I noticed while I was watching the Boston Celtics the other night that many of the Celtics were wearing purple sneakers. It took the commentators about 24-hours in back-to-back games to figure out that the sneakers were a special issue sneaker from Nike to honor Black History Month.
Bill Russell was born in 1934 in Monroe, Louisiana which was strictly racially segregated. Russell was not a particularly healthy kid and struggled with illness much of his youth. Like most blacks in the segregated south, Bill Russell’s family was subject to racial prejudice and hatred that wore on the family. Charles Russell, Bill’s father decided to move to Oakland, CA where he found work at a shipyard. In Oaklan, life for the Russell family turned out to be tough. While Charlie found good work, in 1946 his wife, Katie, became quite sick with the flu and died. Russell was grief-stricken by the death of his mother, who’d been his biggest advocate and pushed him to work hard in school. In the wake of her passing he committed himself to his studies.
Bill started playing basketball at school. He was awkward at first but by his senior year at McClymonds High School he was a starter. He was 6’9” and that attracted some attention and as a walk-on tried our for the University of San Francisco and earned a scholarship.
It wasn’t long before the defensively adept Russell proved to be dominating presence, with a scorer’s touch and uncanny ability to rebound. During his three-year varsity career, in which he led the team to consecutive NCAA titles in 1955 and 1956, he averaged 20.7 points per game and 20.3 rebounds. Russell capped his amateur career by leading the U.S. men’s basketball team to the gold medal at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.
That same year, in the NBA draft, the Boston Celtics orchestrated a deal with the St. Louis Hawks and traded for the draft rights to the young center. The team’s coach, Red Auerbach, coveted Russell as the missing piece to what he believed could be a championship roster.
With Russell anchoring the middle of the floor, the Celtics finished with the best record in the league in 1957, and went on to win the title over the Hawks in a tense seven-game series. It was the start of an unprecedented championship run for Russell and the Celtics. Over 12 years, the team played in 11 NBA finals, winning 10 of them. Even against more physically imposing centers, like Wilt Chamberlain, Russell was a defensive and rebounding force. Five times he was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player, and his 21,620 rebounds are second only to Chamberlain’s career mark.
Even as he won on the court, Russell, an outspoken backer of the civil rights movement, experienced his struggles off it. He was never embraced by Boston fans in the way his white teammates were. On the road it was not uncommon for him to have to sleep in a different hotel from the one the rest of the club used.
Playing in the wake of pioneers like Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper, and Sweetwater Clifton, Russell was the first African American player to achieve superstar status in the NBA. He also served a three-seasons (1966–69) stint as player-coach for the Celtics, becoming the first African American NBA coach. For his accomplishments in the Civil Rights Movement on and off the court, Russell was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2011.
Russell is a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. He was selected into the NBA 25th Anniversary Team in 1971 and the NBA 35th Anniversary Team in 1980, and named as one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History in 1996, one of only four players to receive all three honors. In 2007, he was enshrined in the FIBA Hall of Fame. In 2009, the NBA announced that the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player trophy would be named the Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award in honor of Russell. Russell attended the final game of the Finals that year to present his newly christened namesake award to its winner, Kobe Bryant.