Civil Rights Advocate
Despite his fierce dedication to basketball during his career as a player and coach, Bill Russell was keenly aware that there was a world beyond the court. Beginning in the late 1950s, he was an active participant in the struggle by American blacks for full civil rights. Early in his career Russell charged the NBA with maintaining a de facto quota system which limited the number of blacks on each team. In 1963, at the height of the civil rights struggle in the American South, he accepted, uneasily and at great personal risk to himself, a request to travel to Jackson, Mississippi, to organize and lead integrated basketball clinics. Russell was one of the few professional athletes in the United States, black or white, to speak out on civil rights in such a dramatic way in the 1960s. Around the same time, he was the target of racist attacks when he bought a home in white suburban Boston.
Bill Russell has taken stands that have been controversial among fans. For example, he refuses to sign autographs, preferring to shake hands and speak directly to fans and well-wishers. Russell resisted having his number retired by the Celtics in 1972, until Red Auerbach agreed to hold the ceremony without any fans present. In 1974 when he became the first black to be elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame, Russell at first refused to accept the honor. "Aside from racism or my own feelings about the cheers and boos in sports, I don't respect it [the Basketball Hall of Fame] as an institution," he wrote in Second Wind. "Its standards are not high enough. It's too political, too self-serving." He was inducted despite his objections.
Despite the passing of years and the increasing number of fans who never saw him play, Bill Russell remains a basketball icon. In 1980 the Professional Basketball Writers Association named Bill Russell the "Greatest Player in the History of the NBA." In 1996 the NBA voted him one of the top 50 players of all-time. In 1999 cable broadcaster ESPN named him one of the fifty top athletes of the 20th century. Bill Russell was more than simply the greatest defensive player in the history of the basketball, he was an intelligent, thoughtful, deeply honest man, who spoke out when he saw injustice. His courage and dedication provide an example for young athletes everywhere.