48 years ago today the greatest champion in professional sports history accepted an offer he simply could not refuse. In a sport where black players were thriving, a different ballgame was being played from the bench. Bill Russell, the 11-time NBA champion, 5-time MVP, 12-time all-star took over the reigns of the Boston Celtics from legendary coach Red Auerbach, thus becoming the first African-American coach in NBA history.
Auerbach, who also broke racial barriers in drafting the first black NBA player in Chuck Cooper in 1950 and introducing an all-black starting lineup in 1964, sought out his replacement after his abrupt retirement before the 1966-67 season. Knowing the team would be left in good hands because of a player like Russell, he thought about who would be the right fit to lead the franchise. After approaching three of his players who all turned him down, the light bulb went off for Red, "Who better to motivate Bill Russell than Bill Russell." Although he was still an active player, Russell accepted the position and signed the contract, saying to reporters in a famous quote, ”I wasn’t offered the job because I am a Negro, I was offered it because Red figured I could do it.”
In his first season as coach, Russell would lead the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals only to lose to his all-time rival Wilt Chamberlain and the Philadelphia 76ers who had a record-setting season winning 68 games and eventually went on to win the NBA championship. However, the very next year, Russell would get his revenge against Chamberlain by defeating the Sixers in the 1967-68 Eastern Division finals, although Black players on both teams were struggling with the horrific event of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Facing the Jerry West-led Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals, Russell would win title number ten while also becoming the first African-American coach to win a championship. During that year Russell would also be named Sports Illlustrated’s Sportsman Of The Year, cementing his legacy of success in sports history.
Russell led the way for other black coaches such as Lenny Wilkens and his Boston teammate K.C. Jones. Beyond his contribution to the game, Russell’s coaching job ushered in a new wave of African-American prominence in a game that was largely dominated by whites at one time. For that, the game owes him a great debt.
There is one element in all of this that somehow gets swept under the rug as a minor footnote. Bill Russell was also a PLAYER while coaching, a task that is worthy of even more praise. How difficult must it have been to extend oneself physically, manage egos, and strategize game plans enough to win an NBA championship? To me, it is one of the most overlooked achievements in all of sports history. This brings me to another question- could any modern player come close to duplicating this?
Enter the new breed. With the money and egotistical personalities to deal with in today’s game, being a player-coach seems virtually impossible. Some would say that top players such as Chris Paul or Kobe Bryant would be options that may be able to pull it off. But with their competitive temperament, blood pressure medication would have to be administered at halftime of every game. The closest thing to being a player-coach today is what the Brooklyn Nets did by hiring future Hall-of-Famer Jason Kidd to direct the troops. Coming directly from the guiding of a Knicks team on the court the prior season, he was now faced with the daunting job of calling the shots with many of his former all-star peers the very next year. Early on it seemed like an assignment that was well over Kidd’s head as the Nets struggled and looked as if it was a huge mistake in bringing in the inexperienced Kidd. Yet through perseverance, thick skin, and wealth of basketball knowledge stemming from a 19-year NBA playing career, J.Kidd has turned the corner and is now leading a veteran squad that no one wants to face in a seven game series. While it is not the same as playing while coaching, it is the closest thing that we will ever see to being a “Boss Playa” like Russell in 1966. Of course the jury is still out on Kidd, but from all indications he will be the final case to evaluate. #RESPECT to the greatest winner in sports history.