The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Bill Russell—Basketball Great and Fighter against Racism

Aug 15, 2022

Bill Russell, one of basketball’s all-time greats and an outspoken fighter against racism, has died.

On the court, Russell was a dominant force at every level. He led his college team, the University of San Francisco, to two national championships in 1955 and 1956. He also won an Olympic gold medal with the U.S. team in 1956. He went on to win 11 championships with the Boston Celtics, including eight in a row. Russell became the first black head coach of any American major sports league when he became player-coach for the Celtics from 1966—69. The team won two of its championships with him as coach.

He brought athleticism to the center position and excelled even more on defense and rebounding than offense. He averaged 22.5 rebounds and 15 points per game. He was a tremendous shot blocker, though the number is unknown because the league did not keep statistics on it at the time.

Yet despite all the success he brought to his teams, he faced racism even from his team’s own fans and white teammates. He and other black teammates often heard taunts from fans in Boston. Racists once broke into his home in Reading, Massachusetts, and sprayed racist epithets on the walls and left feces in his bed.

Once, when the Celtics traveled to Lexington, Kentucky for a game against the St. Louis Hawks, Russell and his black teammates were denied service at the restaurant of the hotel where they stayed. Russell led a strike against the game, but the white players played the game. Bob Cousy, one of those teammates who was himself a great player, admitted he was later ashamed that he failed to support Russell’s cause.

Russell was active in the civil rights movement. He took part in the March on Washington in 1963. Later that year, when Medgar Evers was assassinated, he offered his help to Evers’ older brother, Charles, in Jackson, MS. He took up Charles Evers’ proposal that he set up an integrated basketball camp, despite facing death threats for doing so.

When Muhammad Ali spoke out against the Vietnam War and received threats, Russell expressed his support for Ali, along with football great Jim Brown and basketball star Lew Alcindor, later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

After a less successful run as head coach with the Seattle Supersonics, Russell brought his great sense of humor and knowledge of the game to professional basketball broadcasts as a TV commentator. He continued to speak out against racism, supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and Colin Kaepernick’s protest efforts in pro football.

Bill Russell will long be loved and remembered, not just as a great athlete, but for using his well-earned fame to fight for the rights of others.