What Made Bill Russell a HeroBreaking News
tags: racism, sports, basketball, Bill Russell
Not many people can make Charles Barkley, the former NBA MVP and legendarily outspoken broadcaster, pipe down. But the NBA icon Bill Russell, who died on Sunday age 88, once called Barkley and did just that.
“He called me. ‘Charles Barkley, this is Bill Russell.’ I said, ‘Oh hey, Mr. Russell,’” Barkley told me. “He said, ‘I need you to shut the fuck up.’ I said, ‘Okay.’”
Russell had seen Barkley on television complaining about how much he paid in taxes. Russell was displeased with Barkley’s comments.
“[Russell] said, ‘Son, let me tell you something,” Barkley said. “‘You grew up poor. You went to public school, and I bet the police came to your neighborhood when somebody called the cops.’ I said, ‘Yes, Mr. Russell.’ He said, ‘Somebody was paying those people, and you didn’t have any money. I don’t ever want to see your Black ass on TV complain about taxes ever again.’ And I never did.”
Russell’s record—11 NBA championships with the Boston Celtics—came to define winning. More than that, though, his fierce dedication to speaking out against racial injustice, his deep sense of integrity and righteousness, has long been considered the gold standard for athlete activism. Today, many Black athletes revere Russell and regard him as their north star.
In 2018, when I was a sports journalist with ESPN, I asked the late Kobe Bryant what he had learned from Bill Russell about leadership. Russell had been the NBA’s first Black head coach, while he was still a player—and he had experienced painful and humiliating racist abuse, even as he built the Celtics into a powerhouse. Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash in 2020, told me:
He was dealing with a lot of racial issues in Boston. Stories of people throwing things at him during the game and yelling crazy things to him on the court. So [I asked him] how did you deal with it? He said, “Well, I internalized it. I felt like the best thing I could do was use that as fuel, as opposed to simply having an emotional outburst at them. I decided to use that as energy to enhance my performance.”
In an article for SLAM magazine in 2020, Russell wrote: “The Boston Celtics proved to be an organization of good people––from Walter Brown to Red Auerbach, to most of my teammates. I cannot say the same about the fans or the city.” Russell endured their calling him “baboon,” “coon,” and “nigger” during games. When Celtics fans were polled about how the team could increase attendance, Russell recalled, more than half responded: “Have fewer Black guys on the team.” And he related that, while he and his family were living in Reading, Massachusetts, a predominantly white town north of Boston, “bigots broke into the house, spray-painted ‘Nigga’ on the walls, shit in our bed.”
The experience seemed only to make Russell more determined to use his voice to bring awareness to this country’s deep-seated racial problems. In 1967, he took part in the Cleveland Summit, a gathering of prominent Black athletes organized by the great NFL running back Jim Brown. Russell was among those who stood in solidarity with the boxer Muhammad Ali, who had been stripped of his heavyweight title and faced charges for refusing to serve in the Vietnam War.
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