San Francisco Chronicle
Russell a champion of civil rights, not just basketball
When Bill Russell accepted a basketball scholarship from the University of San Francisco, the only school that would offer him one, he found the distance between Oakland’s McClymonds High School to the Hilltop to be greater than he imagined.
“To those of us in West Oakland, San Francisco was an exotic land,” Russell wrote in “Go Up for Glory,” his 1968 memoir. “The Bay Bridge spanned a cultural gap so wide that the two sides had a language barrier. I used to joked that I never knew the word ‘mother’ could be used by itself until I got to San Francisco. Instantly I found myself in a sea of white people.”
He and and his roommate and teammate, K.C. Jones, would go on to win two NCAA titles (1955, 1956), and after being drafted together by the Boston Celtics, Russell would help reshape the NBA, turning it, as sportswriter Bob Ryan put it, “from a horizontal game played by Caucasians to the vertical game we know today.”
“Bill Russell: Legend,” directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Sam Pollard, premieres on Netflix just more than six months after Russell’s death at age 88, and five months after the NBA announced that’s Russell’s No. 6 would be retired across the league — the only player accorded that honor.
As the two-part documentary shows, the honor wasn’t just for his basketball prowess but his outspoken activism during the civil rights era. Russell marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and was part of the Cleveland Summit, a meeting of Black athletes — including football star Jim Brown and then-UCLA basketball star Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) — to support Muhammad Ali’s decision to refuse to fight in the Vietnam War.
In 1961, he helped organize a boycott of Black players on the Celtics and St. Louis Hawks of an exhibition game between the
teams in Lexington, Ky., after the men were refused service at a Lexington restaurant. As late as 2017, Russell posted a photo of him kneeling on Twitter in support of then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
On the court, he was part of the NBA’s first all-Black starting five, which included Jones, in a game at St. Louis in 1964; and, as the Celtics’ player-coach after the great Red Auerbach retired, became the NBA’s first Black coach. He won two NBA titles as playercoach, adding to the nine he won with the Celtics under Auerbach.
Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry and activist Harry Edwards, a UC Berkeley sociology professor emeritus who has devoted his career to chronicling the experience of Black athletes, are among those who sit for Pollard’s camera. Others include past and present basketball stars Shaquille O’Neal, Bill Walton, Magic Johnson, Jerry West, Chris Paul and Jayson Tatum.
Russell appears in many archival interviews over the years, and words from his memoirs are narrated by actor Jeffrey Wright.
Pollard does a good job of detailing how Russell changed the game defensively as the first master of the blocked shot, and how at USF he and Jones developed a mathematical theory of the game.
“We decided that basketball is basically a game of geometry, of lines, points and distances,” Russell wrote. “I had been daydreaming of solo moves, but he liked to work out strategies. K.C. had an original basketball mind, and he taught me how to scheme to make things happen, particularly on defense.”
On offense, Curry says Russell told him he would “always pick a certain move in his head and visualize it over and over and over again before he actually went out and tried it. He studied the game so diligently.”
Pollard also explores Russell’s epic rivalry with Wilt Chamberlain; his often contentious relationship with Celtics fans and the media; and his post-playing career ups and downs. Through the years, Russell seemed reluctant to accept his status as a pioneer, even refusing to attend his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975.
“I consider professional basketball as marking time,” Russell wrote. “But the contribution I’d like to make as a person, to my kids and little Black kids all over the world, is to make life better so their ambitions aren’t stilted when they face the world.”
He did far more than he ever took credit for, that’s for sure.