ON A BRIGHT and otherwise perfect afternoon at Fenway Park, just before the start of Sunday’s game, the PA announcer shared the news of Bill Russell’s passing. Many, if not most, had not yet heard.
As one commenter recounted, “The sound the crowd made was one I’ve never encountered before. Gasps of shock and surprise — mixed with a collective, momentary expression of pain and grief. Not a cry, exactly, but if loss had a sound, this was it.” He went on to describe the ensuing moment of silence as “long, sincere, and utterly quiet.”
What a difference a generation makes. A half century earlier, Bill Russell had been mercilessly taunted by fans with racial epithets. Burglars spray painted the n-word on the walls of his home and defecated in his bed. When he reported harassment, the police would rarely lift a finger.
Today, Bill Russell is rightfully regarded as Boston sports royalty. Revered for his athletic accomplishments, including 11 NBA championships in 13 years, two NCAA titles and an Olympic gold, he was also, as President Barack Obama called him, a “civil rights trailblazer.” And the city, while not fully free of the vitriol I saw when I arrived in the mid-70s during busing, is more inclusive, vibrant, and multicultural than ever before.
As I reflect on Russell’s life and legacy, I could not help but think about the important role his legendary coach, Arnold “Red” Auerbach, played in securing that legacy. While many tributes have rightly focused on Russell’s civil rights advocacy and basketball prowess, at this inflection time in our history, we can’t overlook the role allyship played—and still plays—in helping creating change.
Certainly, the 6’9” Louisiana native’s work ethic and dedication to his craft would have made him a success even without the Brooklyn-born Jewish coach who had spent much of his life in Washington, DC. But would Russell have been able to break as many barriers and set as many records in 1950s Boston without someone opening the door? I’m not so sure.
Their relationship was built on mutual admiration and respect almost the moment Russell was drafted in 1956. In Russell’s first NBA game, Auerbach yelled ferociously at the referee for calling an illegal goal-tend on Russell for a clean block, causing the center to later remark, “First time that I had a coach who went to bat for me.” Auerbach told him, “Russ, loyalty is a two-way street. I can’t expect my players to fight for me if I won’t fight for them.”
Later in the season, when Russell invited Auerbach to his house for dinner, despite a no-dinner-at-players’-houses rule, the coach accepted because he was savvy enough to recognize Russell might have been insulted if he had said no. And at the end of their first season together, Auerbach offered much-needed comfort to his star, telling Russell he was the game’s best player, saying, “I know you knew that but … I want you to know that I know.”
Russell wasn’t the first Black player Auerbach had taken under his wing. While the later Celtics dynasty of the 1980s would be known as the “white” NBA team with Larry Bird leading the way, Auerbach had drafted the first Black player in the history of the NBA, Chuck Cooper – passing over local favorite (and eventual Celtic great) Bob Cousy. In 1964, Auerbach surrounded Russell with the first all-Black starting five, violating the unwritten “gentlemen’s agreement” to have at least one white player on the court at all times.
While Russell would speak out on behalf of Muhammad Ali and marched with Dr. King, the only time he remembered Auerbach addressing issues of race and diversity was to share his own experience with prejudice. Recounting how one basketball writer once threatened to run the coach out of town for drafting Cooper over Cousy, Auerbach said he was told, “You’re a Jew. And we don’t like Jews.” The story only bonded the two more closely.
When Auerbach chose Russell to succeed him as the first Black coach in the NBA, he refused to look over his protégé’s shoulder. In fact, Auerbach had put so much distance between himself and his successor that Russell had to virtually beg him to come to practice to offer his opinion. Russell would go on to win two titles as a player-coach in three seasons.
Bill Russell’s accomplishments are his own. That the NBA today is the only professional sport in which superstar Black athletes can stand up to the mostly white billionaire owners to play on the teams of their choosing, with the teammates they want, is a tribute to Bill Russell – and a reminder that his are the shoulders upon which Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Steph Curry, and every other basketball player stands.
But making so much of it possible was Red Auerbach’s allyship – his courage to challenge racial norms, and his cultural intelligence and conviction to do what’s right. As we honor Bill Russell’s legacy in Boston, in sports, and in our country, so, too, should we raise a glass to the quintessential white male ally who believed in him. Celtic pride, indeed.
Colette A.M. Phillips is president and CEO of Colette Phillips Communications, Inc., a diversity, equity, and inclusion-focused public relations firm based in Boston.