Happy 79th birthday to legendary Boston Celtics center Bill Russell who is regarded by most as the greatest champion in pro sports history, winning 11 championships, five MVP awards and making 12 all-star game appearances in only 13 seasons. To add to his incredible resume, Russell also holds the honorable distinction of being the first African-American coach in NBA history.
Hall of Fame Celtics coach Red Auerbach, who also broke racial barriers in drafting the first black NBA player in Chuck Cooper in 1950 and introducing an all-black starting lineup in 1964, sought out his replacement after his abrupt retirement before the 1966-67 season. Knowing the team would be left in good hands because of a player like Russell, he thought about who would be the right fit to lead the franchise. After approaching three of his players who all turned him down, the light bulb went off for Red, "Who better to motivate Bill Russell than Bill Russell." Although he was still an active player, Russell accepted the position and signed the contract, saying to reporters in a famous quote, ”I wasn’t offered the job because I am a Negro, I was offered it because Red figured I could do it.”
In his first season as coach, Russell would lead the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals only to lose to his all-time rival Wilt Chamberlain and the Philadelphia 76ers who had a record-setting season winning 68 games and eventually went on to win the NBA championship. However, the very next year Russell would get his revenge against Chamberlain by defeating the Sixers in the 1967-68 Eastern Division finals, although Black players on both teams were struggling with the horrific event of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Facing the Jerry West-led Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals, Russell would win title number ten while also becoming the first African-American coach to win a championship. During that year Russell would also be named Sports Illlustrated’s Sportsman Of The Year, cementing his legacy of success in sports history.
Russell led the way for other black coaches such as Lenny Wilkens and his Boston teammate K.C. Jones. Beyond his contribution to the game, Russell’s coaching job ushered in a new wave of African-American prominence in a game that was largely dominated by whites at one time. For that, the game owes him a great debt.