Thanks, Bill

Photograph Source: John G. Zimmerman for Sports Illustrated – Public Domain

Celtics great and civil rights activist Bill Russell died on July 31 at the age of 88.

Boston is now known as the City of Champions because of the success of its professional sports franchises over the last few decades. But when I moved to a Boston neighborhood (Southie) as a kid in the early 60s from suburban Kansas City, it was a pathetic little town of losers. The Bruins had languished at or near last place for a loooong time, albeit there were only the original 6 teams at the time. The Boston Patriots sucked, and had trouble even finding a stadium they could call home, from season, renting out the fields of universities — Harvard, BC, BU, any one of which could have beat the “sissies” in a game, we reckoned — or fucking up the turf in vain at Fenway Park so badly that it resembled the stockyard outside the abattoir in nearby Brighton. You felt for the groundskeeper.

And the Red Sox, who I would listen to on the radio, could unman you, even as a boy, with their endless string of heartbreaking losses –early, late, and often — that had you wishing that relief pitcher Dick “The Monster” Radatz would just wind up and clock someone with an intimate chin music fastball (a repeated wish that might have led to local hero Tony Conigliaro’s karmic beaning), they were so laughably bad. Back then, many of us were a little bit like Sox star Jimmy Piersall, who pulled a nutty with a bat one season, threatening teammates, and was a real lip-doodler who could have been the straitjacketed mascot of the team, given their performance on the field.

But the Celtics! Early on they were mostly white, like the NBA itself, and just before I arrived in Beantown, were also chumps not champs, although they featured the flashy guard Bob “Cooz” Cousy and, for a flashpoint moment, actor Chuck Connors, who went on to star in the hit TV series The Rifleman, and who even got political, it seems, late in his career, fictionally admitting to American atrocities from gunships in foreign lands almost 40 years before Wikileaks released the very real “Collateral Damage.” The Celtics were only 13 years old in 1959 and, according to basketball chronicler John Taylor, “the team was a purely a commercial afterthought in a sport without strong roots in the city’s culture, and for much of the fifties, attendance at its games reflected this.” Boston Garden owner Walt Brown just wanted to fill some seats and make a buck on dates when the Bruins weren’t in town.

But then along came Red Auerbach, who made the fateful trade for Tommy Heinsohn, K.C. Jones and Bill Russell, and the Celtics became extraordinary winners almost overnight. By the time I moved to Boston, they were already in the fifth year of their championship dynasty run from 1956, the year I was born, to 1969, winning the NBA title 11 out of 13 years. And Bill Russell was the primary reason. He turned the team into what it would later regard as its trademark — a defensive-minded squad that held opponents down. Auerbach even traded for the center because of his defensive prowess, a counterintuitive move at the time. And Russell’s play earned him gushing praise from other ballers. As Sporting News notes,

Standing at 6 ft 10 in (2.08 m) tall, with a 7 ft 4 in (2.24 m) arm span, his shot-blocking and man-to-man defense were major reasons for the Celtics’ dominance during his career. Russell was equally notable for his rebounding abilities, and he led the NBA in rebounds four times, had a dozen consecutive seasons of 1,000 or more rebounds, and remains second all time in both total rebounds and rebounds per game. He is one of just two NBA players (the other being prominent rival Wilt Chamberlain) to have grabbed more than 50 rebounds in a game. [Wiki]

These are staggering stats. And Russell often saved his best play for his monster rival Wilt Chamberlain, who, almost at times unstoppable, once scored 100 points in a game. According to a Chicago Tribune comparison,

According to the numbers, Chamberlain won far more individual battles against Russell than he lost. But Russell usually won the war. His Celtics were 87-60 against Chamberlain`s teams. And Russell won those 11 rings to Chamberlain`s two.

I saw them play against each other on TV only a few times. They were fierce competitors and went at each other with passion, including a bench-clearing brawl between them in the 1966 Eastern Conference.

But the real enemy Bill Russell had all his life was Racism. He shared that much with Wilt the Stilt. In a scene Russell never forgot, he was refused hotel rooms while traveling with his NBA teammate — first in Dallas, where Russell spat on the hotel proprietor after the snub, and then in segregated North Carolina. As John Taylor puts it in The Rivalry: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and the Golden Age of Basketball (2005),

It enraged Russell to think that he was living in a society that simultaneously celebrated his athletic accomplishments and considered him inferior because of race, to realize that not only did a large portion of the population hate him for his skin color but that this hatred inescapably seeped into his own view of himself.

Russell wrote later in his memoir, Go Up for Glory, of the evil he faced as a man off the court:

It stood out, harsh and unyielding, a wall which understanding still cannot penetrate.

You are a Negro. You are less.

It covered every area. A living, smarting, hurting, smelling, greasy substance which covered you. A morass to fight from.

This double-consciousness — champion and scum — later radicalized Russell and he briefly went by the name Felton X and was one of the first to show public support for Muhammad Ali, then on the ropes for his refusal to be drafted to fight the “yellow man.”

Boston was an especially harsh reality for Russell, with its contradictions. The Celtics were green and Irish and their logo was a fighting leprechaun and suited the poor white neighborhoods of Boston, particularly Southie and C-town, who hated “blue blood” attitudes and economic divisions, and who wore Bobby Sands t-shirts and “supported” the plight of the pre-U2 northern Irish in their battles to oust the British from Londonderry. Unfortunately for the legacy of that Noble Cause (fuck Cromwell!), these same liberating neighborhoods were teeming with yahoos who also hated “niggahs” as much as, if not more, than they hated the far-flung British. And when bussing came to desegregate schools, these Green activists threw red bricks at yellow buses full of Black kids like the IRA threw sticks of dynamite at the marching Orangemen.

Probably after Russell’s support of Ali’s plight and subsequent stripping of his championship, the FBI opened a file (the first step in a person of interest dossier) on the Big Guy. In the file it was observed by one of Hoover’s henchmen, who had blithely invited MLK to commit suicide or they’d tell everybody he’d had dreams with other women, that Russell was “an arrogant Negro who won’t sign autographs for white children.” Locals began to resent his apparent aloofness and seeming uppitiness, and some regarded him as a “reverse-racist.” This decrepit attitude reached its full flower when, while out of town from his home in Reading, some rascals broke into his home and raped it, writing “nigga’ on the walls, breaking his trophies, ransacking, and, the poup de grace, dropping a deuce on his bed, under the covers, for the surprise effect. (Can Trump account for his whereabouts at this time?) This incident and others are summed up in a tweet by Russell’s daughter shortly after his death.

Russell went through some hard yakka in Boston and was hard done by, I reckon. The Boston sportswriters helped shape the perception of Russell’s character. (Imagine being profiled by someone like that halfwit and full-time sot Dan Shaughnessy?) But as he said in Taylor’s book, frankly, “You owe the public the same it owes you, nothing! I refuse to smile and be nice to the kiddies.” As teammate and fellow Hall of Famer, Tommy Heinsohn, put it years later, Russell brought Boston 11 championships in 13 years and when Boston added a third tunnel under the harbor they named it the Ted Williams tunnel rather than the Bill Russell tunnel. Just as well, probably, as there was a fatal partial collapse of the tunnel’s ceiling, and had they named it after Russell locals would have had one more opportunity to irrationally hate on the Big Guy. Hell, he retired as a player in 1969 and Boston didn’t get around to putting up a statue until 2013 outside City Hall, site of the flag-stabbing of a Black man in 1977.

Part of the paradox of Russell’s contentious dealings with the public and press in Boston was the fact that Coach Red Auerbach and the Celtics organization were racially progressive at time when the nation was still resisting Civil Rights legislation that would guarantee Black equal opportunity — and voting rights. In a later interview, Russell himself acknowledged the Celtic difference — for himself and the league:

The Celtics were the first [NBA basketball] team to draft a black player, period: … [a] guy named Chuck Cooper from Duquesne … The first team to start five black players was the Boston Celtics … The first [NBA organization] to hire a black [head] coach was the Boston Celtics … and [they’ve] had at least five [black head-coaches] over the years.

In 2010, President Barack Obama awarded Russell the nations’ highest civilian honor — the Presidential Medal of Freedom — citing his professional success and civil rights work. Just five years ago, Bill Russell, at the age of 83, showed his support for NFL players who were then “taking a knee” during the national anthem, by doing so himself, wearing his Medal of Freedom.

Bill Russell was a champion of champions, a Man among men, and when cops were taking knees on necks to celebrate their fascism and give us a picture of what plantation life must have been like, Russell took a knee for freedom and dignity.


John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.