Bill Russell has opened up about some of his encounters with racism while playing for the Boston Celtics in the 1960s.
If you’re not familiar with the history of Boston as a city, they have a reputation as being one of the most hostile places for Black athletes, especially during that time. This is despite the fact that the Celtics were one of the first teams to break the color barrier in the NBA.
An excerpt from Slam Magazine, reveals that Russell believes the Celtics organization are good people, but he does not believe he can say the same about the team’s fans, or the city of Boston. Russell goes on to explain how people would yell hateful and offensive comments towards him during his tenure in Boston like , “Go back to Africa, Baboon, Coon, N-gger.”
Russell didn’t allow the racist banter to affect his ability to do his job, though.
“As far as I was concerned, I played for the Boston Celtics, the institution, and the Boston Celtics, my teammates. I did not play for the city or for the fans.”
Russell parlayed that energy into fueling him into a rage that led him to the desire to win, which he did more so than any player in NBA history, 11 times to be exact.
Chuck Cooper was the first black player to be drafted into the NBA in 1950 when he was selected by the Boston Celtics. One season later, Nat Clifton of the New York Knicks and Earl Lloyd of the Washington Capitols broke the league’s color barrier during the 1950-51 season.
Russell continues in his writing saying “my mother went on to tell me that I should never pick a fight with anyone, but that I should always finish the fight I was in. I’m 86 years old now and I figure I’ve got another fight to finish.”
That fight is the fight against criminal injustices and systemic racism towards Black people in America. The NBA legend even recounts the time he was stopped by police in Los Angeles.
“I raised my hands, both of them, as high as I could. One of the cops told me to put my hands down. I refused. Again, he asked me to put my hands down. A crowd formed on the sidewalk, because it’s difficult to ignore a very tall man standing with his arms straight in the air. I refused. I said something like, “No, I’m not going to put my hands down because if I do you’ll say I went for a gun and shoot me.” I wasn’t wrong. I turned toward the crowd and yelled, “Don’t shoot,” as I began to, very slowly, reach for my wallet. I gently dropped the wallet on the car and shot my arm back in the sky.”
The words that Russell echoed back in the 1950’s sound eerily familiar to what Mike Brown echoed in 2016.
You can check out Russell’s entire letter here.