If Bill Russell had not been the NBA's first black head coach, somebody else would have been. At some point, some other franchise would have offered its head coaching position to a black man, and history would have continued. But who knows when the change, the improvement, would have occurred, if it weren't for Russell? In so many ways -- as a basketball player who revolutionized the center position, as a black man who stood up against all that was wrong -- Bill Russell paved the way.
In a predominantly white league, Russell became the world's finest basketball player. In a predominantly white sports culture, Russell became the world's greatest and most prolific winner. In a city known for its racism, Russell became one of the most visible public figures. In a league that had no black coaches, Russell succeeded Red Auerbach and won two championships while lighting the path for future black coaches, including Doc Rivers. And he did it all while maintaining a sense of integrity we no longer expect from athletes.
During his younger days, Russell turned off a lot of people by speaking his mind and openly fighting racism. He certainly didn't make friends when calling Boston "a flea market of racism," nor did he earn many white fans when saying, "I dislike most white people because they are people. As opposed to dislike, I like most black people because I am black." Russell couldn't even leave the city without ticking people off. Upon leaving Boston, Russell called out Boston's media for its, in his mind, corrupt and prejudicial ways. Once, when playing for the Celtics, Russell was refused service by a Kentucky restaurant. The Celtics were set to play an exhibition game in the same city, and Russell took action by sitting out the game.
Through it all, despite turning some fans away and experiencing a real tension between himself and the city for which he helped win eleven titles, Russell felt no regret. Whatever he did, whenever he did it, Bill Russell always stood by his decisions. Why wouldn't he, when he always acted in a way he believed -- in his mind, at that present time -- was the best manner he could?
"There's no such thing as a better way," Russell told Sports Illustrated in 1999, when asked whether he would have changed his earlier behavior if given the opportunity. He continued, "For my life experiences, for my intelligence or lack of, the things that I did for me, that was the best and only way to do what I did. And I don’t brag or apologize. That’s it. It’s neither good nor bad; it’s different." Bill Russell made enemies in Boston, and in Kentucky, and I'm sure countless other places. Yet, even if he could, he wouldn't change a single action he made.
Live life as Bill Russell does, with the strength to follow your heart even when it's not popular to do so, and you'll never need to feel regret. Or you can live life as most do, and you can admire Russell while continuing your own flawed existence, and you can respect everyone strong enough to do what you won't, and you can wish you possessed just an ounce of Russell's dignity.
Some Boston sports figures already have statues in their likeness, and, coincidentally or not, all are white. Bobby Orr, Ted Williams and Red Auerbach have all been immortalized in stone. What better way to honor Bill Russell than by allowing him to join those three heroes, allowing him to break the color line, and transcend barriers, one more time?