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Bill Russell: Revolutionary
on June 24, 2010
No basketball player defined the sixties the way that Bill Russell did. From 1959 to 1969, Russell led the Boston Celtics to ten NBA championships, including eight straight.* During this period, Russell was the central force of the greatest dynasty in the history of the sport. The Celtics helped transform the NBA from an obscure professional basketball league into a prominent sport that has become an important part of American popular culture and entertainment.
Russell's Celtics revolutionized the NBA. Before he joined the Celtics in 1956, professional basketball was essentially a lily-white, slow, earthbound sport. But Russell helped change all of that. He infused a black aesthetic into basketball and altered the patterns of the game. The changes could be seen in the way Russell rebounded the ball: he flew into the air, snatched the ball off the rim, and in one motion whipped an outlet pass to Bob Cousy or K.C. Jones, igniting a fast-break. Traditionally, basketball coaches taught their players never to leave their feet on defense. Russell ignored this rule. He leaped off the parquet floor and blocked shots, frustrating and intimidating shooters. Sometimes he simply jumped and caught a player's errant shot in midair. Russell's defense stretched the possibilities of the game. He cultivated a faster and more athletic sport.
In Aram Goudsouzian's King of the Court, we learn that Russell challenged racial boundaries on and off the court. When he arrived in Boston in December 1956, Russell was the only black player on the Celtics and only 15 African Americans held roster spots in the NBA. Russell was not the first black player in the league, but he was the NBA's first black superstar. Over the course of his thirteen seasons, Russell and the Celtics symbolized integration in American life. By 1969, Russell's last season, the NBA had become a predominantly black sport.
But Russell refused to believe that his integrated teams were evidence of racial progress in America. Goudsouzian documents the courtside racial taunts that Russell heard, the hate mail he received, and the discrimination he faced in the South and in Boston. Goudsouzian is a master storyteller whose vivid narrative shows how Russell embodied the tensions of the civil rights movement and how he confronted racial discrimination. In King of the Court, readers will learn how Russell became one of the first outspoken, politically active black athletes in America, at a time when athletes avoided controversial social and political issues. Russell's defiant behavior off the court challenged traditional standards of behavior for black athletes, paving the way for younger, more militant black athletes.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in learning about Russell, the history of the NBA, or the civil rights movement. Goudsouzian covers it all: the Wilt-Russell rivalry, the commercial growth of professional basketball, Russell's relationship with Red Auerbach, his involvement in the civil rights movement, the explosive racial history of Boston in the 1960s and 1970s, and the legacy of the Celtics' dynasty. This is unquestionably one of the best sport biographies written in the last decade. Don't take my word for it. Read it yourself.
*Russell won 11 total championships in 13 seasons.