As the current generation of NBA players have spent the past few months fighting for social justice and against racial inequality, Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell reminded people Monday that this isn’t the first time basketball players have engaged in those battles.
“Black kids today don’t grow up worried the Klan will kill them in the middle of the night — they worry the police will,” Russell, one of the greatest players in the history of the sport who has spent his life fighting for civil rights, wrote in an essay for The Players’ Tribune. “The effects of racial terror perpetrated over hundreds of years don’t disappear simply because America wills them to. Yet all is not hopeless.
“There are ways to make them disappear. They disappear with national reckoning, with an examination of our cultural norms and our power structures, with the dismantling and rebuilding of our institutions, and by ending voter suppression so that everyone can vote for change from the bottom to the top of the ballot.”
Russell, 86, wrote about a story from his childhood involving his father being shot at by white men while walking home after running out of gas on his way home from work. He also discussed his decision to debate Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox, a restaurateur turned politician who refused to serve Black people, on his television show in 1969, and the erection of a statue honoring Confederate soldiers in Boston — where Russell was arguably the NBA’s biggest star for the Celtics — in 1963.
Russell also discussed some of the events of the past six months — including the killings by police of Breonna Taylor in Louisville and George Floyd in Minneapolis, as well as the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin — to illustrate how long it can take to enact the kinds of changes Russell has fought his entire life to make, and ones players today are also hoping to make happen.
“Real change takes time — lots of it,” Russell wrote. “This is infuriating but not surprising when considered in terms of foundations. America is a country of contradictions because of its foundation. On the one hand, there’s the idea of what America is supposed to be, and on the other, what America really is. America claims to be the land of the free, but it was founded on indigenous genocide and built on slavery. As a result of this discordant origin, America is a country at odds with its past.
“As long as large swaths of Americans regard slavery, Jim Crow and racism as historical footnotes — missteps long since corrected — there is no way to move past racism. Fifty-three years won’t do it, and 153 years won’t do it. It’s like apologizing for something without knowing what you’re apologizing for — no real understanding comes of it. If America doesn’t reckon with the past, divisions will only worsen.”
During the NBA’s restart inside the league’s bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort, players have spoken out about those recent events — including the Milwaukee Bucks deciding not to take the court to play the Orlando Magic in Game 5 of their first-round playoff series last month in the wake of Blake’s shooting, which took place about 40 miles southeast of Milwaukee.
The league has painted “Black Lives Matter” on the three courts it has used inside the bubble, and the majority of players have chosen to wear one of a series of phrases agreed upon by the league and the National Basketball Players Association to highlight systemic issues they hope to see change in society.
One of those phrases is education reform — something Russell highlighted in his essay that especially needs to take place.
“Nowhere is this more readily seen than in education,” Russell said. “Education is one of the most powerful tools we have in the fight against racism because it is foundational in the formation of an entire generation’s beliefs. Kids learn their ABCs, but also about America’s history, and American culture. When I was a kid, I came across a passage in an American history book that still sears my soul. It said that slaves were better off living as slaves than they were living free in Africa. It infuriated me even as a child. Life without freedom is no life at all.
“Kids are unlikely to come across a passage so explicitly racist today, but they experience more subtle forms of racism, such as Black History lessons, which are taught as adjacent to American history, rather than an integral part of it. In order to eradicate racism, we must provide our children with an education that includes all American history and that examines how that history continues to shape our institutions, beliefs and culture.”