Bill Russell’s career belongs to that symbolic 1% of those athletes who count more triumphs than defeats: the pivot spent thirteen seasons in the NBA as a professional player and in eleven of them he finished as champion of the competition. Although no one will likely repeat such an achievement, his greatest victory came on a day like today and was far more momentous than a title: becoming the first African-American head coach in league history.
It happened 55 years ago, during October 1966. After being the cornerstone of the defensive system that gave the Boston Celtics nine championships in ten seasons, the intern had to assume an unprecedented role for a black man in the United States. The reason? Red Auerbach, the architect behind that team, had decided to stop directing. It was clear to him that his successor owed one of the stars who gave him so much joy on the court, but the context indicated the opposite when it came to thinking about Russell: he was going to have to fight against an unwritten rule that unfairly prevented him African Americans to occupy that position. For the powerful on duty, their place was on the track and away from decision-making.
However, the iconic cigar man fought to make that happen. Records from the time say that he first targeted Frank Ramsey, Bob Cousy, and Tom Heinshon. None of them agreed. The present of the 6th, still active as an athlete, made him doubt. But, endowed with intelligence and understanding uncommon in those days, Auerbach appointed whoever he believed most capable for the position. Although he never received the recognition he deserved for his impact on the franchise and that he knew that everyone would be expecting a stumble, he accepted.
“They didn’t offer me the position because I’m black. They gave it to me because Red thinks I can fill it.”, were his first words as the Celtics’ head coach. Coach-player, because good Bill went through those courses in a double role. Criticism inevitably fell on his figure when the Philadelphia 76ers and Wilt Chamberlain snapped Boston’s streak of eight consecutive coronations. Still, Russell knew the right thing to do: go to the locker room, say hello to his eternal rival, and get on with the job. Two seasons later, he retired from the institution with two more rings and a 162-83 record.
The former champion continued his career as a coach at Seattle SuperSonics and Sacramento Kings, until he definitively left the profession in 1988. Time has passed and, since then, blacks have been able to make a place for themselves on the benches of the different NBA organizations . He was the first. And that, probably, was the most important triumph of a character who was vital to the world of sport in every way.