Bill Russell is on any list of the greatest athletes in Boston sports history, no matter how short it is. He will be mentioned among the best to ever play in the NBA as long as there is a league to talk about.

Yet it is his acts of courage and conscience that are his legacy.

Russell, who died Sunday at the age of 88, was the greatest winner in the history of major team sports. He won two collegiate basketball titles and an Olympic gold before going on to lead the Boston Celtics to 11 championships in 13 years, the last two as player-coach.

He did it with speed and agility that would put him alongside the best athletes in today’s game, and with a commitment to putting his team first that is rare in any era.

And he did it in places where many of the fans hated him solely for the color of his skin.

The first Black superstar for a Boston team, Russell faced taunts and threats wherever he went. Even as he became an NBA champion and all-star, Russell was denied entry into hotel rooms and restaurants along with his Black teammates as they toured the country.

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But Russell, who had grown up in segregated Louisiana, was not going to let anyone tell him he was lesser. Soon, he would find his way as a civil rights activist and a voice for justice.

In 1961, after a restaurant in Lexington, Kentucky, refused to serve Russell and his Black teammates, he led a strike of the game. Russell was in the front row as Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the 1963 March on Washington. When civil rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered in Mississippi, he organized an integrated basketball camp in Jackson with Evers’ brother.

Russell also was among a small group of notable Black athletes who took the unpopular position of supporting Muhammad Ali when the heavyweight champ refused to fight in the Vietnam War, and he supported school desegregation in Boston when it was being met with violent opposition.

The racism was often personal, and menacing. Threatening letters were common. Once, his family returned home from vacation to find their home in suburban Boston vandalized, with racial slurs written on the walls and feces on the floor.

None of it stopped Russell from saying or doing what was right.

So in 2016 when Black athletes and their supporters began kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice, they were following in Russell’s footsteps. Despite fierce blowback – some of it not all that different from what Russell faced in the 1950s – they persevered, and the movement helped bring attention to the racism that still motivates many in this country today.

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As the protests grew widespread, Russell sent out a photo of himself kneeling in support. It was a fitting picture that connected eras. If Russell had never faced down hate during his career with such dignity and resolve, today’s athletes may not have had the same opportunities.

Russell showed that a man 6-feet-10-inches tall could play basketball with the speed of a track star and the grace of a ballet dancer. He proved that defense and rebounding could win championships – lots of them.

His athletic talents opened doors. His determination and commitment made him a star.

Being a star gave Bill Russell a platform, and he used it stand up for dignity and opportunity for all – leaving a lesson that everyone after him could follow.

 

 

 


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