Bill Russell paved the way for black coaches to challenge the skeptics

Bill Russell and Reed Auerbach reached an agreement.

Auerbach, the longtime Boston Celtics coach, has confirmed in Russell, his star player, that he plans to retire from coaching. Russell and Auerbach created a dynasty together, with Russell dominating the field and Auerbach cementing their championship victories with plumes of festive cigar smoke.

They will each jot down their top five favorite coaches to succeed Auerbach and consider which name has landed on both lists.

No matches were found. Auerbach had already contacted Russell about taking the position and continuing as a player, but Russell, who had been witness to the impact of training on Auerbach, quickly turned him down.

Now, having reviewed the slates again, Russell reconsidered his position and decided that no one else, other than Auerbach, could coach Bill Russell as Bill Russell.

In his book about his friendship with Auerbach in 2009, Russell wrote: “When I and I began discussing becoming a coach, there were some things we didn’t have to say. For example, when I was finally named publicly, I didn’t know I had just become the first coach. African American in the history of major league sports.”

It was 1966, and the discrimination hadn’t occurred to him until Boston reporters informed him. “When I took over, a reporter wrote seven articles focusing on why I wasn’t there to coach the Celtics,” Russell wrote.

Russell, who died Sunday at the age of 88, would go on to win two championships as the Celtics’ head coach, the tournament’s tenth and eleventh episodes. He’s also been coaching the Seattle Supersonics and the Sacramento Kings and inspiring a generation of black players to try their hand at coaching, too. The skepticism that accompanied his appointment to Boston may be less relevant now, but it’s still a factor in whether the Blacks are hired to coach in the NBA today.

Bernie Bickerstaff, a Black, watched Russell take over as Celtics head coach as he was about to step into coaching life. He started as an assistant at the University of San Diego under the supervision of Phil Walbert, who trained Russell at the University of San Francisco.

Bickerstaff, who became a SuperSonics coach in 1985, said, “At the time, you weren’t thinking of anything like that. In fact, if you were sitting so far away and you were a young black guy at the time, it seemed far-fetched.”

Russell, the coach, imitated Russell the player. He was a longtime civic activist who trained the Celtics during the assassination of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. “A lot of Bostonians have rubbed it the wrong way,” Russell wrote in his 2009 book. “At the time, Boston was a completely isolated city – and it was vehemently opposed to segregation.”

He demanded respect and competed aggressively during an era when he had no assistant coaches. He played and coached the Celtics for three seasons before finishing off the most successful and longest-running NBA title.

“It speaks a lot about his identity as a person and as a human being, if you understand the culture of this country, especially in certain places,” said Jim Clemons, who is black and became the Dallas Mavericks coach in 1996.

Al Atlis and Lenny Wilkins followed Russell as the black coach in the NBA. They, like Russell, led teams to championships. It took some time for the rest of the professional sports world to catch up. Frank Robinson, Russell’s former high school basketball teammate, became the first black coach in Major League Baseball, in Cleveland, in 1975. Art Shell became the first modern-day NFL black coach for the Oakland Raiders in 1989.

“Bill Russell was an inspiration, period, with coaching,” Bickerstaff said. “But as a human being, in times when it wasn’t common to be someone of our skin, he stood up and represented. He had no fear. He was real. He was successful. He was a leader both on and off the court.”

Russell became the fifth person to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and coach when he was honored as a coach last year.

By then, what seemed so farfetched when Bickerstaff stormed into training seemed commonplace. Half of the 30 NBA coaches will be black heading into the 2022-23 season, including JB Bickerstaff, son of Bernie and coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

But as recently as 2020, only four black coaches roamed the sidelines of the NBA. “There is a certain natural ebb and flow to hiring and firing coaches, frankly, but the number is very low right now,” said NBA commissioner Adam Silver ahead of the 2020 finals.

Other sports leagues continued to lag. Nearly two decades after Russell won his first championship as a coach, Al Campanis, a Los Angeles Dodgers executive, expressed doubts about blacks’ ability to take on managerial positions.

“I don’t think it’s bias,” Campanis said in an interview on ABC’s Nightline in 1987. “I really think they might not have some of the necessities to be, let’s say, a field manager, or maybe a ‘management general.'”

MLB recently celebrated the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut in the league, yet only two of its current managers — Houston’s Dusty Baker and Dodgers Dave Roberts — are black.

In the NFL, former Miami Dolphin coach Brian Flores recently sued the league for discriminatory hiring practices. Flores is the son of Honduran immigrants. The NFL created a Diversity Advisory Committee and tasked each team with appointing a minority offensive coach following Flores’ lawsuit.

Russell didn’t talk much about being the first black coach in a major sports league. But after his appointment, he felt the pressure awaiting him as “the first Negro coach,” he wrote in his book.

The hope that his relationship with Auerbach would evolve from a superficial bond between coach and player to a deeper friendship comforted him.

“So I started looking forward to it,” he wrote.

Russell left the Celtics in 1969 but captained the SuperSonics from 1973 until 1977. He led Seattle to the franchise’s first-ever playoffs, but the success he had in Boston eluded him.

Russell coached one final season with the Sacramento Kings in 1987-88 before he was fired and moved to the front office after a 17-41 start.

“With so many really great players, it was hard for him to understand why the average players didn’t have the same drive, focus and commitment to win as he did,” said Jerry Reynolds, assistant to Russell on the Kings. Sunday interview. “There aren’t many people like that. That’s why they are great. In some ways, it was hard for him to understand. Most of the guys wanted to win. They didn’t have a need to win every game like him.”

Throughout, Russell stayed true to what he was in training.

Bickerstaff recalls that Russell offered a set of putters to one of Wolpert’s sons in lieu of signing an autograph for him – an act that Russell was known to have consistently refused throughout his career.

Clemons said the booster introduced his high school team to Russell shortly after winning the Ohio State Championship. Russell barely looked out of his soup. He hated to skip the meal.

Clemons understood the mentality after reading Russell’s autobiography.

Before he was seen as a basketball player, before he was seen as a coach, Russell wanted to be seen as a human being.

“He was a little bit like Muhammad Ali,” Reynolds said. “It was always the same. Society and people changed. Things changed to fit more in as they should have been all along.”

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