would not serve the team’s Black players, Russell led a strike of the game. His white teammates played the game. Bob Cousy, one of Russell’s white teammates, told the writer Gary M. Pomerantz decades later for the 2018 book “The Last Pass: Cousy, the Celtics and What Matters in the End” that he was “ashamed” at having taken part in the game. President Barack Obama cited the 1961 story in giving Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.

“For decades, Bill endured insults and vandalism, but never let it stop him from speaking up for what’s right,” Obama said in a statement Sunday. “I learned so much from the way he played, the way he coached, and the way he lived his life.”

The activism didn’t stop as Russell got older. In recent years, Russell has been a public supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement and Colin Kaepernick, the former N.F.L. quarterback who began kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality in 2016.

“Bill Russell was a pioneer,” Etan Thomas, a former N.B.A. player and political activist, said in a text message Sunday. Thomas said Russell was “an athlete who used his position and platform to stand up for a bigger cause.” He added that “he was the type of athlete I wanted to be like when I grew up.”

Russell’s influence in leading the 1961 strike could be felt in 2020, when the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play a playoff game as a protest of police brutality. On Twitter, Russell wrote that he was “moved by all the N.B.A. players for standing up for what is right.” In a piece for The Players’ Tribune weeks later, Russell wrote, “Black and Brown people are still fighting for justice, racists still hold the highest offices in the land.”

Sharpton pointed to those actions as Russell’s legacy.

“He did it before some of these guys were born,” Sharpton said. “And I think that what they need to understand is every time a basketball player or athlete puts a T-shirt on saying something about Trayvon or ‘I Am Trayvon’ or ‘Black Lives Matter’ or whatever they want to do — ‘Get your knee off my neck!’ — they may not know it, but they are doing the Bill Russell.”

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