By: April Carson
As Bill Russell wrote in his 1979 book Second Wind, sometimes the game felt like magic. "When it happened I could feel my play rise to a new level," he said, describing a feeling that's difficult to put into words. "I could do things I never dreamed of doing."
It is difficult to fathom what a "new level" could be for an immense player like Russell. He improved the game so much that those who played before him and after were in separate universes. As historian Aram Goudsouzian writes, "his defensive mastery transfigured the game’s patterns, compelling a faster and more athletic sport." If basketball was his only Outstanding contribution, Russell, who died on July 31st 2022 at 88 years old would still be remembered throughout history. However, his influential actions spread much further than just his playing skills.
Not only was Russell successful in breaking records throughout his career, but he also broke barriers. According to Goudsouzian, “He became the first black superstar ... Moreover, in the midst of the civil rights movement, basketball prospered with racial integration due to Russell’s efforts and contributions.” Although his college playing days at University of San Francisco were athletically amazing, they didn't hint towards him becoming an outspoken advocate. However, his new college environment did have a large impact on his development.
“Only about 10% of basketball programs at predominantly white schools recruited black players in the 1950s,” according to one account. However, USF's coach, Phil Woolpert, wanted to alter this scenario and "embraced racial liberalism far before his contemporaries," recruiting players from all over the area. Russell and Hal Perry were "the entire black population of the freshman class." Russell teamed up with Sophomore K. C. Jones, who would go on to play for the Boston Celtics, in his first season as a Pirate. The pair bonded over basketball and their “anomalous status,” according to Goudsouzian. Eventually, USF had three Black players starting for the team, which no other major college program had done before; both the team's winning record and the blood pressures of racists rose as a result. Woolpert received death threats and endured racist insults from the crowds; the players were subjected to racial taunting from fans.
According to Goudsouzian, the racism Russell experienced had a profound and lasting effect on his life. He was often described by the press as "a happy-go-lucky Oakland Negro" or "something of a clown," which only served to drive him further and make him try harder. "I decided in college to win," he said later. "That way it's historical fact, and nobody can take that away from me."
In the early 1960s, Russell became involved in many local actions, for example directing a march from Roxbury to Boston Common. As part of Freedom Summer in 1964, he also ran basketball clinics in Mississippi that were open to both Black and white children. In addition, he joined the 1963 March on Washington. Furthermore, in 1967 he supported Muhammad Ali at the famous summit of Black athletes when Ali spoke out against being drafted into war.
In 1966, when Russell took over as coach of the Celtics, he became the first Black head coach of a major US professional sport and added another milestone to his already illustrious career. He never lost sight of his talent as a player or his activist spirit throughout it all. But perhaps his most enduring legacy is that he fought to be recognized for all those qualities—human, athlete, activist—and that none overshadowed the others because they were all part of him. “It's been a long time since I've tried to make anyone believe anything,” Sports Illustrated quoted him as saying in 2004. “I know who I am.”
Bill Russell is a legend. He changed the game of basketball on and off the court, paving the way for future generations of athletes and activists. His career is one of unparalleled success, both as a player and a coach. And yet, Russell always remained humble, never forgetting his roots or the importance of giving back. He is a true role model for all of us.
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About the Blogger:
April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on bossbabymav.com
To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav
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