On his 79th birthday, we celebrate the legendary Bill Russell in our Game Changer series. As a key component to the 50’s and 60’s era Boston Celtics, Bill Russell made a name as one of the best big men to play the game. He is often considered the first black basketball superstar in the NBA.
Though many know of his amazing play, few are aware of his three-year stint as a player-coach. In 1966 Russell became the first black NBA coach and first black coach in any professional sport. His time as player-coach with the Boston Celtics led to two more NBA Championships in ’68 and ’69. During his years with the Celtics, he often dealt with intense racism from fans and media, and developed a deep contempt for the city of Boston, which was one of the most racist cities in the northern United States at the time. His reputation while in Boston was largely based in his belief that many whites around him were insincere in their attempts to speak or befriend him. And he was often labeled “an uppity Negro.” Though it should be noted that later in his life, both Russell and the city of Boston have made strides to repair the broken relationship with the legend and the city where he brought so many championships.
In 2011, Bill Russell was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his efforts in the Civil Rights Movement both on and off the court.