The NBA is widely considered the most progressive sports league in America. Commissioner Adam Silver has repeatedly encouraged his players to speak up on political and social issues. The recent Black Lives Matter protests are a perfect example, with players from LeBron James, to Russell Westbrook, to Jaylen Brown all getting involved.
Of course, activism wasn’t always looked upon so kindly in the NBA — or in America, for that matter. Consider the case of Hall of Famer and former Boston Celtics great Bill Russell. Russell’s activism brought him negative backlash, and not just among fans but even from the federal government. Here we take a look back at Russell’s activist legacy, and how it briefly landed him under FBI surveillance.
A brief overview of Bill Russell’s career
Russell spent a total of 13 seasons in the NBA, all of them with the Boston Celtics. In that relatively short span of time, Russell led his team to eleven championship victories. That gives him the most titles of any player in NBA history. At one point between 1959 and 1966, Russell’s Celtics captured eight straight championships — a record that will likely never be broken.
Russell was selected to 12 All-Star teams over the course of his career. He also won five NBA MVP awards. He was a three-time All-NBA First Team selection, an eight-time All-NBA Second Team selection, and a four-time NBA rebounding champion.
Simply put, Russell was one of the most dominant players the league has ever seen, averaging 15.1 points, 22.5 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game over the course of his career.
Bill Russell’s activism
Russell set the template for superstardom in the NBA. Perhaps even more importantly, he also set the template in terms of player activism. That’s even more impressive when you consider that segregation still existed in America during the majority of Russell’s career. That meant that Russell regularly had to contend with all kinds of hateful speech and behaviors from fans.
Nonetheless, Russell refused to cow down before negative pressure. He demonstrated incredible resilience when it came to maintaining his own beliefs, even if they only made things worse. He was also open and frank when discussing race relations in America, and didn’t hesitate to voice his opinions about perceived racial biases directed against him from fans, team owners, and media members.
Taking stands like that ended up bringing down even more hateful behavior on Russell. Despite his standing as the Celtics’ most impactful star, at one point in his career, his house was broken into and vandalized in a truly vile manner. The perpetrators scrawled hateful graffiti across his walls, and even defecated in his bed.
The FBI gets involved
Bill Russell’s outspoken beliefs about racism made him an unpopular figure, even in a seemingly liberal city like Boston. The situation was made even worse by the fact that Russell had a standoffish nature with fans and media members.
For instance, throughout his career Russell refused to sign autographs. He didn’t feel it was his job to provide a role model for children or to make nice with often openly racist fans.
The white establishment found that attitude unforgivable, and only increased the amount of contempt they directed at Russell. Even more unbelievably, Russell’s attitude made him the target of surveillance by the Federal Bureau of Investigations. The FBI kept an open file on Russell for many years.
According to the New York Times, in that file, the FBI specifically identified Russell’s refusal to sign autographs as a point of suspicion, referring to him as “an arrogant Negro who won’t sign autographs for white children.”
Nonetheless, Russell refused to back down from his beliefs. Today, he’s viewed as a hero for the very behaviors that made him so hated at the time, with players across all sports naming him as an inspiration for their own activist efforts.
All stats courtesy of Basketball Reference