On Sunday, July 31, we lost one of the greatest basketball players of all time and a person who fought against the oppression of Black people.
The first time I saw Bill Russell play basketball, he was a sophomore at the University of San Francisco (USF). He was a high flyer, literally leaping higher than anyone I had ever seen before, swatting shots away, grabbing rebounds, and putting the ball in from high above the basket. It was obvious that he was going to become a great basketball player. What I did not know is what kind of person he was going to become off the court.
Bill Russell’s accomplishments on the court are staggering,1 but, for me, it was his accomplishments and his stand for human rights off the court that made Bill Russell a very special athlete and person.
The racism and bigotry he faced, as a Black player for the Boston Celtics of the NBA, shaped him in a way where he became a national spokesperson opposing all the shit that Black people were facing in this country. About Boston, he said, “Boston itself was a flea market of racism. It had all varieties, old and new, and in their most virulent form. 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.”
When Muhammad Ali refused to go to fight against the Vietnamese people, Russell joined several high-profile athletes in what was known as the Cleveland Summit, to support Ali and his decision to refuse to be inducted into the military. About Ali, Russell said, “I envy Muhammad Ali. He faces a possible five years in jail and he has been stripped of his heavyweight championship, but I still envy him. He has something I have never been able to attain and something very few people I know possess. He has an absolute and sincere faith. 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.”
To this day, Russell never backed down as a champion for Black people. During the more recent George Floyd protests, Russell called out "the systemic and pervasive killing of Black and brown people." Further, he said, "Yet, I am heartened by the waves of Black Lives Matter protesters risking their lives to march among our streets. I am heartened by the Minneapolis City Council's pledge to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department in response to their protests. And I sincerely hope that these kinds of strange days are forever behind us, and that real, lasting change will finally be realized. Our lives depend on it."
I am saddened by his death. I will miss Bill Russell. The sports world will miss Bill Russell. The people of this nation will miss Bill Russell. The world will miss Bill Russell.