Bill Russell is considered the greatest winner of all-time in many sports circles. He is remembered for his 11 titles in 13 years of professional basketball, the NBA Finals MVP trophy bearing his name, and for his statue in Boston.

But Russell’s story is not just about the life of a champion, “but of a black American who made the stormy and painful passage from hatred to understanding.” Russell’s greatest awards have come not from basketball, but from his impact as a human being. He received the Medal of Freedom, national acclaim, and much credit for his important contributions to the Civil Rights movement. But this isn’t to say that his fight was easy.

One can see that Russell’s impact wasn’t equal everywhere. While Bill Russell’s actions towards promoting Civil Rights and his performance as player and coach of the Boston Celtics from 1956-1969 did not significantly improve race relations in Boston, his efforts were influential in the Civil Rights movement in the United States because his convictions combined with his fame allowed him to influence popular opinion and help other important Civil Rights leaders of the time.

As a child, Russell encountered rampant poverty and racism; but learned valuable lessons that he would carry with him the rest of his life.

He loves to tell a story from his childhood that shaped his thinking. He recounts being hit in the face by a boy running past with a group of his friends and then went crying to his mother. In response, his mom took him all throughout the neighborhood looking for the group of boys. When they finally found the boys, she told him “…you gunna fight every one of them one at a time.” Russell lost three fights and won two, but he says it taught him “to never let anyone run over me.” This story is only one instance of hardship Russell experienced early on.

After his mom died when he was 12, his father moved him and his brother out to California to raise them by himself while working many low wage part time job. Bill grew up in the Bay Area’s poor neighborhoods, and surprisingly, was not a natural at basketball. But, he loved the game and over time grew into his dominantly athletic frame. These gifts gave him the skills to win multiple high school titles and college success at the University of San Francisco. When it came time for Russell to be drafted to the NBA, the St. Louis Hawks selected him. However, Russell knew that St. Louis was a tough place to live for a black man, and later recounted how he would not have been in the NBA had he stayed on that team. Luckily for Russell, Boston head coach Red Auerbach got him traded to the Celtics, where he went on to win 11 championships in 13 years. Russell may be remembered for his incredible career with Boston; however, the turmoil of his time there is overlooked, creating a situation in which Russell was not able to lead much change in the ideas towards the Civil Rights movement.

Due to the racism and hate prevalent in Boston, Russell had an incredibly hard time changing the hearts of the citizens and fans of the city. Unfortunately, Boston has long struggled with this reputation. Before Russell, Boston teams had often been seen as being white dominant. ESPN’s John Gonzalez supported this claim with his statement, “You would be hard-pressed to find a playoff squad that rotated in three white players for more than 15 minutes a night by that time. The Celtics, on the other hand, would feature five, sometimes six white players in a nine-man rotation”. This culture would often alienate African American supporters, and create an overwhelmingly white culture supporting the Celtics. Russell would get so upset at the vocally racist white fan base that he furthered Boston’s reputation as a racist city by speaking about the terrible nature of the city towards African Americans.

But even with Boston being a generally racist city, head coach Red Auerbach managed to make his team one of the most progressive in the league. In 1953, the Celtics were the first team to draft an African American player, and later went on to be the first team to start a lineup of five non-white players.

But, even with the incredible legacy of winning that Russell and his teammates secured for Boston, their arena was rarely sold out. It was the opinion of many of the locals that the Celtics were “too black.” Russell recalled the Celtics conducting a survey on ways to increase attendance at home games, and over half of the fans said “too many black guys.” Even after he led his team to an impossible victory over the Lakers in 1969 as player-coach, the general manager of the Celtics’ organization was asked if he was satisfied with the coaching that year. No matter what Russell accomplished on the court, the fans were generally too racist to appreciate it; much less support his fight for Civil Rights. Russell had the opinion that “the Celtics to me were a blue team in a sea of red. That means there was really no connection between the Boston Fans and the Boston Celtics”. This ingrained hatred and racial bias of the fans in Boston prevented what Russell was trying to do for his culture and people.

Speaking out against a general cause such as Civil Rights is one thing, but Russell was also personally attacked on several occasions. The most prominent of these was an incident that occurred at his house in the suburb of Redding. Intruders broke in and destroyed his trophies, in addition to leaving human excrement all over the walls and his bed. Russell and his teammates were distraught. Fellow Celtics Legend Bob Cousy remarked, “Here we [were] winning four, five and six championships… and by the same token they’re breaking into your home and defecating on your bed. Can you imagine the kind of pain that must have caused?” Obviously, Russell and his ideas were not welcome in Boston; no matter how many times they brought victory to the city.

Almost fifty years after he retired from professional basketball, the city finally decided to build a statue in his honor. It took them 44 years to recognize one of the brightest figures Boston has ever had, and therefore shows that Russell did not greatly impact the city during the 1960s. “The population finally caught up with you,” remarked Civil Rights leader and Hall of Fame football player Jim Brown. What has to be understood is that Boston is a much different city today, which is a large part of why the statue is finally being created. Therefore, one can reasonably conclude that because of the hatred present during Russell’s career, he was not able to influence ideas of race in Boston.

Compared with the lack of success that came from his efforts in the city of Boston, Bill Russell was one of the most dominant forces on the national level in the fight for Civil Rights. He was known for his very vocal approach when it came to advocacy for desegregation and equal opportunity, which if coming from a worse athlete could definitely have brought on much controversy. Russell looked up to Jackie Robinson as an idol, and wanted to use his fame in a similar way to continue what Jackie had begun. Russell expressed this sentiment though his statement, “Jackie took us from point A to point B. I wanted to take us from point B to point C”. Russell used his celebrity status and connections to follow this conviction. Russell is recognized as one of the few celebrities along with Jim Brown and Arthur Ashe to tried to “define equality among mankind” during this era. With this idea driving his work, Russell became irreplaceable in various crusades for the Civil Rights movement using his celebrity power. But, the fight for Civil Rights was never easy considering the state of the USA’s racial mindset at the time.

The USA that Russell had to work with was not one that many would recognize today. Racism was rampant, and was widely considered to just be a part of society. There was the issue previously described with St. Louis being too racist for Russell to play there. Russell and his African American teammates endured fan abuse and used different facilities on a regular basis as well, but arguably the hardest prejudice to combat was the subliminal. John Hareas recalled the 1965 All-Star game as a prime example: “they voted for Jerry Lucas as MVP of the [1965] All-Star Game, when Russell [was] clearly the guy who should have been named MVP. But they weren’t going to vote for him because he was a black guy.” This ideological flaw possessed by Americans makes Russell’s national impact all the more impressive.

Boycotting was a common method of resistance during the Civil Rights movement, where protestors would refuse certain services in order to bring to light issues and inequalities. Russell became involved in boycotting, which put a celebrity face on the practice and exponentially increasing the amount of people who were actively aware of it through the controversy it aroused. He and five of his other black teammates refused to play a game in Kentucky because of the segregated hotels. Immediately, this sparked a large debate between the NBA communities. Their boycott was regarded by some reporters and civil rights leaders as a large step in the right direction, and by other critics as an embarrassment to the Celtics Organization; saying they should be suspended and fined. While the opinion on the boycott varied, what was more important was that it got people’s attention. Without Russell, boycotting still would have been a popular method of resistance, but his celebrity “endorsement” of the practice made it much more of a pertinent issue in the USA showing how Russell influenced public opinion.

Russell’s support of Muhammad Ali during his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War is another example of how he used his high profile to help influence national opinion and support other high profile figures. When Ali refused the draft, he was supported by a group of major professional athletes, with Bill at the head. Fellow supporter Jim Brown said of Russell; “Bill was there and played a leading role in the meetings, [asking] the right questions…” Though he may not have been the only celebrity in this instance, his presence as a leader in the argument made him especially important in assisting Muhammad Ali. The celebrity support given by Russell and others upped public support for Ali and was a microcosm of the American people’s aversion toward the Vietnam War. While this was not a debate on Civil Rights per se, it showed again how Russell’s celebrity status was important enough nationally to play a leading role in the crusades of other leading individuals of the time, and the fact that he led the celebrity support showed how he was able to influence public opinion.

Russell’s impact on the national stage of Civil Rights can be proven by his invitation to stand on the stage for Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Though he declined because he felt he had not contributed to the speech itself enough, he was still granted a front row seat. This didn’t happen for any ordinary citizen. Dr. King recognized Russell’s importance to the movement and wanted to make sure that people knew Russell was a core member of the resistance against oppression. This sort of honor showed that Russell not only was working nationally on Civil Rights, but that he was being recognized for it.

From Russell’s successful efforts in these various crusades against racism and his stellar performance on the basketball court, he began to help influence popular opinion throughout the USA. As Russell kept on winning, it became hard for teams not to realize the benefit of desegregating their organizations. Before Russell, drafting an African American player was an anomaly, but as he began to prove himself as being one of the greats the NBA began to see drafting African Americans as the norm. The Warriors acquired Wilt Chamberlin in 1959 and the Bucks got Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) in 1969. Walt Frazier would lead the Knicks to a championship in 1970 and 1973, and many other African American basketball legends helped their respective teams become great and go down in history themselves; all thanks to Russell’s incredible level of competitiveness and performance. The Civil Rights movement also achieved multiethnic acceptance and desegregation, which as previously shown Russell was involved in deeply. His leadership in the boycott of the Kentucky hotel with the 5 African American Celtics put a celebrity’s face on a pertinent issue, and enhanced protesting segregation of public facilities as a hot topic. His leadership in supporting Muhammad Ali’s court case won Ali a lot of support around the country, which positively impacted the case overall and support of an African American male. Russell’s contributions of support and his influence on public opinion for all of these situations positively influenced them and increased the amount of success they had.

While Bill Russell’s actions towards promoting Civil Rights and his performance as player and coach of the Boston Celtics from 1956-1969 did not significantly improve race relations in Boston, his efforts were influential in the Civil Rights movement in the United States because his convictions combined with his fame allowed him to influence popular opinion and help other important Civil Rights leaders of the time.

Bill Russell’s impact was forever cemented through his reception of the Medal of Freedom. President Barack Obama bestowed it upon him for all of the work that he did throughout his life to help those who were down. It is the highest honor that a citizen can receive. President Obama stated at the ceremony “I hope one day in the streets of Boston, children will not only look up to a statue of Bill Russell the player, but Bill Russell the man.”

In retrospect, Obama’s quote reflects that Boston never really appreciated Russell, but the fact that he was being bestowed a national honor shows that he had a great impact on the nation. This is why the NBA Finals MVP Trophy bears his name. Why his statue was modeled in the position of a player passing, to show that he was the ultimate “team player” when it came to anything that he did. Why he is remembered as one of the greatest ever to grace his sport. Russell will be remembered long after his records fall or his 11 championship rings rust away because he lived for others with the guidance of the moral given to him by his mother; to never let anyone walk over him. That lifestyle cemented his legacy, not just as a basketball player, but more importantly as a man.


Image from CBS Sports.

Adande, J. A. “The Truth Isn’t Always Black and White For Celtics.”

“Bill Russell, Stan Musial honored.”

Gonzalez, John. “Black Athletes Have Long Seen Boston as Racist.”

Hareas, John. “, Official Site of the National Basketball Association.”

Russell, Bill, and Taylor Branch. Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man. New York: Random House, 1979. Print.

Russell, Bill F. “Mr. Russell’s House.” Interview by Bill J. Simmons, III. Grantland.

Yardley, Johnathan. “Bill Russell Writes With Candor About His Game, His Race, His Life.” Bill Russell Writes With Candor About His Game, His Race,. Sports Illustrated.

Zillgitt, Jeff. “Celtics Legend Bill Russell Receives Medal of Freedom.” USATODAY.COM.