Black History Month

Bill Russell: How historic success as the league's first Black coach paved the way for others

On April 17, 1966, with the Boston Celtics just four wins away from their eighth straight NBA title, they took the floor to host Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers.

While they would eventually go on to win the series, that first win didn't come in Game 1. Instead, the Lakers earned a 133-129 win to steal homecourt advantage and put pressure on the Celtics, who were in the process of making history in more ways than one.

After Game 1, Hall of Fame head coach Red Auerbach formally announced that at the conclusion of the series, Bill Russell would be succeeding him as the team's head coach. While it was known that the 1965-66 season would be Auerbach's last as a head coach, the choice to appoint Russell is what has had a lasting effect over the last six decades.

Russell, who was in his 10th season in the NBA as a player, was set to become the first Black coach in league history, doing so as a player-coach, which wasn't as uncommon as you'd think.

This choice came in the year 1966, where American Jim Crow Laws had only recently been formally abolished, yet the after-effects of governmentally-enforced segregation permeated throughout the nation as if such rules were still in place. Just one month prior to Auerbach's announcement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood in front of an audience at Southern Methodist University and spoke on integration, acknowledging that "we have come a long, long way but we still have a long, long way to go."

As groundbreaking of a moment as this was, Russell was actually not Auerbach's first choice as a successor - nor his second or third, for that matter. It was after three of Auerbach's former players in Frank Ramsey, Bob Cousy and Tom Heihnson had different reservations about taking the job that Russell was chosen.

MORE: The history behind the first all-Black starting five

Now, that point isn't to diminish Russell's achievement or to criticize Auerbach, who has had a hand in some of the most groundbreaking moments of integration in league history, but rather a point to illustrate that had it not been for three white candidates turning down the job, we might not have seen Russell the opportunity to blaze a trail in the manner that he did.

Be that as it may, Russell proved to be the right choice.

"I wasn't offered the job because I am a Negro," Russell said to reporters of succeeding Auerbach. "I was offered it because Red figured I could do it."

Not only could Russell do the job, he was also exceptionally fit for it. In his first season as player-coach, he led the Celtics to a 60-21 record, but the team's historic title streak would come to an end as they fell to the Philadelphia 76ers in the East Finals.

Over the next two seasons, however, Russell compiled a 102-62 regular season record while leading Boston to back-to-back NBA titles in 1968 and 1969. After defeating the Lakers in seven games in the 1969 Finals, Russell would step away from the game, both as a player and a coach, but his mark had been made.

With the first Black coach in league history winning two titles in three years - while serving as his team's defensive anchor, no less - the barrier had been broken for others to follow suit.

The 1969-70 season saw two more important figures - Lenny Wilkens and Al Attles - take over as player-coaches of their respective teams, the Seattle SuperSonics and San Francisco Warriors. Then, in the 1971-72 season, Earl Lloyd became the first Black coach to be hired as a full-time head coach when he was hired by the Detroit Pistons.

MORE: Earl Lloyd is one of the league's most important trailblazers

While Lloyd didn't experience much success at the helm in Detroit, his successor, Ray Scott, became the first Black coach to earn Coach of the Year honours after leading the Pistons to a 50-32 record in the 1973-74 NBA season. One season later, Attles, who had retired as a player, would lead the Golden State Warriors to the 1975 NBA title, following Russell as the second Black coach to lead a team to a title and the first to do so as a full-time head coach.

In 1979, Wilkens followed Attles as the third Black head coach to lead a team to an NBA title when the Sonics defeated the Washington Bullets for their first and only championship. Wilkens, who coached nearly 2,500 games, is the second-winningest coach in NBA history with 1,332 victories to his name.

In total, four of the NBA's first six Black head coaches - Russell, Attles, Wilkens and K.C. Jones - would go on to win a title at some point in their coaching career. Of the other two, Scott earned Coach of the Year honours and Lloyd was a trailblazer in his own right.

This almost-instant guaranteed success both confirmed that Black coaches were deserving of the opportunities they had long been denied while subsequently serving as a reminder of the level of excellence that Black coaches must quickly reach to be deemed successful.

That these coaches each brought great success to their respective franchises opened the door for more and more Black coaches to blaze trails in their own way.

54 years have passed since Russell first assumed player-coach duties of the Celtics, and the NBA has seen over 70 Black head coaches grace the sidelines for at least one game. This season, there are seven Black head coaches leading their teams, five of whom were in action on the day in which we honoured Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Black head coaches in the 2020-21 season
Name Team Age Seasons
J.B. Bickerstaff Cleveland Cavaliers 41 5
Dwane Casey Detroit Pistons 63 12
Tyronn Lue LA Clippers 43 5
Lloyd Pierce Atlanta Hawks 44 3
Doc Rivers Philadelphia 76ers 59 22
Stephen Silas Houston Rockets 47 1
Monty Williams Phoenix Suns 49 7

Lloyd Pierce, who is in his third season at the helm in Atlanta, has set a goal to lead a young and talented Hawks roster to the postseason for the first time in his coaching career. The team has built a roster worthy of playoff contention and it's now only a matter of things coming together as the season progresses.

Casey is one of nine Black coaches to be named Coach of the Year in the award's history. After a successful tenure as the lead man of the Toronto Raptors, Casey is tasked with leading a youth resurgence in Detroit, which will be largely dependent on the development of an extremely young roster.

When thinking of resurgence, you have to look at the job that Williams is doing in leading a franchise-wide culture shift in Phoenix in just his second season at the helm. He's got the Suns looking like a legitimate title contender early on in the season, which is a big step for a team that has failed to qualify for the postseason in each of the last 10 years.

The MLK Day slate also featured teams led by Bickerstaff and Silas, which are familiar names in the basketball coaching world as they are both second-generation head coaches. J.B. Bickerstaff's father, Bernie, coached nearly 1,000 games in his career while Stephen Silas' father, Paul, coached just under 900 games with four different franchises.

Bickerstaff and Silas are in situations that are similar yet different, as the Cavaliers and Rockets franchises are each in interesting places. With changes abound in their respective situations, they, too, have the task of shifting things for the betterment of a franchise's future.

Almost coincidentally, Lue and Rivers, who worked together last year, are the two coaches whose teams weren't in action. Leaders of teams with very real title aspirations, Lue and Rivers are also two of eight active championship-winning coaches and two of just six Black coaches to lead their team to an NBA title.

Nearly 25% of the NBA's head coaches are Black, placing the league far ahead of other major North American professional sports with respect to diversity. Still, there is more work to be done from a representation standpoint in a league in which over 80% of players are Black.

In the late 1960s, Russell's accomplishments cracked the door open and as time has progressed, that crack continues to widen, making way for the next generation of Black coaches diligently working towards their first head coaching opportunities.

Look throughout various NBA coaching staffs and names like Sam Cassell, Adrian Griffin, Darvin Ham, Charles Lee, Jamahl Mosley, Ime Udoka, Wes Unseld Jr. and David Vanterpool often come up when coaching vacancies present themselves. And from the college ranks, it's only a matter of time before Dayton's Anthony Grant or Michigan's Juwan Howard makes the leap to find continued success at the professional level.

To again quote Dr. King, we've come a long, long way and still have a long, long way to go but can't help but be encouraged by the direction in which we are heading.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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