The Hall of Fame ring that was supposed to be handed to Bill Russell in 1975 but was not is finally in his possession. Surrounded by close friends, including Alonzo Mourning, Ann Meyers and Bill Walton, Russell accepted the ring four decades after the fact. At the time that Russell refused to attend the HOF induction ceremony to pick up his ring very few NBA fans understood why Chuck Cooper, Nat Sweetwater Clifton and Earl Lloyd were tied to Bill Russell’s HOF absence.
Like a ghost, the black pioneers in the league have lingered in the shadows and niches of the game’s history for years, rarely celebrated. Chuck Cooper was the last of the three to be enshrined in the HOF, this past September. So now Russell could accept his ring.
Bill Russell was not the NBA’s first black player. He was the first black superstar and the first black head coach to win a title. He defined a decade and a generation. He won. Over and over and over. The Celtics were the Celtics because of Russell’s grand impact. Yes, Chuck Cooper, Earl Lloyd and Nat Sweetwater Clifton should be household names like the mythology of Jackie Robinson that rolls off of everyone’s tongue. But Bill Russell is on a far greater pedestal than the NBA pioneers. He is African American and elite, the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom because his life’s work is one of significance.
A child that segregation nurtured and angered, Russell watched a white man pull a shotgun on his father because he wouldn’t wait his turn- his turn being last and after white customers. He was a witness to a cop harassing his mother. The cop was infuriated by the dress Mrs. Katie Russell wore which he thought looked like “white woman’s clothing”. He ordered her to go home and take it off.
When it was time for Russell to think about college, he wasn’t recruited. USF (University of San Francisco) was the only one interested but even they were underwhelmed as they only gave Russell high marks for his great instincts and a feel for the game. Russell understood basketball was his way out of poverty, and perhaps, racism.
At USF, Coach Phil Woolpert started three black players and they made history. The first college champion that started three black players. Russell, K.C. Jones, and Hal Perry were perpetually taunted by white fans and when they were on the road they were refused hotel rooms.
Because of the pernicious values of Jim Crow, black players weren’t given the luxury of being the best player on the team, regardless of their talent. It forced Russell to be the ultimate team player.
“My junior year I had what I thought was one of the best college seasons ever. We won 28 out of 29 games. We won the National Championship. I was the MVP of the Final Four. I was first team All American. I averaged over 20 points and 20 rebounds. I was the only guy in college blocking shots. After the season was over, they had a Northern California banquet, and they picked another center as Player of the Year.”
After college, Russell was invited to join the Harlem Globetrotters but was annoyed that the owner of the Globetrotters, a man named Abe Saperstein, refused to talk to him and instead only talked to his college coach. It was one more racial slap in the face. Russell declined the invitation and entered the 1956 NBA Draft.
Russell ended up in Boston because of a lot of Red Auerbach maneuvering. The #1 pick was the property of the Rochester Royals. But they weren’t going to pay Russell’s signing bonus of $25,000. Auerbach offered them the Ice Capades if they didn’t draft Russell. They didn’t. The #2 pick went to the St. Louis Hawks. The Hawks drafted Russell but they really wanted Celtics center Ed McCauley who was a star at the time. He was local and wanted to go back to St. Louis because his son was sick and he wanted to be closer to him.
Auerbach wanted Russell so badly he also gave up Cliff Hagan who wasn’t on the roster yet because of military service.
In those days, All-Stars went on a U.S. tour in the off-season to help market the NBA. In 1958, Russell and teammates were refused hotel rooms in North Carolina, similar to when he was in college and he and Jones and Perry were refused lodging in Oklahoma City.
Each of the racial wounds were like a ladder. One step. You can’t stay here. And then another step. Eat somewhere else ni**er. And then another. You’ll never be good enough. In 1961, Russell was scheduled to play an exhibition game in Lexington, Kentucky and was refused service at a restaurant. Humiliated and in a rage, the black players flew home and skipped the game. Their power in the face of white prejudice was spun as a who do they think they are slight. But for a large group of marginalized people it was be black and proud.
The owner of the Celtics, Walter Brown, gave Bill Russell a huge rookie contract, just a $1,000 less than white All-Star Bob Cousy. Russell adored both Brown and coach Red Auerbach. He wrote “with Red and Walter Brown, I was the freest athlete on the planet. I could always be myself with them and they were always there for me.” The implication was that with other white men he couldn’t be as free. He had a difficult time with journalists and Boston fans who he accused of racism. White fans returned the dislike. They thought Russell was a hypocrite, that his stand on racial bigotry only went in one direction, and that his distrust of them was his prejudice about them.
Russell only had to point to his vandalized house to make his point. The walls were covered in racist filth and the beds were defecated in. Russell said more than once, “The fans could do or think whatever they want. I play for the Celtics. Not for the city of Boston.” The FBI’s file on Russell described him as an arrogant Negro who wouldn’t sign autographs for white children.
Much has changed over the years since the tumult of his Boston days. Russell’s insistence that his jersey be retired in an empty Boston Garden has been, for the most part, forgotten. Russell, as an aged man, is the same as Muhammad Ali, as an aged man. His inconsistencies and his racial trauma have only heightened his humanity. He is a cherished link to a terrible time in history, a time of racial wounds and suffering, some of which continues today.
Many who saw Russell play, they are older too, or they have passed away. The next generation holds Russell as symbolic, even as a myth. The moral man. The revolutionary. Russell turned down his Hall of Fame ring to honor the pioneers of the league. His character is pristine.
Earl Lloyd was the first black player to play in a NBA game. Chuck Cooper was the first black player drafted in the NBA (Celtics). Nat Sweetwater Clifton was the second black player drafted in the NBA (Knicks) and the first to sign a NBA contract.