Bill Russell Paved the Way for Black Coaches to Defy Doubters

Bill Russell and Red Auerbach came to an agreement.

Auerbach, the longtime Boston Celtics coach, had confided in Russell that he planned to retire from coaching. Russell and Auerbach had created a dynasty together, with Russell dominating at center and Auerbach cementing their championship victories with plumes of celebratory cigar smoke.

They would each write down their top-five preferred coaches to succeed Auerbach and consider any name who landed on both lists.

They found no matches. Auerbach had already approached Russell about taking over the job and continuing on as a player, but Russell, who had witnessed the toll coaching took on Auerbach, quickly rebuffed him.

Now, after the lists crisscrossed candidates, Russell reconsidered his position and figured nobody else, beyond Auerbach, could coach Bill Russell quite like Bill Russell.

“When Red and I had started to discuss my becoming coach, there were some things we didn’t have to say,” Russell wrote in his book about his friendship with Auerbach, “Red and Me: My Coach, My Lifelong Friend,” in 2009. “For example, when I was finally named publicly, I didn’t know that I had just become the first African American coach in the history of major league sports.”

It was 1966, and the distinction did not cross his mind until Boston news media members informed him. “When I took the job, one reporter wrote seven articles focusing on why I shouldn’t be coaching the Celtics,” Russell wrote.

Russell, who died Sunday at 88, would go on to win two championships as the head coach of the Celtics, his 10th and 11th championship rings. He would also coach the Seattle SuperSonics and the Sacramento Kings and inspire a generation of Black players to try their hand at coaching, too. The skepticism that accompanied his hiring in Boston is perhaps less of an issue now, but still a factor in whether Black people are hired to coach in the N.B.A. today.

Bernie Bickerstaff, who is Black, watched Russell take over as head coach of the Celtics just as he was about to enter into a life of coaching. He began as an assistant at the University of San Diego under Phil Woolpert, who had coached Russell at the University of San Francisco.

Bernie Bickerstaff, who has been the head coach of five N.B.A. teams, said he was inspired by Bill Russell.Credit…Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

“At that time, you didn’t think about anything like that,” said Bickerstaff, who became the coach of the SuperSonics in 1985. “In fact, if you’re sitting back and you’re a young Black at that time, it seemed far-fetched.”

Russell, the coach, mimicked Russell the player. He was a longtime civil rights activist who coached the Celtics during the assassinations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. “It rubbed a lot of Bostonians the wrong way,” Russell wrote in his 2009 book. “At the time, Boston was a totally segregated city — and I vehemently opposed segregation.”

He demanded respect and competed fiercely during an era when he had no assistant coaches. He played and coached the Celtics for three seasons before closing out the N.B.A.’s most successful and long-lasting championship reign.

“That speaks volumes in itself for who he was as a person and a humanitarian, if you understand the culture of this country, especially in certain places,” said Jim Cleamons, who is Black and became the coach of the Dallas Mavericks in 1996.

Al Attles and Lenny Wilkens followed Russell as the next Black N.B.A. head coaches. They, like Russell, led teams to championships. It took a while for the rest of the professional sports world to catch up. Frank Robinson, Russell’s former high school basketball teammate, became Major League Baseball’s first Black manager, in Cleveland, in 1975. Art Shell became the N.F.L.’s first Black head coach in the modern era for the Oakland Raiders in 1989.

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

Russell became the fifth person inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and a coach when he earned enshrinement as a coach last year.

Jim Cleamons was the head coach of the Dallas Mavericks across two seasons in the 1990s. Credit…Tim Clayton for The New York Times

By then, something that seemed far-fetched when Bickerstaff broke into coaching seemed common. Half of the N.B.A.’s 30 coaches will be Black heading into the 2022-23 season, including J.B. Bickerstaff, Bernie’s son and the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

But as recently as 2020, only four Black coaches roamed N.B.A. sidelines. “There is a certain natural ebb and flow to the hiring and firing, frankly, of coaches, but the number is too low right now,” N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver said before 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 doubt about the ability of Black people to hold managerial level positions.

“I don’t believe it’s prejudice,” Campanis said in an interview on ABC’s “Nightline” in 1987. “I truly believe that they may not have some of the necessities to be, let’s say, a field manager, or perhaps a general manager.”

M.L.B. recently commemorated the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s major league debut, yet only two of its current managers — Houston’s Dusty Baker and the Dodgers’ Dave Roberts — are Black.

In the N.F.L., Brian Flores, the former coach of the Miami Dolphins, recently sued the league over discriminatory hiring practices. Flores is the son of Honduran immigrants. The N.F.L. created a diversity advisory committee and mandated that every team hire a minority offensive coach after Flores’s suit.

Russell did not talk often about being the first Black coach in a major sports league. But after his hiring, he felt the stress that awaited him as the “the first Negro coach,” as he wrote in his book.

The hope of his relationship with Auerbach evolving from a superficial coach-player bond into a deeper friendship comforted him.

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

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

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

J.B. Bickerstaff, Bernie Bickerstaff’s son, has coached the Cleveland Cavaliers since 2020. He’s one of 15 Black coaches in the N.B.A.Credit…Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

“With a lot of truly great players, it was tough for him to understand why regular players did not have the same drive, focus and commitment to winning that he did,” Jerry Reynolds, an assistant for Russell on the Kings, said in an interview Sunday. “There’s just not very many people wired like that. That’s why they’re great. In some ways, it was hard for him to understand that. Most of the guys, they wanted to win. They didn’t have the need to win every game like him.”

All along, Russell remained true to who he was while coaching.

Bickerstaff recalled Russell offering a set of golf clubs to one of Woolpert’s sons instead of signing an autograph for him — an act that Russell was known to steadfastly refuse throughout his career.

Cleamons said that a booster introduced his high school team to Russell shortly after it had won the Ohio state championship. Russell hardly looked up from his soup. He hated to be interrupted from a meal.

Cleamons understood the mind-set after reading Russell’s autobiography.

Before being thought of as a basketball player, before being looked upon as a coach, Russell wanted to be viewed as a human being.

“He was a little bit like Muhammad Ali,” Reynolds said. “He was always who he was. Society and people changed. Things changed to fit more like it should have been all along.”

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