Bill Russell with longtime Boston Celtics head coach Red Auerbach. When Auerbach retired he named Russell to take his place, making him the first Black head coach in the NBA. Bill Chaplis/AP hide caption
Russell won more NBA titles than any player in history. All eleven were with the Boston Celtics. As a five-time league MVP, he changed the game, making shot-blocking a key component on defense. And he was a Black athlete who spoke out against racial injustice when it was not as common as it is today.
One day when Bill Russell was 9, he was outside his apartment in the projects in Oakland, Calif. Five boys ran by and one slapped him in the face. He and his mother went looking for the group, and when they found them, young Bill expected mom justice. Instead, Katie Russell said: Fight them, one at a time. He won two, lost three. In a 2013 interview for the Civil Rights History Project, Russell said his mother’s message to her teary son changed his life.
“And she says, ‘Don’t cry,’ ” Russell said. ” ‘You did what you’re supposed to do. [It] doesn’t matter whether you won or lost. [What matters is] you stood up for yourself. And that’s what you must always do.’ “