In February for Black History Month, USA TODAY Sports is publishing a series of “28 dark stories in 28 days.” We examine the issues, challenges and opportunities black athletes and sports officials continue to face in the wake of the nation’s reckoning with race following the killing of George Floyd in 2020. This is the third installment in the series.
Bill Russell did not want to coach the Boston Celtics.
At least not at first.
Red Auerbach stepped down after winning the title in 1966. It was the Celtics’ eighth straight title and ninth in 10 seasons.
“What better way to motivate Bill Russell as a player than Bill Russell as a coach,” Auerbach said.
Auerbach then asked Russell. “I told him I didn’t want the job,” Russell said.
The next person Russell and Auerbach wanted to coach, Frank Ramsey, also didn’t want the job, and when Auerbach couldn’t find a coach he and Russell agreed on, Russell said he would serve as player-coach beginning in the 1966 season. -67.
“I thought if I tried to be a coach, I would renew my relationship with the game,” Russell said.
At his introductory press conference, Russell had to endure the racial bigotry of the era. A reporter asked Russell if he could coach white players without prejudice, an absurd question considering Russell had close relationships with Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn and Ramsey.
Years later, Russell turned the question around: No one asked white coaches if they could coach black players without prejudice.
Coach Russell espoused the same basketball philosophy as Russell the player: defend, play fast offensively and play team basketball.
The first black coach in the NBA, Russell was also the first black coach to win an NBA championship. He won two titles as a player-coach with the Celtics and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as a coach in 2021, 46 years after entering the Hall of Fame as a player.
Russell died on July 31 at the age of 88, and a well-deserved tribute followed. For obvious reasons, much of the focus has been on Russell’s playing days and his persistent push for racial and social equality. This season, every NBA player wears the no. 6 on his jersey in honor of Russell.
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It would be nice if the coaches wore the Russell pin on their shirts or pullovers this season.
In his first season as a coach and player, the Celtics lost to Philadelphia and Russell’s rival and friend Wilt Chamberlain. Russell took the brunt of the criticism. The fans booed Boston.
“Bill Russell is watching a dynasty crumble around him,” the announcer said.
The headline read: “Wilt advises Russell to quit coaching.”
Russell wasn’t leaving the game that way, not a man whose basketball career was defined by winning. Imagine the player-coach in today’s game. It’s ridiculous to think that anyone could pull this off.
“You didn’t have assistant coaches and you didn’t have a lot of coaches,” Sam Pollard, director of a new Netflix documentary Bill Russell: Legend he told USA TODAY Sports. “Coaches today, they’re surrounded by so many people who support them, and he had to do it all by himself and also be a player. So it’s pretty amazing and amazing.
“And to be the first (Black NBA coach), to be the coach of a major franchise, he had to have a huge weight on his shoulders to say, ‘Man, now I have to lead the Celtics to their second championship after all the championships the Celtics have won under of the great Red Auerbach.’ And he didn’t win that first season when he was the coach. So he knew he had something to prove.”
By the end of the 1968-69 season, Russell was done playing for and coaching the Celtics. His influence on black coaches spanned decades. Al Attles won a title with Golden State in 1975; Lenny Wilkens helped Seattle win the championship in 1979; Russell’s teammate, KC Jones, won two titles with Boston in the 1980s; Doc Rivers won a title with Boston in 2008; Ty Lue coached the Cavs to the 2016 championship; and this season the NBA had a record 16 black head coaches.
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Rivers used to have lunch with Auerbach and Russell in Boston. “I’ve often said I wish there was more impact on the players about the importance of being a team player and a winner,” Rivers said. “Because that’s all he stood for throughout his life. When you think about it, he won everywhere. College, the Olympics, the NBA, wherever he touched, he won. He was a winner, and he was the first in a lot of things, which makes him a winner.”
Russell is regularly on the mind of Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla.
“I think about him a lot because when I walk outside, I see his banner and the legacy he left, and I have a responsibility to that legacy to try to leave him in a better place,” Mazzulla said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Bill Russell didn’t want to coach the Celtics, then he made history