The NBA once held a policy that inhibited its teams from having more than three black players on one team. This was later changed to four. The fear was that the paying public would find a team ‘too black.’ Today, it’s one of the most progressive and inclusive leagues worldwide—an international titan for diversity.
It would be impossible to pinpoint the moment of contrast between these two very real times, but an unassuming preseason night in 1961 might be the answer.
A time when racism rocked the country
It didn’t matter that the majority of NBA stars were predominately black; professional basketball was hardly a haven for them. Just to find a restaurant that would serve a team of black athletes became a futile and infuriating exercise - especially in the south and midwest.
There were far too many stories similar to when Oscar Robertson played for the University of Cincinnati, setting 14 different NCAA records and leading the country in scoring three straight years, to then being barred from the team’s road hotels and often having to bunk in college dormitories.
But people still looked to the icons and founding figures of the league for guidance and leadership due to their unprecedented stature and fame as black athletes. For reasons that will later be unraveled, the heaviest of the public’s weight fell on the shoulders of the Celtics' superstar of the 1960s, Bill Russell. A man who might be the greatest winner in sports history with 11 championships but whose legacy is more immortal off the court.
Even if it meant that at the height of his basketball career, he was never shown the love he deserved. As Robertson adds on the TBOB podcast, “everyone thought Bill was such a Nasty arrogant type. I said, ‘man I can imagine why he did the things he did’... people forgot the things he went through, and people to this day don’t know what he went through.”
That instrumental preseason game was against the University of Kentucky in 1961, as the Celtics were set to play against a controversial and powerful figure in Coach Adolph Rupp. In Sam Jones' words, a teammate of Russell, “Rupp would never have a black player on the University of Kentucky squad,” making it all that more important to demolish them and prove “skill and merit had to win over bigotry,” he said on the Jackie MacMullan podcast.
Before the game, Celtics’ Satch Sanders and Sam Jones were refused service in a hotel coffee shop in Lexington, Kentucky. They ran into Bill Russell and his teammate K.C Jones on their way back to the hotel, heading to that coffee shop. Sam promptly told Russell, “You can’t eat down there. They don’t serve colored people. Waitress won’t serve us”. As Sam writes in his book ‘Ten Times A Champion,’ “The four of us went to Red’s room. He opened the door and saw four black guys standing there. I could tell immediately that he knew there was trouble.”
Russell galvanized the five black players on the team and notified head coach Red Auerbach they were boycotting the game and flying home to Boston. Auerbach, who was unprejudiced but not fully aware of what it was like as a black man in those times, arranged plans for the disgruntled black players to dine in the private suite of the hotel owner as personal guests.
But Sam, like the rest of his brothers, knew that dinner invitation was only available through the intercession of Red. Without the benefit of professional sports franchise bidding, any other black man walking down the street would not be served in the restaurant. Enough was enough. They packed their bags and flew back to Boston to find a special surprise waiting for them at their arrival.
In Sam’s words, “There was a crowd at the airport. They were mostly white. I thought that was really neat. I felt real good that these people were giving us support.”
The next day, Russell told reporters, “we’ve got to show our disapproval of this treatment or else the status quo will prevail. We have the same rights and privileges as anyone else and deserve to be treated accordingly. I hope we never have to go through this abuse again. But if it happens, we won’t hesitate to take the same course of action.”
Frank Ramsay, an All-American for the Kentucky squad, admirably made a public apology, contending that “no thinking person in Kentucky is a segregationalist. I can’t tell you how sorry I am as a human being, as a friend of the players involved in the incident, and as a resident of Kentucky for the embarrassment of this incident.”
This was the first recorded civil protest in the NBA that led to boycotting a game
Maybe the first in U.S history. But despite their voiced disapproval, the game just went along without them.
In 1963, when civil rights leader Medgar Evers was murdered in his driveway by a Klu Klux Klan member, a livid Russell flew to Mississippi. With the help of Evers’ brother, Charles, he ran an integrated basketball camp on a local playground.
Only a few months later, Russell advocated support around a Boston public school boycott to protest de facto segregation. It was a highly sensitive topic that pushed Russell to the face of many insults, harassment, and even vandalism.
One incident was so revolting and shameful that it permanently tainted his relationship with the city of Boston. As Satch puts it in the TBOB podcast, “a nut broke into his home. Smeared the walls, smeared the bed with all kind of feces. Just anything they wanted to do to his home.”
This was eerily similar to when people broke into Lenny Wilkens’ home, a first-round pick for the Hawks in 1960, and poisoned and killed his dog. Or when Sanders and Jones were walking the streets to buy groceries and a slew of cop cars, sirens blaring, had cops jumping out with guns blazing in their face. Somebody had got spooked and called the cops on them. So they were treated, as Saunders reminisces on the TBOB podcast, “like we were raised in a different country.”
Before the time of cell phones and social media, black people who brought this up didn’t have the same foundation of support as they would today if they spoke up. But as the stories remained the same, the protests got louder.
In 1967, Muhammed Ali faced charges of draft dodging for refusing to serve in the Vietnam war, leading a group of prominent black leaders to call a summit in Cleveland to meet with Ali. Russell agreed to go and called up a young UCLA star by the name of Lew Alcindor, or as he later changed it, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to take part.
Legendary boxing promoter, Bob Arum, had a different motivation. Alongside one of his law partners, he had worked out a deal with the government to drop the charges against Ali if he performed boxing exhibitions for U.S troops. Arum gathered these athletes together to urge them to persuade Ali to change his stance. If successful, the athletes of all sports would receive parts of the purse from Ali’s fights.
But Russell, Alcindor, and the rest of the black athletes chose to support Ali’s decision instead, leading to the imprisonment of the boxer at the peak of his powers. They supported his decision to represent solidarity around civil rights and religious freedom. The photo of the 11 men flanking Ali became a memorable symbol of black athletes collaborating in a powerful show of unity.
Russell’s central role in that meeting reverberates decades later with his NBA brethren. However, the idea of athlete collaboration was so rare and mystic in the ultra-competitive 70s and 80s NBA. Charles Barkley says players didn’t band together on much of anything because it was viewed as fraternizing with the enemy.
He points out on the Jackie MacMullan podcast, “Those guys wanted to help each other. Kareem said, ‘hey Bill Russell called me, we got this thing brewing’. Like can you imagine? Kareem’s 20 years old, and he gets a call from the great Bill Russell. And you see the photo, and you got him and the great Jim Brown sitting around him and I’m like, ‘man can you imagine that?’”
In 2016, 55 years after the original boycott of that fateful preseason game in Kentucky, Carmelo Anthony posted a rallying cry, challenging his fellow athletes to step up and take charge after two separate police shootings of unarmed black men. To drive home his point, he posted a photo of the Cleveland Summit.
On April 4th, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The following day, Russell and Wilt Chamberlain were set to face each other in game 1 of the Eastern Division Finals. To Russell, this tragedy was more personal than the killing of the most memorable U.S civil rights leader of the 20th century. Russell marched with King in Washington and had a front-row seat to his ‘I have a dream’ speech. He was beyond devastated.
Wayne Embry, the first black executive in NBA history and a teammate of Russell’s in 1968, was alongside Russell when the news came out. In his words, “we were very distraught. There was anger; there was frustration; there was just a lot of emotions going on. When the news came on, we of course watched the news and saw what was happening around other country so of course there was fear as well. We wern’t sure whether we were going to play the game or not play the game… it was a tremendous lost to the country," said Embry in the Jackie McMullen podcast.
Neither Wilt nor Russell wanted to play that game, and both called team votes. The Celtics voted not to play, but coach Auerbach arrived and said mayors from Boston and Philadelphia said it would serve as an example of unity in the black community if the two teams played.
This was when violence was running rampant in the streets as civil protests quickly turned into mayhem and uproar. King’s conflicting call for non-violence became the driving factor in the Celtics’ reversed decision. They chose to play the game and, hopefully, uphold the peace.
In the Philadelphia locker room, just across the hall, Wilt was still adamant not to play even with the mayors' message. But with a team vote of 7-3 to play, Wilt respected and followed through on his team's wishes.
In an interview with Bill Simmons for NBA TV in 2013, Russell professed he still is unsure whether that was the right call or not. “I don’t know,” said Russell. “I don’t know how I feel about that. We did what we thought was right at that time.”
Forty-five years later, that decision still haunted Russell. But some things do change with time. After that following day of games, the NBA suspended the series of games for five days, all due to the players' wishes, whose voices earlier that decade were ignored by the entire league.
Fifty-two years after the Celtics and 76ers convinced the NBA to pause their season to honor Martin Luther King Jr., the Milwaukee Bucks experienced their boycotting protest. This was in the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Wisconsin. With the full support of superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks players George Hill and Sterling Brown convinced their team to boycott their playoff game against the Orlando Magic in protest of violence against black lives.
Sterling Brown jumped on the TBOB podcast to discuss that crucial moment and its linkage to the work of Russell and Wilt before him. “Those two guys were pioneers for us and this space, they definitely paved the way for sports related things but also off the court things. You can’t do nothing but respect their thoughts and opinions when it comes to certain things, especially social justice”.
With the work never being finished, current Celtics star, Jaylen Brown, displayed a clear message to Russell on the Celtics’ Twitter for fans to see, “because of you, it’s okay to be an activist and an athlete.”
One event in a meaningless preseason game during the near infancy of the league became the first domino to drop, forever changing the sports and social climate. Thanks to the NBA’s refurnished image, the product has become the third most profitable sports league with a value of 7.4 billion, according to Athletic Panda. Its sheer growth and popularity not only in America but in its league in Africa have established it as one of the most prominent tourist attractions in the world. This is all due to the pristine reputation of the league today - something that didn’t fall into place but was trudged by icons like Bill Russell.