Basketball Legend Bill Russell: Fans Yelled N-Word, ‘Go Back To Africa’ During Celtics Games
Bill Russell is one of the most respected basketball legends — on and off the court. Throughout his career with the famed Boston Celtics, he was an outspoken activist. After he retired, his activism continued and more often than not, it has made him the target for harassment.
Russell, who has been called more than once the “smartest player ever to play the game of basketball,” recently detailed the racist behavior he was subjected to throughout his time in the game — even in his home court.
The Celtics was the first team in NBA history to have an all-Black starting five when Russell, Willie Naulls, Satch Sanders, Sam Jones and K.C. Jones played together on Dec. 26, 1964, against the Hawks, according to Bleacher Report.
Russell played 13 seasons in the NBA, all of them with the Celtics. He led his team to 11 championship victories, which gives him the most titles of any player in NBA history. Russell was selected to 12 All-Star teams during his time as a player. He also won five NBA MVP awards, was a three-time All-NBA First Team selection, an eight-time All-NBA Second Team selection, and a four-time NBA rebounding champion, Sports Casting reported.
Russell later became the NBA’s first Black head coach, starting in 1966. He won two of his 11 career titles as a player-coach in 1967-68 and 1968-69.
Needless to say, he played the game well. But he was never one to play along to get along.
Russell joined the Boston Celtics in December 1956, two months into the season because he had been competing in the Olympics. The team had had a Black player before him, Chuck Cooper, “but when I arrived, I was the only Black person on a team of white guys,” Russell wrote in Slam.
“The Boston Celtics proved to be an organization of good people––from Walter Brown to Red Auerbach, to most of my teammates. I cannot say the same about the fans or the city. During games, people yelled hateful, indecent things: ‘Go back to Africa,’ ‘Baboon,’ ‘Coon,’ ‘Nigger.’ I used their unkindness as energy to fuel me, to work myself into a rage, a rage I used to win,” Russell recalls.
Despite this, Russell pushed for his team to add more Black players. “A few years later we had a handful of Black men on the team,” he wrote. “There were still only about 15 Black men playing in the League, so I complained about there being a quota, a cap to how many Black players could be on the team.
“That complaint led to change,” Russell wrote. “The Celtics also ran a poll asking fans how they could increase attendance. More than 50 percent of the fans polled answered, ‘Have fewer Black guys on the team.’ I refused to let the ‘fans’ bigotry, evidence of their lack of character, harm me. As far as I was concerned, I played for the Boston Celtics, the institution, and the Boston Celtics, my teammates. I did not play for the city or for the fans.”
These were just snippets of the racism Russell said he has endured and why he works to fight against racism. During his time with the league, his outspokenness made him not only unpopular with fans but also with the government. The FBI at one point had him under surveillance. In fact, the FBI kept an open file on Russell for many years, Sports Casting reported.
Throughout his career Russell refused to sign autographs and also stated it was not his job to appease openly racist fans or be a role model for children.
According to the New York Times, Russell’s FBI file “specifically identified Russell’s refusal to sign autographs as a point of suspicion,” Sports Casting reported. The FBI also referred to him as “an arrogant Negro who won’t sign autographs for white children.”
To this day, Russell has never backed away for speaking out.
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“But what can we do about it? Racism cannot just be shaken out of the fabric of society because, like dust from a rug, it dissipates into the air for a bit and then settles right back where it was, growing thicker with time,” he wrote.
He continued, “Police reform is a start, but it is not enough. We need to dismantle broken systems and start over. We need to make our voices heard through multiple organizations, using many different tactics. We need to demand that America gets a new rug.”