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Boston Celtics

Bill Russell: A Civil Rights icon and NBA trailblazer whose impact is still felt to this day

Boston Celtics' legend Bill Russell's NBA accolades speak for themselves.

Playing 13 years in the league, Russell led the Celtics to 11 championships along with five Most Valuable Player awards, 12 All-Star selections and an Olympic gold medal in 1956.

Russell revolutionised the game with his supreme athletic ability, defensive prowess and relentless penchant for winning, cementing himself as one of the greatest players in NBA history.

"He thought that any team he plays on should win every single game," said Russell's Celtics teammate Tom "Satch" Sanders. "So that kind of permeated the whole team. That was Russell's gift."

While his dominance on the court is unmatched in NBA history, his impact off the floor has been felt for generations to come as he continually fought for racial justice in America throughout his playing career. Even still to this day, Russell remains a Civil Rights icon.

In 2011, former United States President Barack Obama awarded Russell with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, describing the Hall of Famer as "someone who stood up for the rights and dignity of all men."

Not only did Russell change the game of basketball, he redefined the role of the Black athlete, utilising his platform for the betterment of others. Fast forward to 2021 where it has become commonplace that NBA players use their voices to provoke social change, with the league's biggest stars like LeBron James, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry and many more taking an active role in the fight for racial justice, following in the footsteps of the Hall of Famer and Civil Rights activist Russell.

Civil Rights leader

Russell was a star in the NBA during the era of Jim Crow - laws designed to marginalise African Americans by denying them education, the right to vote and employment - but the Celtics legend stood tall in the face of racism.

In 1961, Russell led a player protest refusing to play after several Black players on the Boston Celtics were refused service at the Phoenix Hotel coffee shop in Lexington, Kentucky, while they were in town to play the St. Louis Hawks.

"I don't think we ought to play," Russell told his four other Black Celtics teammates Sam Jones, Satch Sanders, K.C. Jones and Al Butler, who met with Russell in his hotel room.

The Hawks' Black players joined them in protest as their white teammates played the game.

When he returned to Boston, Russell told the media, "I will not play any place again under those circumstances."

In 1963, Russell stood alongside Dr. Martin Luther King in the March on Washington and in 1967 he was one of the most vocal players at the Cleveland Summit, a meeting of influential Black athletes joining together in their support of Muhammad Ali.

Ali, the boxing heavyweight champion of the world, faced intense backlash and public scrutiny over his refusal to be drafted for the Vietnam war. Facing jail time and having his boxing titles stripped, Ali was joined by athletes including Russell, NFL stars Jim Brown and Bobby Mitchell, Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and others, holding a press conference in Cleveland.

"It is the first time in four centuries that the American Negro can create his own history," Russell wrote in the 1960s. "To be part of this is one of the most significant things that can happen."

Breaking barriers

In 1964, Russell's Celtics were the first NBA team to ever start five African-American players, 14 years after becoming the first franchise to ever draft an African-American when they selected Chuck Cooper in the 1950 NBA Draft.

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

"I wasn't even aware of it," Celtics head coach Auerbach once said about the first all-Black starting five (according to an ESPN story written by J.A. Adande). "They brought it to my attention later on. All we were trying to do here, all the time, is play the guys that, in our opinion, whether I'm coaching or someone else is coaching, is going to win the ballgame. That's all."

While Auerbach and the Celtics were putting their best available team on the floor, they created history in the process.

Shortly after in 1966, Russell and the Celtics broke another barrier as he succeeded Auerbach as the head coach of the Celtics, becoming the first Black head coach in all four major sports leagues in the United States, doing so as a player-coach.

MORE: Russell's success paved the way for Black coaches

"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."

In 2021, nearly 25 percent of the league's head coaches are Black, but in a league where Black players make up 80 percent of the players, there is still much work to do to close the gap, but Russell's trailblazing opened the door for generations to come.

A lasting legacy

In the wake of George Floyd's murder by Minnesota police officers in 2020, which sparked worldwide protests of racial injustice, NBA players took a leading role in using their platforms for change, with many joining protesters in cities around America.

During the NBA bubble in Orlando, the Milwaukee Bucks led a league-wide protest as players refused to play following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

The actions of players in the NBA sparked a movement in professional sports around the world, following the lead of Russell all those years ago.

"Because of you, it is okay to be an activist and an athlete," Celtics guard Jaylen Brown said in a recent tribute video to to Russell.

"Because of you, kids that look like you believe that they can win. Because of you, there is a standard for being a human being and being an athlete. Because of you, it is okay to be more than just a basketball player. Because of you, I am proud to be a Celtic."

NBA players of the past, present and future will forever carry the legacy that Bill Russell has embedded into the league's pursuit in raising awareness to create change in the fight for racial justice.

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