Obit-Bill Russell Basketball

FILE - Bill Russell grins at announcement that he had been named coach of the Boston Celtics basketball team, April 18, 1966. The NBA great Bill Russell has died at age 88. His family said on social media that Russell died on Sunday, July 31, 2022. Russell anchored a Boston Celtics dynasty that won 11 titles in 13 years. (AP Photo, File)

BOSTON (AP) — Bill Russell never had to find his voice as an activist. He didn't know any other way but to speak his mind.

It's what made the winningest athlete in team sports one of the greatest champions of activism. His belief in equality and the stances he took helped create a pathway that athletes today continue to walk in.

Len Elmore, who played 10 seasons in the NBA and is a senior lecturer at Columbia University where he's taught on athlete activism and social justice in sports, called Russell's social contributions "immortal."

"He showed many of us in the game how to be," Elmore said.

Before Russell, who died Sunday at age 88, developed the skills that would make him an 11-time NBA champion with the Boston Celtics, two-time Hall of Famer and an Olympic gold medalist, he had a front row view of the racial indignities endured by his parents as he grew up in segregated Monroe, Louisiana.

In a time when Jim Crow laws in the South existed to silence the views of Black people, he was groomed to be an unapologetic thinker.

"I have never worked to be well-liked or well-loved, but only to be respected," Russell wrote in his 1966 book "Go Up For Glory." "I believe I can contribute something far more important than mere basketball."

That conviction was rooted in what he observed as a child in the late 1930s and early 1940s in Louisiana, where his father, Charles, worked at a paper bag company.

Russell was with him at a gas station one day when the attendant ignored them as he talked to a white man and then proceeded to provide service to other cars that had arrived after them.

Charles was about to drive off when the attendant pulled a gun and said, "Don't you try that, boy, unless you want to get shot," Russell recalled in his book.

His father responded by grabbing a tire iron and chasing the man away.

Decades before Colin Kaepernick's national anthem demonstrations to raise awareness about police brutality, or the collective sports world advocating for justice following the 2020 death of George Floyd and others, Russell used his platform to hasten civil rights.

It's why when Russell later faced his own forms of discrimination decades later, he didn't hesitate to challenge the status quo.

One of the first examples was 1961 when the Celtics were in Lexington, Kentucky for an exhibition game.

The team was in their hotel when teammates Sam Jones asked Satch Sanders to go to the lobby to get some food. They were refused service.

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