It was April 4, 1968.
In just over 24 hours, the city of Philadelphia was set to host Game 1 of the 1968 Eastern Division Finals which at the time stood to be among the most anticipated playoff series in NBA history. One year earlier in the same round, Wilt Chamberlain finally topped Bill Russell en route to the NBA Finals where he eventually won his first championship and ended Boston's run of seven straight titles. The Celtics - hungry to reclaim their spot atop the NBA - were ready for revenge.
Just over 1,600 kilometres due southwest, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the balcony outside his second-story room at the Lorraine Motel just outside of Memphis, Tennessee. The renowned civil rights leader was in town to support a sanitation workers' strike and was on his way to dinner when the bullet struck. Just 39 years old, Dr. King was later pronounced dead after his arrival at a Memphis hospital.
It didn't take long for news of his death to spread. In a time which long predated the internet and social media, radios across the country began broadcasting news of his assassination with television and print media not far behind. In the aftermath of the tragedy, protests and riots sprung up in more than 100 cities across the United States with some lasting in excess of one full year.
Meanwhile, time seemed to stand still at the home of Bill Russell in Reading, Massachusetts, about 26 km from the city of Boston. The Celtics player-coach knew the civil rights activist well having met him face-to-face several years prior in the lead-up to the March on Washington at the hotel where both were staying that night. There in the nation's capital, sitting in the front row, the most decorated player in NBA history would witness along with more than 200,000 people one of the most historic and defining moments of the 20th century as MLK delivered the iconic 17-minute 'I Have A Dream' speech, an impassioned call for social justice in the fight against racism and inequality.
On the eve of his umpteenth confrontation with his biggest rival, Russell's thoughts centered on everything but basketball. What did sports matter in this moment?
The following morning Russell joined his teammates for the short flight to Philadelphia to play Game 1 of their series at The Spectrum where one day prior - the same day of Dr. King's assassination - the Philadelphia Flyers hosted the St. Louis Blues in Game 1 of their NHL playoff series. Before taking off, the Celtics held a vote about whether or not to play that night. Despite their star's reservations, Boston proceeded. Upon landing in Philadelphia and still five hours before tip-off, Russell commented to the media that all he could think about was the murder of Dr. King.
Delicate and tenuous would be an understatement as the unrest and violence which came after the events in Memphis magnified the pervasive race issues deeply embedded in much of society. Sport and the NBA never sat on the sidelines of racism which was even more evident on every trip to the south where everywhere from restaurants to hotels to arenas "welcomed" African-American players as second-class citizens.
The Celtics represented an oasis of sorts within professional sports. The first franchise to line up five African-American players simultaneously in one game (Satch Sanders, Sam Jones, KC Jones, Willie Naulls and Russell), the first franchise to have an African-American coach (Russell) and an organization where racial integration was normative and not flashy. At the centre of it all? Russell, the five-time MVP who in 2011 would be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in part due to his efforts in advocating for Civil Rights before, during and after his career.
"He is Bill Russell," wrote Jim Murray in Sporting News in 1965," and he owns the game of basketball as no one ever has."
Meanwhile, over on the 76ers, Chet Walker - a future Hall of Famer and African-American who was born in Mississippi - felt beside himself. The news had left him at a loss for words, another sleepless night listening to the news on the radio until 3 in the morning. At the other end of town, his teammate Hal Greer - fellow future Hall of Famer and African-American born and raised in West Virginia -received the news while dining with his wife, leaving a foreboding phrase: "There is no way we can play tomorrow."
The Celtics roster included seven African-American players. The Sixers featured six. Hours before the scheduled tip, Chamberlain and Russell - the two biggest names in the sport who developed an off-court friendship amidst a fierce on-court rivalry - met and decided to propose postponing the game. The magnitude of the events far surpassed the sport itself and both stars felt that it was not the time to play. Neither were emotionally prepared to take the floor. Their proposal did not take long to reach the ears of both franchises and the league itself, making this a matter of vital importance.
"They wanted to keep people off the streets, or at least delay them," Celtics player Wayne Embry said in 2018. "They thought the stadium would be crowded and people would be glued to television. Of course, our immediate reaction was that we did not want to play the game because we were stunned, in mourning and angry. But we understood that we could also serve a greater purpose." In his 10th season, a former five-time All-Star and yet another future Hall of Famer, Embry was at the time one of the NBA's most respected veteran players.
Join the NBA family in honoring #Juneteenth, the oldest national holiday commemorating emancipation from slavery in the United States. pic.twitter.com/eXWjm5Ssh3- NBA (@NBA) June 19, 2020
Inside the 76ers' locker room and just 20 minutes before the scheduled start, Chamberlain decided that the team should decide for itself whether to play or postpone until Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral took place in Atlanta a few days later. As detailed in John Taylor's book "The Rivalry: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and the Golden Age of Basketball", Chamberlain ordered everyone out of the locker room except the players. While most did not want to play, Greer thought it was too late to call off the game and Walker feared many would view the vote as nothing more than a charade. Ultimately, seven of the 10 players voted to play with Chamberlain and Wali Jones voting against. Walker abstained. "I am just an individual," Chamberlain said at the time. "I don't want to instigate anyone, I follow the majority."
And so on April 5, one day after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and after exhaustive deliberation by players on both teams, the Celtics and 76ers would take the floor and would do so not only in front of a packed Spectrum crowd, but in front of a national television audience on ABC.
"We did what we thought was right at the time." - Bill Russell
What transpired was a playoff game in name only as the 14,412 fans in attendance watched as Celtics and 76ers alike played on while clearly sidetracked and lost in thought. Absent was any of the energy typically on display between the two Eastern Conference rivals. "Shock and discouragement," New York Times chronicler Leonard Koppett would write, adding that it was "the most spooky and gentle sporting event I have ever seen."
Celtics 127, 76ers 118.
On paper, Boston walked away with a 1-0 series lead with the game itself camouflaging the raw emotion, utter confusion and intense sadness present in both locker rooms. John Havlicek led the way for Boston, finishing with 35 points and 11 assists with Russell controlling the defensive end of the floor. Chamberlain filled up the box score as he always did, finishing with 33 points and 25 rebounds while mustering enough to play all 48 minutes. Greer (27) and Walker (31) pitched in to score 58 in a losing effort.
In view of the whole world, it was one more game. For the 13 African-American players on both teams, a painful lesson in professionalism. "We did what we thought was right at the time," Russell would say in conversation with Bill Simmons in 2013.
The display of stoicism that evening did not go unnoticed by NBA offices as Commissioner Walter Kennedy quickly made the decision to delay the start of the next games in both the Eastern and Western Divisions. The reason was clear: to allow all those who wished to attend the memorial service for the late Martin Luther King, to be held in his hometown of Atlanta.
And so Chamberlain and Russell, the two most important and recognizable players in the entire league, traveled on April 9, 1968 to Georgia to pay tribute in person to the most prominent figure in the fight for civil rights in the United States.
The moment served as a turning point for Chamberlain in particular who up until that point had largely remained publicly apolitical, something that would change after the assassination of MLK. "I keep asking myself, what can I do to help the United States, and particularly my people, get to the top of the mountain and see the promised land that Dr. King talked about so many times," Chamberlain said in July of 1968 to the Los Angeles Sentinel. "Something came at me right then and there. As I walked with thousands of people from Ebenezer Baptist Church to his final resting place, I quietly approached former Vice President [Richard] Nixon and told him that I liked his program and wanted to join his team."
At the other end of the spectrum was Russell, a prominent athlete activist who never shied away from participating in calls for social justice. Russell organized a peaceful march in the city of Boston through predominantly African-American districts as part of the NIEU program that aimed to prevent violence on the streets and which was booming at the time in response to the attack on Dr. King.
The two towering icons joined forces and met at the end of the march alongside other sports figures, such as boxer Floyd Patterson, football player Jim Brown and pioneer Jackie Robinson, who broke the racial barrier in baseball.
As for the basketball?
After four days off, the series resumed on April 10 with the 76ers evening the series and eventually taking a 3-1 lead behind the dominant play of Chamberlain who seemed destined to win a second straight title. Following Game 4, the Boston Globe declared the Celtics' season over as up to that point no team had ever come back from a 3-1 deficit. Naturally, Russell found another gear and the Celtics stormed back to win the next three games and sneak into the Finals where they won yet another NBA championship.
The series of events that took place between April 4th and April 10th tested the NBA's resolve in unprecedented fashion as it was forced to meet the moment and navigate a critical juncture in history that impacted the lives of many of its players. This was a league that had taken considerable steps forward in favour of racial integration compared to other major leagues in the United States, promoting African-American stars like Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor, the fledgling Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Walt Bellamy and of course, Chamberlain and Russell. By the end of the decade, 58% of its members were African-American according to research by David Poter. "The NBA led the way, not for some ingenious purpose, but because of the talent of our players and the exposure we were able to give them," Commissioner Emeritus David Stern said wisely for the book Basketball: A Love Story. "They had a tremendous impact on the society. "
The lesson that Russell and Chamberlain offered for the rest of the world to see is that they faced adversity and they did not keep quiet at a time when American society needed strong representative voices within the sport. United they stood and united they spoke, determined that their actions on or off the court would not be done in vein.
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.