NBA’s first black superstar and civil rights activist

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New York (AFP) – Bill Russell, a dominant center who won a record 11 NBA crowns as the cornerstone of a Boston Celtics dynasty, overcame racism to become the league’s first black superstar and civil rights activist.

Russell, who died Sunday at the age of 88, was the five-time NBA Most Valuable Player and captain of the 1956 USA gold medal-winning team at the Melbourne Olympics, which revolutionized NBA defensive play. , taking rebounding and shot blocking to epic new levels.

He won eight consecutive NBA titles from 1959 to 1966. As a player-coach in his last three seasons, Russell was the first black coach in North American sports and the first to win a title, in 1968 and again during his farewell campaign in 1969.

Russell was the first black player inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975 and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 for his civil rights and basketball achievements.

William Felton Russell was born on February 12, 1934, in Monroe, Louisiana, but his family moved to Oakland, California when he was eight years old.

His mother died when he was 12, having never seen Bill win two state prep titles and two national varsity crowns at the University of San Francisco after being passed over by many colleges because he was black. .

USF was the first major college team to pitch three black players. Their team faced racist taunts at games and the refusal of hotels to accept black guests – prompting the entire team to stay in vacant college rooms.

“I never allowed myself to be a victim,” Russell said.

Russell was snubbed for a regional MVP honor after a U.S. title run in 1955 and focused on team accomplishments rather than personal accomplishments.

“It let me know that if I were to accept them as the final judges of my career, I would die a bitter old man,” Russell said.

Russell delayed his NBA debut to compete in the 1956 Olympics, leading an overpowered American team with 14.1 points per game, then sparking the Celtics with a record 19.6 rebounds per game plus 4.7 points per game for the 1956-1957 NBA champions Boston.

In 1958, Russell won his first NBA Most Valuable Player award, but he was slowed by a foot injury in the NBA Finals and the Celtics lost, to start their record eight consecutive crowns the next season.

Russell and his black teammates often found themselves unable to be served or stay in hotels during exhibition games in parts of the United States in the 1960s.

He would snub autograph seekers and refuse to acknowledge cheers for years after being hardened by such incidents.

Forward-thinking trainer

Celtics coach Red Auerbach retired in 1966, and Russell was appointed coach while remaining on the pitch, saying: “I wasn’t offered the job because I’m a Negro. offered it because Red thought I could do it.”

US civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on the eve of the 1968 Eastern Conference Finals between Boston and Philadelphia, and there were calls to cancel the series with players from both shocked clubs.

But the games continued, and the Celtics became the first team to rally from a 3-1 deficit to win a best-of-seven playoff series, advancing to the NBA Finals, where they beat the Los Lakers. Angeles for the title.

The Celtics beat LA again in the 1969 Final and Russell retired, with the Celtics retiring his number 6 jersey in 1972.

For his career, Russell averaged 15.1 points and 22.5 rebounds per game over 13 seasons, with 11 titles during that span, including an NBA playoff-high 24.9 rebounds per game.

Russell had two more brief stints as an NBA coach, guiding the Seattle SuperSonics from 1973 to 1977 with a 162-166 record and going 17-41 with Sacramento to start the 1987-88 campaign before his release.