Massachusetts is mourning the death of Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell, and reckoning with the racism that he faced as the franchise’s first Black icon and as a committed civil rights activist.
The basketball center powered the Celtics to 11 NBA championships between 1957 and 1969, winning five MVP awards in the process.
His hiring as the Celtics’ head coach in 1966 made him the first Black person to lead any team in major North American sports.
Russell was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach. He died Sunday at the age of 88.
At a statue of Russell located just outside Boston City Hall, fans have been leaving flowers and Celtics jerseys to honor the legend.
Gregory Baker, a lifelong resident of Roxbury, came downtown to pay his respects Monday. “He was the best player I ever saw, he was a winner,” Baker said.
“People talk about Michael Jordan, Lebron and everything like that — but their stats, they don’t have the winning percentage that he has.”
Baker and other fans also applauded Russell for being a formidable force with his off-court activism.
As a staunch social justice advocate who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and publicly backed Muhammed Ali’s refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam War, Russell faced criticism for his willingness to mix his play with his politics.
“We expect the athlete to be grateful for everything they get,” said sports journalist Howard Bryant, author of “The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism,” a book that in part profiled Russell and his activism.
“’You’re just playing a kid’s game, you should be happy.’ We’ve heard all those tropes and cliches before, but Bill Russell would not separate those two.”
In a 2001 interview with GBH’s Basic Black, Russell cast his civil rights stance as a matter of civic duty. “I was born with full citizenship.