Bill Russell Has Died, But His Legacies in Basketball and Racial Justice Live On

Bill Russell, who was 88 years old, died on Sunday. He was the epitome of greatness. While he did not need to be a basketball player to get this title, it is hard to deny his importance in that arena. Russell is unrivaled in winning. He brought two NCAA championships to the University of San Francisco, defeated the Soviet Union to win Olympic gold in 1956, won 11 NBA championships as a Boston Celtics player and as a player/coach — the first Black coach in professional sports — including a preposterous run of eight title victories in a row.

This is why it’s important to consider the incredible run of success Boston-area sports teams have enjoyed since 2001. The Patriots won six Super Bowls and the Red Sox won four World Series. The Bruins won Stanley Cup, the Celtics won NBA championship. That’s 12 titles. Bill Russell won 14 titles between college and coaching, which is two more than all four professional Boston sporting teams combined. Though not a natural shooter like his teammate Bob Cousey – Russell averaged 19 points a game throughout his career – he was one of the best defenders, if not the best defender, of all time. He is. accordingRay Ratto of Defector, “the answer to every historical basketball question ever posed.”

Bill Russell was much more than a man who could push an inflated ball through an iron ring. Or, more importantly, he was a man who could stop others from doing it. These feats of athletic prowess were achieved in an era when Jim Crow was still alive and well. Russell was a civil rights activist from the beginningOne of the most prominent names in pro sports. He organized game boycotts by all Black players on both sides of the ball in cities where Jim Crow laws were being enforced. He stood with Muhammad Ali during the boxer’s own time in America’s racist crucible, and marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. His very presence was a righteous demand for social justice.

“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,” writesSopan Deb The New York Times. “And he was one of the first to do so.”

Russell was more severely confronted by mass societal racism in the city where his game was played than anywhere else. The fact that Russell was great also serves to highlight the grim, decades-long struggle to be recognized in a city where all the heroes were black for too long. The most striking example of this was a 30-year-old massive construction project, where the question of naming rights was a Rorschach exam that the city once more failed.

For the first half of the 1990s, a swath of Boston’s downtown was literally transformed into 40 miles of bad road. The so-called “Big Dig” – a massive highway improvement effort dubbed at the time the “largest public works project in human history” – had cored out the center of town and left the remaining highway infrastructure looking like something that had been dropped there from space.

Many years and billions of dollars later, the worthiness of the effort is still hotly debated in the city, but three jewels did emerge from the dust and confusion: a deeply-needed tunnel directly connecting the western half of the city to the airport, a gorgeous white suspension bridge over the Charles River, and a lovely greenway constructed on the footprint of the old I-93 overpass that had stood for years like Mordor’s wall between Faneuil Hall and the harbor waterfront.

When it became time to name these things, all sorts of suggestions were bandied about … and for each one, there was a chorus of voices asking, “Can we name it for Bill Russell?” The answer, times three, was no: The tunnel was named for Ted Williams, who never won a championship for the Red Sox; the bridge was named for Leonard Paul “Lenny” Zakim, a civil rights advocate with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL); the greenspace was named for Rose Kennedy, the matriarch of the Kennedy political dynasty. Kennedy’s senator son, Edward, practically built the greenspace with his bare hands, for his mom.

The decisions were not well received. Tommy Heinsohn, Russell’s teammate for nine years, was blunt in relating his opinion to Sports Illustrated’sFrank Deford, 2014. “Look,” said Heinsohn, “all I know is, the guy won two NCAA championships, 50-some college games in a row, the Olympics, then he came to Boston and won 11 championships in 13 years, and they named a fucking tunnel after Ted Williams.”

2013 was the year Bill Russell received a statue at City Hall Plaza. Fittingly, it depictsHe was preparing to pass the ball unselfishly to a teammate. Russell and the city shared other moments of friendship over the years. His appearance at 1999’s ceremony for the reretirement his jersey number was the most memorable. However, his old scars burned until the end. The Washington Post reports:

Despite his success with the Celtics — the team had never won a championship before his arrival — Mr. Russell did not receive local business endorsements and found himself shut out of exclusive neighborhoods when he was looking to buy a house. His suburban Boston home was ransacked and broken into in 1968. The walls were covered with racist epithets and his bed was left with his feces.

“It had all varieties, old and new, and in their most virulent form,” he wrote in [his 1979 memoir] “Second Wind.” “The city had corrupt, city hall-crony racists, brick-throwing, send-’em-back-to-Africa racists, and in the university areas phony radical-chic racists.… Other than that, I liked the city.”

Boston continues to struggle with the reality of its ingrained racism today. Activists shined a spotlight on this racism throughout the 1960s and 1970s with the rise and fall of the civil rights movement, and the riots that erupted from enforced busing. Blatant bigotry and racism were also on full display. Russell, the most visible Black man living in Boston, was often the target of vitriol from the Boston Garden crowd.

Russell found a mental space which allowed him to continue the game. He preferred to share a few words with his teammates and a handshake, so I don’t believe he signed one autograph. Russell found himself after he reviewed his FBI file. disparaged for not signing “autographs for white children.”

The combined weight of all this – the athletic pressures, the hatred and racism, the venom from fans wearing your colors in your building, the assaults on your home – could have easily undone a lesser mortal. Bill Russell was spared such a fate, not least because his heart of greatness was a joy that lit his face.

Never, ever, have you heard anything so pure and happy. the sound of Bill Russel laughing his ass off. His laughter was released from his towering body. It sounded almost like God sent a fistful diamonds down an endless marble staircase. All the time. His laughter stopped conversations, stopped traffic, stopped time … and afforded the exclamation point for the rare moment when he flexed. He had not been here long ago. shared a stage with several of the NBA’s most prominent “big men.” He sized them up one by one, leaned in, and whispered, “I would kick your ass.” And he laughed, and laughed, because he knew he was right.

It’s all there.

In the words of Maya Angelou, “And when great souls die, after a period peace blooms, slowly and always irregularly. Spaces are filled with a soothing electric vibration. Our senses, now restored, whisper to our ears. They existed. They existed. We can be. Be better. For they existed.”

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