Bill Russell: The Jackie Robinson of basketball

We enjoy offering coverage of basketball books over at The Painted Area. In 2010, the regal presence of the greatest winner in American sports history, Mr. William Felton Russell, seemed to show up all over the place in hoop literature. In particular, three separate books - King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution, by Aram Goudsouzian, Free Darko Presents the Undisputed Guide to Basketball History, and Rise of a Dynasty: The '57 Celtics, The First Banner, and the Dawning of a New America, by Bill Reynolds - all came to a similar conclusion: in his own way, Bill Russell was the Jackie Robinson of basketball.

Of course, no one can fully compare to Robinson's achievement as the first man to break the color barrier in baseball, the most popular sport in America at that time. Certainly, Robinson paved the way for Russell and all other African-American athletes who followed. Yet, because there is a not singular, touchstone "first" associated with Russell (as a player), his role as a basketball revolutionary and pioneer - both on and off the court - has become underrated over time.

A common landmark for racial progress in basketball is Texas Western's becoming the first all-black starting five to win an NCAA championship in 1966, defeating an all-white Kentucky team. But that victory has gained stature in retrospect - a 1991 Sports Illustrated story said that: "Following the '66 championship game, Don (the Bear) Haskins, the 36-year-old white coach who masterminded the El Paso-based Miners to the title, met the small press contingent covering the game for a full 10 minutes, and black-white never came up."

In many ways, Russell's performance in leading the University of San Francisco to back-to-back NCAA titles in 1955 and 1956 is the more genuine article. Never before had a black player led a team to a national championship, and never before had anyone played like Russell and his USF Dons, who started two other African-American players in K.C. Jones and Hal Perry at a time when "most major college programs had only token integration," writes Goudsouzian.

As Bethlehem Shoals writes in the Free Darko book, "the Dons harnessed defense, jumping, and creativity in ways that all-white teams had barely begun to imagine, elements of 'Negro basketball' that, at the time, were hardly standard NCAA praxis. In particular, Russell's dunks, sometimes off alley-oops, stupified opponents."

Indeed, Russell was the embodiment of this style. Not only was he the first shot blocker, but what may be mind-blowing to a modern fan is that these "Russell moves" were controversial - he was initially discouraged from blocking shots by his coaches, as the conventional wisdom was that it was fundamentally unsound for a defensive player to leave his feet.

Russell was the first player to truly take the game vertical, and really the first player to apply an African-American aesthetic - so central to the game as we know it today - to NCAA and NBA basketball.

The focal point of the Reynolds book is Game 7 of the 1957 NBA Finals, a double-overtime classic which was the first nationally-televised NBA game, and marked the first Celtics championship, won in Russell's rookie year. Reynolds spotlights a key blocked shot by Russell late in regulation, which Tom Heinsohn later called "the most athletic play I ever saw in basketball":

"The Celtics were still alive, thanks to a play that seemed to come out of basketball's future.... This was the kind of play no one had ever seen before - a six-foot-ten man running the length of the court as if he were a sprinter, then having the jumping ability to block Coleman's shot without crashing into him and fouling him.... What would basketball one day evolve into? The answer was all there in that one incredible play by Russell."

All three books cited above are well worth your time. The Russell essays are but a small part of Free Darko's lyrical and richly-illustrated full history of the game (disclosure: I helped give feedback to the Undisputed History while it was being written). Reynolds is a veteran pro of an author, with basketball must-reads like Fall River Dreams and Cousy, among others, under his belt.

In particular, Goudsouzian's work is a full, authoritative, incredibly well-researched biography of Russell's life and career, just dense with information on every page. King of the Court does an outstanding job capturing how Russell was very much a man of the '60s, seemingly showing up everywhere, whether talking to Martin Luther King in a Washington, D.C. hotel lobby the night before the 1963 March on Washington or conducting integrated basketball clinics in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964.

Goudsouzian demonstrates how, off the court, Russell was in many ways the evolutionary Jackie Robinson in the 1960s, a leader and an inspiration to other black athletes for his fearless resolve to speak out in the name of what he believed was right during the tumultuous civil-rights era, no matter how controversial his sometimes-liberal, sometimes-radical views were to the mainstream.

Bobby Mitchell of the Washington Redskins is quoted in the book saying "during the years that Bill was playing, he was one of the few black athletes that those of us in the sport really looked up to.... We held onto the future just by merely watching and listening to the Bill Russells and the Jim Browns who were outspoken."

Russell, who became the first black coach in pro sports as Boston's player-coach in 1966, ultimately earned the respect of Robinson himself. As Goudsouzian writes:

"Russell served as a pallbearer at Robinson's funeral, the only one besides former Brooklyn Dodgers. They had long admired each other's intelligence and courage. Robinson's widow Rachel told him that he had been Jackie's favorite athlete. Russell was an heir, of sorts. The baseball legend had once proclaimed that sports needed 'men of integrity' like Russell, men 'who are involved in the area of civil rights and who are not willing to sit back and let Mr. Charlie dictate their needs and wants for them or spread the message for them.' Like Robinson, Russell had stretched the boundaries on black athletes."


It's also worth noting Russell's role in one of the most critically acclaimed books of the year, Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, judged to be one of the ten best books of the year by the New York Times, Amazon.com, and Entertainment Weekly, among others.

In telling the sweeping story of African-American migration during the mid-20th century, Wilkerson focuses on three characters - a woman who moved from Mississippi to Chicago, a man who journeyed from Florida to Harlem, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, who migrated from Monroe, Louisiana to Los Angeles.

The family of Bill Russell is one which followed a similar path, trekking from Monroe to Oakland in 1943. Wilkerson touches upon Russell briefly in the book:

"[Russell's] parents packed up the family and moved to Oakland, where a colony of people from Monroe had fled. Russell was nine years old. He would get to go to better schools, win a scholarship to the University of San Francisco, and lead his team, the Dons, to two NCAA championships, the first for an integrated basketball team, collegiate or professional. He would join the Celtics in 1956 and lead Boston to eleven championships in his thirteen seasons. He would become perhaps the greatest defensive player in NBA history and the first black coach in the NBA. There is no way to know what might have happened to Bill Russell had his parents not migrated. What is known is that his family had few resources and that he would not have been allowed into any white college in Louisiana in the early 1950s, and thus would not have been in a position to be recruited into the NBA. The consequences of his absence from the game would now be unimaginable to followers of the sport."

When Wilkerson spoke at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle as part of her book tour, who was there but Mr. William Felton Russell (who lives in the Seattle area), whom she had not previously met. Wilkerson and Russell went on to make a joint appearance on The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell on MSNBC, which can be seen here. On the show, Russell said, "We never considered a migration - that’s a modern term. We considered it immigration, because we left one country to go to another country, completely different culture, not knowing what to expect.”