Bill Russell and Red Auerbach agreed.
Auerbach, the longtime coach of the Boston Celtics, confided in Russell that he planned to retire from coaching. Russell and Auerbach built a dynasty together, with Russell dominating the center field and Auerbach sealing championship victories with a celebratory cigar smoke.
Each would draft a top-five coach instead of Auerbach and consider any name that made both lists.
They couldn’t find a match. Auerbach had already approached Russell about taking the job and continuing as a football player, but Russell, who had witnessed Auerbach’s coaching losses, quickly turned him down.
Now, after the lists had been crossed off, Russell reconsidered his position and figured that no one but Bill Russell could coach Bill Russell.
“When Red and I started discussing my coaching, there were 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 didn’t cross his mind until members of the Boston news media informed him. “When I took the job, one reporter wrote seven articles focusing on why I shouldn’t coach the Celtics,” Russell wrote.
Russell, who died Sunday at age 88, won two championships as the Celtics’ head coach, his 10th and 11th rings. He also coached the Seattle SuperSonics and Sacramento Kings and inspired a generation of blacks to try their hand at coaching as well. The skepticism that accompanied his hiring in Boston is perhaps less relevant now, but is still a factor in whether blacks are hired as NBA coaches today.
Bernie Bickerstaff, who is black, watched Russell become the head coach of the Celtics just as he was about to enter the coaching life. He started as an assistant at the University of San Diego under Phil Wolpert, who had mentored Russell at the University of San Francisco.
“At the time, you didn’t think about anything like that,” said Bickerstaff, who became the SuperSonics’ coach in 1985. It seemed far away.”
Russell, the coach, imitated 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 many Bostonians the wrong way,” Russell wrote in his 2009 book. “At that time, Boston was a completely segregated city, and I was adamantly against segregation.”
He demanded respect and competed fiercely in an era without an assistant coach. He played and coached the Celtics for three seasons before ending the NBA’s most successful and longest championship run.
“It speaks to who he was as a person and a humanitarian if you understand the culture of this country, especially in certain areas,” said Jim Clemons, who is black and became the Dallas Mavericks coach in 1996.
Al Attles and Lenny Wilkens followed Russell as the NBA’s next black head coaches. They, like Russell, led teams to championships. It took some time 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 NFL’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 man, at a time when it wasn’t popular for someone of our kind, he stood up and represented. He had no fear. He was real. He was successful. He was a leader on and off the court.”
Russell became the fifth person to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach when he was inducted as a coach last year.
What seemed far-fetched at the time seemed commonplace when Bickerstaff entered coaching. Half of the NBA’s 30 coaches will be black in the 2022-23 season, including JB Bickerstaff, Bernie’s son and the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
But back in 2020, only four black coaches roamed the sidelines of the NBA. “Honestly, there’s some natural decline in the hiring and firing of coaches, but the numbers are very low right now,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said ahead of the 2020 Finals.
Other sports leagues continued to lag behind. Nearly two decades after Russell won his first championship as a manager, Al Campanis, an executive with the Los Angeles Dodgers, expressed doubts about the ability of blacks to hold managerial positions.
“I don’t believe it’s prejudice,” Campanis said in an interview on ABC’s “Nightline” in 1987. “I really believe that they might not have some need to be, say, a field manager, or maybe a general. manager.”
MLB recently commemorated the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s major league debut, but only two of its current managers — Houston’s Dusty Baker and the Dodgers’ Dave Roberts — are black.
In the NFL, 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 NFL created a diversity advisory committee and mandated that all teams hire a minority offensive coach after Flores’ lawsuit.
Russell didn’t often talk about being the first black coach in a major sports league. But after being hired, he felt the stress that awaited him as “the first Negro coach,” as he wrote in his book.
The prospect of his relationship with Auerbach evolving from a superficial coach-player bond into a deeper friendship comforted him.
“So I started to look forward to it,” he wrote.
Russell left the Celtics in 1969 but took over the SuperSonics from 1973 to 1977. He led Seattle to the franchise’s first playoff appearance, but success in Boston eluded him.
Russell coached his final season with the Sacramento Kings in 1987-88 before being fired and moving to the front office after a 17-41 record.
“With so many really great players, it was hard for him to understand why the regulars didn’t have the same drive, focus and dedication to winning that he had,” said Jerry Reynolds, Russell’s assistant on the Kings. Interview on Sunday. “There’s just not a lot of people involved like that. That’s why they are great. In some ways, it was difficult for him to understand. Most of the guys wanted to win. They didn’t need to win every game like him.”
All the while, Russell remained committed to coaching.
Bickerstaff recalled that Russell offered golf clubs to one of Wolpert’s sons instead of signing for his autograph—an act Russell steadfastly refused throughout his career.
Clemons said the booster introduced his high school team to Russell after he won the Ohio state championship. Russell barely looked up from his soup. He hated to stop eating.
Clemons became aware of the thinking after reading Russell’s autobiography.
Before being thought of as a basketball player, before being viewed as a coach, Russell wanted to be seen as a human being.
“He looked a little like Muhammad Ali,” Reynolds said. “He was always who he was. Society and people have changed. Everything has changed to fit the way it should have been all along. “