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HISTORY OF NBA ACTIVISM Russell and Kareem at the famous Cleveland Summit

bill russell kareem abdul jabbar muhammad ali

The NBA (except the Knicks) is yet again leading the way in fighting for justice in their community. More specifically, NBA players are. Our league has a long history of players being leaders in thought and action when it comes to all sorts of important questions. One of the most famous ones happened on June 4, 1967, in Cleveland, Ohio. More precisely, in the offices of Brown’s Negro Industrial and Economic Union. 

Mohammad Ali had been stripped of his heavyweight title and faced charges of draft dodging for his refusal to serve in the Vietnam War. In his boxing prime, Ali was ready to walk away from the ring for his convictions. On that day in June, a group of influential African-American athletes came to Cleveland and gave support to Ali. That was not the plan. 

Bob Arum, a famous boxing promotor, was a vice-president and secretary of Ali’s promotion company, Main Bout. He had brought all the athletes there to debate Ali on his decision not to take the deal Arum had negotiated with the government. The draft-dodging charges would be dropped against Ali, if he agreed to participate in boxing exhibitions for U.S. troops - he wouldn’t have to participate in combat. Arum had even promised players a percentage of the proceeds from Ali’s fights.

Two of those invited were Bill Russell and a young college star, Lew Alcindor (who would later change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). The players started to challenge Ali, but he would shoot down their arguments before they would finish making them. Passionate and sharp as a razor, Ali won them over and ruined Arum’s plan. 

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“I wasn’t setting it up for the athletes to rally around Ali.”

Bob Arum

But that’s precisely what happened. Arum and his partners (including Jim Brown who had set up the meeting) expected Ali to change his mind. The opposite happened - a joint press conference was held in which all players expressed support for Ali. Two weeks later, he would stand trial, and an all-white jury found Ali guilty of draft-dodging in 20 minutes. 

It may seem obvious they were doing the right thing. It was Muhammad Ali, one of the greatest athletes of all time, precisely because he was spectacular in and out of the ring. But at that time, Ali was one of the most hated men in the USA. Others were going to Vietnam, and refusing to go was unpopular for anyone, particularly a prominent African-American Muslim athlete. Taking that stand, Russell, and Kareem put themselves on the line. 

“He has something I have never been able to attain, and something very few people I know possess. He has an absolute and sincere faith. … I’m not worried about Muhammad Ali. He is better equipped than anyone I know to withstand the trials in store for him. What I’m worried about is the rest of us.”

Bill Russell, Sports Illustrated

Both Russell and Kareem did more than fine. All these years later, their record is a shining example of being dignified and principled in challenging times, whether it was Kareem criticizing Michael Jordan for taking “commerce over conscience,” or Russell accepting his Hall of Fame ring 44 years after being inducted. 

When talking about his tremendous accomplishments (figuring out gravity, for instance), Sir Issac Newton famously said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” NBA players today can fight the good fight because of the courage of those before them. Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are NBA giants.


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