Celtics legend Bill Russell broke records on the NBA court, and broke down barriers off it


On the one hand, there’s the idea of what America is supposed to be, and on the other, what America really is.” 
—  Bill Russell

Exactly 54 years ago, on October 15, 1966, Bill Russell lined up across from the San Francisco Warriors’ Nate Thurmond to open the Boston Celtics’ 1967 season and tipped off history. With that tip, the 32-year-old Russell was both the starting center for a Celtics team aiming for its ninth consecutive championship and, more importantly, making his debut as the first Black head coach in the history of the NBA.

In so many ways, Bill Felton Russell was and is the backbone of both the Celtics franchise and the NBA. Russell’s complex Boston legacy stretches across the better part of six decades. On the court, his leadership, defensive prowess and shot-blocking were vital to 11 titles. Off the court, Russell has been a forceful voice for racial and social equality, a relentless champion for marginalized Black and Brown people.

We speak of things like the integration of the NBA and Russell debuting as the first African-American head coach like some sort of ancient history. Russell was both one of the greatest athletes in Celtics history, but he still suffered racial abuse in the city he represented. His house was vandalized and racial slurs spray painted on his walls, filth smeared throughout his home. More than half a century later, while racial unrest still sullies the fabric of America, Russell still stands tall in the name of equality. 

Russell taking the clipboard in Boston paved the way for the likes of Golden State’s Al Attles, Seattle’s Lenny Wilkens, and KC Jones. The world has moved forward, but while some of the obstacles have eroded and morphed and shifted, there are still plenty of hurdles to clear. 

There were 10 teams in the NBA when Russell was stacking championships for the Celtics. Fast forward to 2020: At press time, there are only five African-American coaches in a 30-team NBA, a league that is roughly 75% Black. 

The controversy over the hiring of Steve Nash in Brooklyn shined a sobering light on the racial disparity in NBA coaching circles. Tyronn Lue coached his way to a ring in Cleveland just four years ago. Mike Woodson led his Hawks teams to the playoffs year after year and was the last successful coach for the Knicks. Both Lue and Woodson are grinding away as assistants while Nash was handed the Brooklyn job with no high-level coaching experience. 

It’s never simple. The NBA has made a name for itself as the most progressive of the major North American sports, but for a league whose players and fan base are predominately minorities, the dearth of representation in the coaching ranks and front offices is something that needs to be addressed. But how?

“There is no doubt there is more we can do internally, the league and our teams and in terms of our hiring practices,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said during a June conference call.

“The league needs to do a good job, in particular, when it comes to hiring African-Americans at every level in the league. It’s something we have been focused on with our teams.” You can read more on what Adam Silver and NBPA president Chris Paul say on the subject here.

Players have taken notice of the scarcity, as well. According to ESPN, a coalition of players led by Kyrie Irving and Avery Bradley were focusing over the summer on the NBA improving its hiring practices for Black front-office and head-coaching candidates.

What else can be done? There have been talks in some NBA circles of following in the NFL’s footsteps and instituting some sort of Rooney Rule mandating that minorities be interviewed for any open coaching or front office positions. Silver seemed reticent, saying “I’m not sure it makes sense. I’m open-minded if there are other ways to address it.”

Over half a century ago, Bill Russell broke records on the court by winning, and broke barriers by coaching. Russell’s exploits on the court have made him a Celtics legend, his role as a coach has made him an NBA legend, but it is his unending clarion call for justice that makes him a civil rights legend.

As players like Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul, LeBron James, and Jaylen Brown use their platforms to raise awareness and bring to light the plight of marginalized Black and Brown people today, none would be possible if not for the legacy of Bill Russell, a pioneer on the court and on the bench. 

James Holas is a now-defunct NBA blogger who wrote for numerous sites and hosted countless podcasts. Kevin Garnett is his muse, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown his large adult sons. He resides in San Diego and is world renowned for not meeting somebody in Temecula.

Further reading

  • LeBron Said ‘Being Black In America Is Tough.’ Bill Russell Would Agree (WBUR)
  • Avery Bradley: Coalition wants NBA’s plan for black causes before restart (ESPN)
  • New Nets coach Steve Nash admits he has benefited from white privilege: ‘I did skip the line’ (New York Daily News)
  • How the NBA Is Quietly Becoming the Most Progressive Pro-Sports League in America (Global Citizen)