Saturday, July 1, 2017

KineSophy Hall of Fame: Bill Russell

This month features the fourth inductee into the KineSophy Hall of Fame: basketball legend and social activist Bill Russell. The KineSophy Hall of Fame recognizes real-life individuals who exemplify the ethics of human movement. Previous inductees include Aristotle and Serena and Venus Williams.

Bill Russell in his early playing days
William Felton Russell was born February 12, 1934, in Monroe, Louisiana. Growing up in the segregated South where lynchings were still common, Russell also battled multiple illnesses as a child. When he was ten, his father Charlie became tired of the persistent racism and scant job prospects of Louisiana and moved the family to Oakland, California. Yet as migrant black families like the Russells moved into west Oakland, white families moved out, recreating segregation in the Bay Area.

In 1946, Russell's mother Katie passed away. His mother had always supported him and challenged him to succeed academically. Russell was distraught after her death and retreated into his studies. He was not much of an athlete until late in his high school career. He struggled for playing time on the varsity basketball team until finally earning a starting role as a senior.

But Russell had also grown to 6'9" tall and he walked on to the University of San Francisco basketball team in 1952. Two years later, he had earned an athletic scholarship. He led the team to fifty-six straight wins and consecutive NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956 and averaged 20.7 points and a whopping 20.3 rebounds per game in his collegiate career. A burgeoning athlete, Russell was also a sprinter and high jumper on the USF track and field team.

Unfortunately, Russell's athletic accomplishments did not shield him from racism. When USF played in a 1954 tournament in Oklahoma City, the city’s downtown hotels turned away the team's black players. In a show of solidarity, the whole team opted to room in an empty dormitory. On the court, Russell said he quickly realized that black players would be denied individual recognition, so he decided to focus on what he could control—helping his teams win.

Russell's collegiate success did earn him a spot on the 1956 Olympic team that won a gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Melbourne. The NBA's Boston Celtics drafted him in the same year, and Russell joined the team following his Olympic commitment. Russell averaged 14.7 points and 19.6 rebounds per game in his rookie season. More importantly, his defensive prowess and unselfishness began to revolutionize the way basketball was played. His teammate Bob Cousy described Russell's play as a rookie as "the greatest physical act I've ever seen on a basketball floor." In his first NBA season, the Celtics finished with the league's best record and won the NBA title. The victory continued a trend for Russell, who went on to win a total of eleven titles in twelve NBA Finals appearances during his thirteen-year career.

At the same time, Russell continued to confront racism and injustice in sports and society. He spoke out against the bias against black players in professional basketball (there were only fifteen when he entered the league). In 1961, the Celtics visited Lexington, Kentucky for an exhibition game. When a local restaurant turned away Russell and his black teammates, they boycotted the game. At a time when black athletes were still a significant minority and whites had the tacit expectation that blacks would play ball and keep quiet, Russell and his teammate's response offered a ground-breaking statement.
"Because people like Bill were willing to come here and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with us, we knew we could change all of those silly laws."
In June 1963, civil rights advocated Medgar Evers was assassinated in Jackson, Mississippi. Fresh off his fifth straight NBA title and third consecutive MVP award, Russell phoned Evers' brother Charles and asked how he could help. Charles Evers asked Russell to fly to Jackson and help him open Mississippi's first integrated youth basketball camp.

"It was totally segregated down here then," Evers said later. "We couldn’t drink out of the water fountains because we were Negroes. We couldn’t use the restroom facilities because we were Negroes. We couldn’t even register to vote. But because people like Bill were willing to come here and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with us, we knew we could change all of those silly laws."

Russell received several death threats for running the camp. Klansmen stood across the street from the basketball courts. But, Evers said, "we had a few white kids come to that camp. That’s the kind of respect even some of the white folks had for Bill Russell. The camp was a success."

In his typical quiet fashion, Russell declined to elaborate on the experience saying only, "It was just something I felt I had to do."

The following year, the Celtics became the first NBA team to start an all-black lineup. Following the 1966 season, Russell became player-coach of the Celtics and the first African-American coach of a major professional sports team. He led the Celtics to championships in 1968 and 1969 before retiring.

By the end of his playing career, Bill Russell had won thirteen collegiate and professional championships and an Olympic gold medal in the span of fifteen years. He earned five league MVP awards and ranks second all-time in career rebounds. Many basketball historians believe Russell would hold the career mark for blocked shots had the statistic existed during his playing career. He was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in 1975. In 2010, President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor available to American citizens.

Russell at his Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony
Russell helped revolutionize the game of basketball. Before him, basketball teams looked for shorter, quicker (and predominately, white) players who excelled at scoring and creating offense. Russell moved the game above the rim, leaping to snatch rebounds and block shots (instead of keeping his feet on the floor to avoid having an offensive player drive by him, which was the conventional wisdom of the time). His game combined athleticism and intellect, from his shot-blocking prowess to his ability to anticipate how a missed shot would carom off the rim and move quickly to capture the rebound.

At the same time, Russell helped usher in the second American revolution that aimed to ensure equal rights for African-Americans. Russell's Celtics' teammate Don Nelson once told the Boston Herald:

"There are two types of superstars. One makes himself look good at the expense of the other guys on the floor. But there's another type who makes the players around him look better than they are, and that's the type Russell was."

Whether on or off the court, Russell has never been concerned with making himself look good. He is a deeply principled man who always sought to do what he believed was right. As a result, he managed to improve the lives of everyone around him, regardless of race. He made his teammates look better than they were and he showed society for exactly what it was so that it could become better too.

For his personal convictions, integrity and influence on and off the basketball court, KineSophy inducts Bill Russell into its Hall of Fame.