From Jackie Robinson to Muhammad Ali to Colin Kaepernick, sociologist and longtime civil rights activist Harry Edwards has seen the historic political moments of sport on and off the pitch for more than 50 years. The civil rights activist, however, is convinced there will ‘never’ be another ‘generational giant’ in the sports world like Bill Russell.
“We are all devastated by the passing of Bill Russell,” Edwards told Andscape in a phone interview on Sunday. “He’s not just a generational phenomenon as an athlete. He’s a lifetime phenomenon as an athlete. Never is a big word in sports. But I never see the possibility of someone of this caliber, of this status, of this integrity, of this dignity and of this intelligence comes back here. It has been a privilege.
Russell died Sunday at age 88, his family announced via social media. The Boston Celtics legend’s children and grandchildren were able to bid farewell on Saturday, a source told Andscape. The 11-time NBA champion had struggled with health issues in recent years, sources said.
Russell was widely considered a pivotal historical figure in NBA history having won 11 times with the Celtics in 13 years, but was equally known for his outspokenness on social justice issues. The two-time Basketball Hall of Famer was the first African-American coach in NBA history and was part of the first all-black starting five.
The Olympic gold medalist was a renowned civil rights activist who led a players’ protest when Celtics players were denied service at a restaurant in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1961 and showed his support for the players of the NFL who knelt during the national anthem in 2017 by posting a photo of himself kneeling on his Twitter account. The five-time NBA MVP also joined civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1967 as they backed boxer Muhammad Ali after refusing to to be drafted into the Vietnam War.
Edwards learned of Russell’s death after receiving a text message Sunday morning from someone speaking on behalf of the NBA legend’s family.
“It wasn’t surprising in the sense that at 88, like all of us in this part of the country, he was struggling with some things,” Edwards, 79, said. “But it’s always wonderful to wake up in the morning and have this kind of news from someone of this caliber, of this importance. Literally, a generational giant in so many different areas of American life, from sports to civil rights to simply upholding the integrity and respect of the institution of the NBA, college basketball, and everything in between.
“He was so for so many people. It’s simply breathtaking, even if everyone, even almost close to him, knew that he had challenges to meet at 88 years old.
The news of Russell’s death was very painful for Red Auerbach’s daughter, Randy, who learned the news through a phone call from her sister Nancy. Red Auerbach was Russell’s only coach in the NBA until he was promoted to player-coach in 1966. While Russell faced racism during his career with the Celtics, today there is a statue in his honor outside Boston City Hall.
“I think of Bill and I hear his laughter,” Auerbach told Andscape. “He had this wonderful belly laugh. I don’t just consider him a great basketball player, but a great man and a man of convictions. The first words that come to mind with his passing are love and respect. My dad and Bill Russell met. They were two complicated people in complicated times, and they seemed to get along. They did not push the limits of their relationship.
Upon hearing the news, Randy Auerbach immediately called Russell’s daughter, Karen Russell, to offer her condolences and a shoulder to lean on. Auerbach said Bill Russell’s death felt like the loss of a family member.
“We are sisters from other parents,” Randy Auerbach said. “We kind of sympathized. I told him there was this split. The world lost Bill Russell, but you lost your father. So you must be very aware of the difference.
Philadelphia/Golden State Warriors patriarch and Hall of Famer Al Attles played against Russell during his NBA days and was saddened by the news of his death. Attles credited Russell with paving the way for black NBA players.
“I’m in a terrible place,” said Attles, 85. “As great as he was as a player, once I got to know him he was a much better person. He did a lot for the Celtics and he blocked my shots. was a wonderful person.
“He opened a lot of doors and doors that you don’t talk about. He touched a lot of people. »
His outspokenness and advocacy extended to his relationship with the Basketball Hall of Fame. Although he was inducted in 1975, Russell refused to attend the ceremony or accept the ring because he believed other African Americans deserved the honor first and there was racism. in the selection process. It wasn’t until 2019 that the Presidential Medal of Freedom winner accepted his ring from the Hall. It came after former NBA forward Chuck Cooper, who became the first African-American to play in an NBA game on Oct. 31, 1950, was inducted into the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2019.
In 2021, Russell was in Springfield, Massachusetts, to attend his second induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame as a coach who made history as the NBA’s first African-American head coach. He led the Celtics to two titles as a player-coach and also coached the Seattle SuperSonics and Sacramento Kings. With health issues and concerns regarding COVID-19, Russell did not attend the press conference and several Hall of Fame activities for the class of 2021.
The Oakland, Calif. native, however, attended the Hall of Fame Celebration and Awards Gala at Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Connecticut, where he received a Hoop Hall Jacket on September 10, 2021. Russell also spent time in a private room in the casino in May 2021 during the weekend of the Class of 2020 Delayed Induction Ceremony, telling stories to much younger fellow Hall of Famers Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ben Wallace and Chris Webber.
Pierce, Garnett, Wallace and Webber sat fascinated, listening to Russell as he spoke wearing a “Stop Asian Hate” t-shirt and baseball cap honoring the late Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant.
“The main thing I remember is the captivating,” Pierce told Andscape last year. “He would tell us stories from when he was playing. He’s still knowledgeable about the game today, even at [his] age. He captivated us all. In the photo, we all listen to it. We are amazed by him.
“We have to cherish all those moments when we go into those types of environments. In the times we live in, you see so many people leaving. So to be surrounded by these types of legends and to have this opportunity is a real honor. I cherish it all.
The Hoop Hall Class of 2021 induction ceremony in Springfield would be the last time the basketball world would see Russell on a public stage. Hall of Fame inductee Chris Bosh said during his speech that he told Webber he was thrilled to be inducted with Russell. After former President Barack Obama’s video speech honoring Russell aired on the Jumbotron, Russell was introduced by fellow Hall of Famers Charles Barkley, Julius Erving, Spencer Haywood, Alonzo Mourning, Bill Walton and Rick Welts.
John Doleva, president and CEO of the Basketball Hall of Fame, said Russell has let it be known that it’s important to him that the museum continues to induct black trailblazers and overlooked legends.
“He saw over time that we were making the right choices in terms of African-American players before him,” Doleva told Andscape in a phone interview. “There was clear broad support for him to be listed as a coach. Being the first African-American coach was something to celebrate. He was a man of few words later in his life, but he enjoyed discreetly what we were doing. But he also made me feel like there was more to do, which I took with enthusiasm.
“It was a joy for him to come back and meet his contemporaries and see the reverent respect and love he received from young players. Bill Russell meant something bigger than basketball to them and they were able to to be in his presence, he had a certain satisfaction knowing that he had had an impact on so many others.