Bill Russell is the greatest winner in the history of team sports. These are the facts of the case, and they are not in dispute. Consider:
His high school team won three state championships.
His college team, the San Francisco Dons, won consecutive NCAA titles in 1955 and 56.
He captained the gold-medal winning 1956 US men’s Olympic basketball team.
He won 11 NBA titles in 13 seasons.
The last two of those seasons, 1968 and 69, he was also the head coach.
There has never been a winner like Bill Russell. But the reason he’s profiled today, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, is because he did it all in context of punishing racism the likes of which today’s coddled superstars would never recognize. This is a man who grew up in the Oakland projects and received a single college scholarship offer. The first college team to start three black players, the Dons routinely faced racism and were refused at hotels. Russell refused to play in NBA all-star touring exhibitions that required black players to eat in segregated restaurants apart from white teammates. In 1966, when he was named the first black head coach in a major American professional team league, racists in Boston broke into his house, vandalized his trophies, wrote vile graffiti on his walls, and shit in his bed.
Russell was aware of the hypocrisy of American racism, of the celebration of black athletes as performers but not as people. He marched on Washington with Dr. King in 1963, and he waged a lifelong struggle with the people Boston over his legacy of success in the context of their mixed treatment of him. He is a complicated man, a man of staggering athletic prowess, of high intellect, and of cast-iron principles. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and he has worn it while posing for a picture of himself kneeling in solidarity with NFL players protesting racial injustice. This is not a man who would ever shut up and dribble.
Bill Russell is the greatest winner in the history of team sports. But against prejudice and systemic racism, winning still feels a long way off.