NBA

Boston Celtics Hall of Famer Bill Russell Broke Sports Color Barrier for Coaches Almost 60 Years Ago

Bill Russell won more NBA titles than any other player in history, taking home 11 rings in his 13 seasons with the Boston Celtics. That fact is well-known. What isn’t as well-known is that Russell won the last two of those as a player-coach and broke a major barrier in the process. With the Celtics, Russell was the first Black coach in any of the major North American professional sports.

That it was the Celtics breaking the barrier isn’t a surprise. During his tenure with the team, longtime coach and longer-time general manager Red Auerbach accomplished several racial firsts.

Bill Russell inherited a Boston Celtics dynasty

Coach Bill Russell and general manager Red Auerbach of the Boston Celtics
General manager Red Auerbach and player-coach Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics in 1967. | Joe Dennehy/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

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At the time Russell took over as coach of the Boston Celtics, they were a historic power. Boston had gone to 10 consecutive NBA Finals – an entire decade – and had won eight straight titles. That is the longest such stretch in pro sports.

“I wasn’t offered the job because I am a Negro,” Russell told The Undefeated in 2017. “I was offered it because Red figured I could do it.”

In their first season under Russell, the Celtics fell short of continuing those record streaks. Despite 60 regular-season wins, Boston was no match for the dominant Philadelphia 76ers and Wilt Chamberlain. The Sixers won 68 games and beat the Celtics in the Eastern Division Finals en route to Chamberlain’s first title.

The aging Celtics again finished eight games behind Philadelphia in 1967–68. But this time, Boston beat the 76ers in the Eastern Division Finals, winning three times on the road – including twice in the last three games. The Celtics overcame a 3–1 deficit in the process and beat the Los Angeles Lakers in six games for their ninth championship in 10 seasons.

Boston hardly looked like a title contender in 1968–69, though. The defending champs went just 14-16 over the last 30 games and entered the playoffs in the East’s fourth spot (only four teams qualified in each division). The Celtics blew through the Chamberlain-less 76ers in five games to get back to the division finals, then handled the New York Knicks in six games to return to the Finals.

Russell’s last NBA Finals as a player or coach was against the Lakers – who had added Chamberlain. Boston won in seven games, and Russell retired as a player and resigned as coach at season’s end.

Russell returned as part of a next wave

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Russell’s success with the Boston Celtics prompted the Seattle SuperSonics to hand the player-coaching duties to Lenny Wilkens. Later in the 1969-70 season, Al Attles became interim coach for the San Francisco Warriors while still an active player. Attles wound up with the Warriors for 14 years and, in 1975, was the second Black coach to win a championship.

Ray Scott made history in 1973-74 when he became the first Black bench boss named Coach of the Year in the NBA with the Detroit Pistons. Scott was named coach of the Pistons the previous season, becoming the first Black NBA coach to replace another (Earl Lloyd).

Russell came back to coaching in 1973-74 with the SuperSonics, the same season former teammate K.C. Jones entered the NBA coaching ranks with the old Capital Bullets (now the Washington Wizards).

Russell resigned after four seasons in Seattle and re-emerged in 1987 as head coach of the Sacramento Kings. He held the job for only 58 games before being reassigned as the team’s general manager. Russell has been out of the NBA since December 1989.

The legacy of Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics

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Since Russell’s time, the NBA has enjoyed periods of great diversity among its head coaches. But in recent years, the numbers have declined, and the league is trying to figure out why. From 2001–14, there were an average of 11 Black head coaches per season, with a high of 14 to open the 2012–13 season.

There are only seven Black head coaches in the NBA now, but the league doesn’t want to go to a quota system (à la the NFL’s “Rooney Rule”). Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle heads the NBA Basketball Coaches Association, and the group is working with the league, according to USA Today.

“We want to create a situation where there’s an equal opportunity for development and an equal opportunity for awareness,” Carlisle said. “We decided not to go the route of trying to set up a quota system. It’s been proven in other sports that quota systems are very flawed. They really don’t work in a lot of situations.”

There are great success stories among Black coaches who followed Russell. Wilkens was the all-time coaching wins leader until passed by Don Nelson in 2010. His 32 seasons as an NBA coach are a record. Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers is on the cusp of becoming the second Black coach with 1,000 NBA wins (984 as of this writing). Nate McMillan of the Atlanta Hawks is in the top 20 all-time with 681 coaching victories. Attles, Wilkins, Jones, Rivers, and Tyronn Lue have won NBA championships.

The Boston Celtics opened the door for Black head coaches more than 50 years ago and Bill Russell responded with two championships in three years.