It wasn’t until 1974, after his playing days with the Celtics were over, that I truly appreciated Bill Russell’s accomplishments. I knew what a great athlete he was, knew about the 11 championships. If you grew up in the Boston area in the 1960s, the greatest sports team in that sports town was the one that played on the parquet floor at Boston Garden. The Patriots were still the Boston Patriots and playing (poorly) in the AFL. The Bruins had not signed Bobby Orr yet and had not won a Stanley Cup since World War II. The Red Sox were pretty bad until the Impossible Dream year of 1967. Russell and the Celtics were way out ahead of everyone else.
But it wasn’t until I was a reporter — actually, a reporting intern on The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Mass., just outside Boston — that I realized that Russell had become a legend in a horribly racist city. Part of my coming of age occurred during Judge W. Arthur Garrity’s order to desegregate the Boston public schools through the cross-town busing of students. Garrity found that the Boston School Committee had for decades maintained a dual school system, one for blacks and one for whites, and he ordered integration of classrooms in 1974 and 1975. His order sparked protests and riots; white politicians refused to support the plan and the city became polarized.
During my time at the Ledger, contributing to busing coverage in South Boston and Hyde Park, Boston racism was on full display. I had grown up in a white town on the white South Shore of Boston and, while aware of racism, the internship at the Ledger opened my eyes to it in a way no personal experience had before. It was as vicious and ugly as anything I’d heard or read about the South.
When I reflect on that time, I am always further awed by Bill Russell, who became a legend as a player and coach before and during the civil rights movement in a segregated city that harbored bitterly racist views. Some Celtics fans hurled the foulest racial slurs at Russell even as he grabbed 20-plus rebounds a game and led the Celtics to an unprecedented string of championships. That makes his accomplishments all the more remarkable.
Russell always spoke kindly of the Celtics organization and the great coach, Red Auerbach, who later made Russell his successor and the first black head coach of a major professional sports team.
“As far as I was concerned,” Russell said in one of his many media interviews, “I played for the Boston Celtics, the institution, and the Boston Celtics, my teammates. I did not play for the city or for the fans.”