SI:AM | Bill Russell’s Legacy

SI:AM | Bill Russell’s Legacy

Published August 2, 2022
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The word “legend” gets thrown around a lot to describe former athletes. But in the case of Bill Russell, legend is an understatement. Russell, who died yesterday at 88, was as much of an icon off the court as he was on it.

Russell’s basketball achievements are well known: five MVP awards, 12 All-Star selections, a 55-game college winning streak, two NCAA championships and 11 NBA titles. But his efforts to make the world a better place were equally worthy of praise. He was actively involved in the civil rights movement and remained committed to social justice throughout his entire life. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 by Barack Obama and in ’17 posted a photo on Twitter of himself wearing the medal around his neck and kneeling in solidarity with NFL players who were enduring attacks from Republican politicians over their peaceful protests.

Jack McCallum wrote in his obituary of Russell that the Celtics great’s activism was informed by his upbringing. Born in Monroe, La., Russell’s family left the South when he was 9 after being subjected to racist taunts on a routine basis and settled in Oakland:

Russell was just 9 when his parents arrived in Oakland, and so he had only a minor sense of the Jim Crow indignities that his parents had suffered in Louisiana. Charles Russell had a shotgun stuck in his face at a gas station, and Katie was told by a policeman to go home and change because she was wearing “white women’s clothing.” But the son came to know heartache and hard times on his own (his mother died when he was 12), and he would come to know virulent racism, too, especially after he arrived in 1950s Boston, a city that in some ways was not unlike Monroe, La.