I grew up reading about Bill Russell along with Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, John Carlos, Tommie Smith and many more.
Russell was a pioneer — an athlete who used his position and platform to stand up for a bigger cause. He was the type of athlete I wanted to be like when I grew up. I had the honor of interviewing him for my book, "We Matter: Athletes And Activism,” and it was a chance to interview one of my childhood heroes.
After hearing of Russell's passing, I reached out to Dr. John Carlos, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and Craig Hodges, three different athlete-activists to discuss how they were inspired by him and how his legacy can live on.
Dr. John Carlos
Etan: Bill Russell was your peer, so I know this hits even closer to you. But what did Russell mean to athlete-activists standing up for something bigger than themselves?
Dr. John Carlos: "Well, Bill Russell was the blueprint for the modern-day athlete. He stood for humanity, activism and equality. But he didn’t just talk the talk, he walked the walk for the better part of his life. Now as far as on the basketball court, there should be no discussion whatsoever about him possibly being the greatest basketball player of all-time. Nobody has accomplished... with all due respect to everyone else, nobody accomplished what he accomplished on the court. Eleven championships? That’s unheard of."
Etan: That’s true.
Dr. Carlos: "But aside from what he did on the court, what he stood for off the court is what really put him in that top, upper echelon. I always smile when I think about something he said to me, and I’m actually thinking about it now and smiling, and it’s a good change because I’ve been so sad since I heard about his passing. But I remember being introduced to Bill Russell by my buddy, Blaine Robinson, and the first thing he said was... [Russell] looked at me and smiled and said, 'Carlos, I got one bone to pick with you,' and I said, 'What’s that Bill?' and he said, 'You thought to do that sh** in Mexico before I did.' (laughing)
(Editor's Note: Dr. John Carlos stood in protest in a demonstration against racism at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City with a raised fist wearing black gloves during the national anthem.)
"That made me feel so good that he said that to me. He said, 'I’m mad it wasn’t me.' I told him, 'We’re on the same plane. You’re doing it your way and I’m doing it my way.'"
Etan: That’s a great story. I’ve never heard you tell that story.
Dr. Carlos: "Well, you haven’t heard all my stories Etan. You’ve heard a lot but not all of them. (laughing) But I’ll tell you something else on a serious note — people forget the environment he was in the entire time in Boston. Don’t forget they actually broke into his house, broke up all his stuff; they actually took a sh** in his bed and then put the covers over it. So after [Russell and his family] cleaned up everything and finally were ready to go to sleep for the night, they would pull back their covers and find that. Just evil, hateful, sick, twisted people to do something like that to him and his family."
Etan: It’s still mind-boggling that actually happened to him.
Dr. Carlos: "And it was so bad that even some of the people in Boston who may have had the evil eye knew that they had to find the individuals who did that to his house. They knew they had a jewel in Bill Russell, and they didn’t want him to be offended to the point that he left Boston altogether. And somehow, he put that ugly incident behind him and kept pressing on, and look at all that he accomplished in Boston."
Etan: You know, it still amazes me that he was able to sweep that under the rug and keep pushing on after they did him like that. I interviewed him for 'We Matter' and of course you’re in that book too, and I asked him about that and he said:
Well, one thing you have to always remember is that the majority of the country are decent folks. The majority of white people are decent folks. And I was always very careful not to stereotype people based on the actions of a few, or a little more than a few, as was the case in Boston... A lot of the stuff that went on, I knew they were individual acts and not a reflection of everybody in Boston. I see many people today who who really believe that Black folks are responsible for all of the actions of other Black folks, and that’s just ridiculous. And it’s just as crazy for me to think that all white people were responsible for the ones that treated me and my family so poorly, broke into my house, and destroyed my property for no reason at all...
But just because I said that I don’t put all white people in the same boat doesn’t mean I don’t still recognize that too many white people looked at me as less than, and no matter what they thought, I wasn’t about to allow them to treat me as less than.
That is such a powerful quote, but I don’t know how he was able to have such a positive outlook on everything after they terrorized him and his family like that.
Dr. Carlos: "I definitely know what you’re saying, but I also understood the position Bill Russell took. I have, and had — even back in my heyday — a lot of people from the other side of the street that I would call my friend. So not everyone is as evil as those people who did that to his family. Those people were definitely devils, but Bill Russell couldn’t turn on the whole white race because of them. That showed his maturity and how special he was because at that time, and he said it in that quote, the greater white society was in fact scorning all Black people for the actions of just one. But Bill Russell was bigger than that."
Etan: Truly amazing. Talk about how y’all supported each other back in the day.
Dr. Carlos: "I think we had a clear understanding of what the mission was and what the opposition was. We realized that we could do great things through athleticism, and we had the opportunity to speak for those who didn’t have the power or platform to speak for themselves. We had that direction, and we felt comfortable in our lanes and had respect for each other’s lanes. We were fans of each other, and supported each other."
Etan: What is something you want the younger generation to remember about Bill Russell?
Dr. Carlos: "They need to have an opportunity to sit down and read about people like Bill Russell, and learn from him and apply it to their lives and careers. Bill Russell is the top of the pyramid, and we have so many that could be inspired by his story and his life. I’m glad you documented your interview with him; that’s special, and your interview with Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] and everyone else in your book — young people need to read that. Bill Russell could’ve kept quiet, I could’ve kept quiet, Muhammad Ali could’ve kept quiet. All of our lives would’ve probably been much easier if we did keep quiet, but we couldn’t do that; we had to stand up for our people."
Etan: Right, even with the story of when Russell went down to Kentucky to play the exhibition game with the Celtics... it was segregation and, at first, they wouldn’t let the Black players eat, but then said, 'Well y’all can eat since y’all are special Black people, but you have to go around back.' Bill said, 'If that’s how y’all do Black people here, then we won’t play here.'
Dr. Carlos: "That’s why I said he was the blueprint for modern-day athletes of how to use your power. And people need to also know about the Black entertainers before Russell who did that too. Louie Armstrong did it, Nat King Cole did it, Dinah Washington did it and said, 'If you don’t allow my people in here, I don’t need to be here either.' But yes, young people need to learn about all of these pioneers.
"Bill Russell made it a point to always push America to be greater than what it showed to be, and for America to be revealed to itself and that’s the power of the Black athlete's voice and Black entertainer's voice. So many athletes don’t realize the power they actually have if they use it. Now, many do realize that power, but more need to, and it would help if they all learned about Bill Russell because if he could do it back then, they can definitely do it now."
Etan: What did Bill Russell mean to you?
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf: "Wow (deep breath), if you want to look at a figure that transcends the game of basketball, it’s Bill Russell. You think about his individual skills, and recognizing how difficult it is for someone to sacrifice those individual skills or notoriety or public embrace for the collective. But this is a person who sacrificed all of that for justice, equality and fair treatment, all while winning 11 championships simultaneously. When you examine how athletics has the capability to teach you so much about life, and are able to be applied to everyday aspects of life, Bill Russell took that same indomitable spirit and will that he had, and used it socially and politically. And he never allowed himself to succumb to being dehumanized or disrespected. The same spirit he had on the basketball floor in terms of sacrifice and work ethic and winning championships, he carried that over into his activist and political life and humanitarian work."
Etan: Right, I’m glad you included humanitarian because he was so dedicated to helping others outside of himself.
Abdul-Rauf: "Definitely. He lent his support to others and it extended beyond the labels that society placed on its citizens in an effort to draw the lines in the sand, so to speak. For example, take his support for Muhammad Ali; [Bill] wasn’t a Muslim, but he saw that it was an injustice and he lent his support and that’s what made him special. Bill Russell was a free thinker. He is definitely going to be missed, and a gap has been created. Anytime you lose a figure like that in the world, with that type of impact, a gap has been created, and it’s hard to fill."
Etan: Yeah, when I heard the news right after my family and I were sitting down watching church, it hit me hard. I understand he was 88 years old, and it’s a blessing to live that long, but it still hit me hard.
Abdul-Rauf: "Me as well. When I heard it, it stopped me in my tracks. And look, we know everyone’s time is going to come eventually, and nobody can live forever; we know that, but some people when they go, because of the impact, it’s felt even more."