Forever a Don

Legendary basketball player and civil rights icon Bill Russell, finishing a layup on the Hilltop. PHOTO COURTESY OF USF OFFICE OF MARKETING AND COMMUNICATIONS

July 31, 2022, was a devastating day for the USF community. On that day, William “Bill” Felton Russell passed away at the age of 88, at his home in Washington alongside his wife, Jeannine. 

Bill Russell is the winningest player in American sports history, winning 13 NBA Championships with the Boston Celtics, two NCAA Division 1 championships with the University of San Francisco, and two state championships with McClymonds High School in Oakland. The list of accolades includes five NBA Most Valuable Player awards, 12 NBA All-Star selections, NCAA MVP, NBA Lifetime Achievement Award, WCC Player of the Year, NBA Anniversary team, as well as receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, the nation’s highest honor for a civilian. 

Russell’s influence goes far beyond athletics; he was a civil rights icon, advocating for the equality of African Americans during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. He came up during the 1950s at the height of Jim Crow, laws that were meant to limit the advancement of African Americans by denying them equity in education, civil rights, employment, and opportunity. In 1954, as a Don, he became a part of the first NCAA team to start three African American players. 

At USF, Russell and his Black teammates were targets of racist jeers and discrimination, especially during games on the road. In 1954, the Dons were in Oklahoma City for a tournament and were refused service at a hotel due to having African American team members. In protest, the Dons decided to camp out in a closed dorm room, which proved to be an important bonding moment for the team. “I never permitted myself to be a victim,” Russell said in a 2007 interview with USA Today.

Russell would become the blueprint of what it meant to be more than an athlete. In 1956, he was drafted into the National Basketball Association by the St. Louis Hawks, and soon traded to the Boston Celtics. He was growing into one of the biggest names in basketball and would continue to be at the forefront of the fight for equality. 

In 1963, he joined Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the March on Washington. In 1967, he was one of the loudest voices in the room at the Cleveland Summit, an assembly of influential African American athletes coming together in support of Muhammad Ali, who was facing scrutiny and backlash for his refusal to enlist in the Vietnam War. Alongside Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jim Brown, and other athletes, they would set a precedent for using their platform for the advocacy of others.

In 1964, the Celtics became the first NBA team to start five African American players, with Russell as their centerpiece. Shortly after in 1966, Russell would break more barriers by succeeding legend Red Auerbach as head coach of the Celtics and becoming the first African American head coach in the NBA, while simultaneously being an active player for the Celtics. Post-retirement, he would become the first Black player inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame. 

Russell’s legacy transcended sports and is evident in the modern era of social activism in professional sports. In 2020, in wake of the murder of George Floyd, NBA players took a leading role in protests around the world by joining protestors in the streets and boycotting NBA games during the 2020 season. NBA players sparked a movement amongst athletes across the world, following Russell’s lead from years before. In a 2020 tweet from his account, Russell wrote, “In ‘61 I walked out of an exhibition game much like the NBA players did yesterday. I am one of the few people that knows what it’s like to make such an important decision. I am so proud of these young guys.”

In a recent tribute video to Russell, Boston Celtic and former Cal Berkeley basketball star, Jaylen Brown said, “Because of you it is okay to be an activist and an athlete. Because of you, kids that look like you believe that they can win. Because of you, there is a standard for being a human being and being an athlete. Because of you, it is okay to be more than just a basketball player. Because of you, I am proud to be a Celtic.”

As we mourned the loss of Russell, his athletic achievements were praised, but his contributions to social justice were praised the highest. Former President Barack Obama said, “As tall as Bill Russell stood, his legacy rises far higher — both as a player and as a person.” President Joe Biden said, “Bill Russell is one of the greatest athletes in our history — an all-time champion of champions, and a good man and great American who did everything he could to deliver the promise of America for all Americans.”

As for the USF community, we mourn the ultimate Don, and continue to embody the qualities Russell possessed. His effect can be seen throughout campus, as we just welcomed one of the most diverse classes of students in USF history, and are soon to open the Bill Russell Sport & Social Justice Museum on campus. As an African American student at USF, I carry his legacy with me every day I step foot on campus. Forever a Don and forever a legend, Bill Russell will be missed but never forgotten.

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