In the dictionary, the word ‘define’ means to identify or explain the natural or essential qualities of someone or something. Many athletes are defined by their individual accomplishments in their profession. Few athletes, though, are defined by their sheer desire to win for their teammates and for the game they love. Even fewer athletes are known for risking their lives and putting their profession in jeopardy for the sake of human rights and dignity. One athlete fits this description………..
Bill Russell’s individual and team accolades are well known and documented. His knowledge of basketball and analysis of the opponents he faced allowed him to play a game within a game. His defensive prowess, shot blocking and ability to alter shots became the archetype for which the center position is played today. But what some may not know is that Bill Russell was much more than a basketball player. In the summer of 1963, the country found out just how much more.
On June 12, 1963, Bill Russell, who had recently won his third consecutive MVP award and guided the Celtics to their fifth straight title, heard that Medgar Evers, one of the country’s leading civil rights activist had been killed. Bill, who staunchly believed in respect for others, did what only Bill Russell would do—-he telephoned Medgar’s older brother, Charles, and simply asked what could he do to help. Facing intense opposition from those who didn’t agree with Russell’s belief of racial equality, Bill Russell accepted the request to travel to a segregated Jackson, Miss. and organize an integrated basketball game. Russell’s presence enabled the game go on without incident even though the potential for violence surrounded them. “The camp was a success,” Charles Evers said. Risking his life, Russell helped make a resounding statement in favor of civil rights.
Back in Boston, Russell became the focal point of bigotry from the very fans that celebrated the Celtics’ titles. Celtics’ great and teammate Bob Cousy said, “Here we are winning four, five, 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?” Yet, Russell’s desire to give all he had to his teammates never waned. Russell, though angered by the treatment and the subsequent vandalizing of his home, continued to remained close to his Celtics teammates and their families. Russell was quoted as saying, “We cared about each other and took care of each other. Every other guy respected the other guy’s humanity”.
In 1967, Muhammad Ali was denied a request for deferment from the Selective Service because of his religious beliefs and stripped of his boxing title. Again, Russell vocally took a stand for Ali’s religious devotions. In the spring of 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and Russell aligned himself with those who advocated human rights. In both instances, Russell cemented his legacy as being much more than an athlete.
Despite of the ill-treatment by the Boston community, Bill Russell played for the Boston Celtics for thirteen years. In 1966, Russell became the first black player/coach in the post-Depression era of any major American sport. Bill Russell’s desire to help others to improve in basketball and in life has never waned. Today, Russell still shares his basketball IQ with those that will take a little time to listen. He also continues to further his passion for mentoring children via the Bill Russell Legacy Project.
In 2011, President Obama presented Bill Russell with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and stated: “I hope that one day in the streets of Boston, children will look up at a statue built not only to Bill Russell the player, but Bill Russell the man.” In 2012, the Boston Celtics Organization announced they were honoring Bill Russell with his own monument. On November 1, 2013, the city of Boston unveiled a statue in honor of Bill Russell at City Hall Plaza.
Bill Russell was once asked was he a basketball player. He replied, “No, I’m a man that plays basketball”.
Boston gave Bill Russell a statue of recognition, but in return they received a man of stature.