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Russell's legend exemplified in racist, turbulent 1960s

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  • Programming note: Watch "Race in America: A Candid Conversation" on Wednesday, Aug. 10 at approximately 5 p.m. on NBC Sports Bay Area (at the conclusion of "Giants Postgame Live").

The enduring visuals of Bill Russell are mostly of his artistry on the basketball court and his deliberate responses to the social ill of injustice. Rarely did both worlds collide within his ranks.

There was, however, at least one striking exception.

The year was 1966, Russell’s first season as player-coach of the Celtics. Training camp ended with the roster at 13. The limit was 12. Somebody had to be waived, and the news would be delivered by Russell.

The last cut was a man named Art Heyman, a white guard from Duke who was the No. 1 overall pick in 1963. Heyman, who grew up in New York, did not take it well, recalled Jim Barnett, now a radio analyst for the Warriors but then a wide-eyed rookie from the University of Oregon.

“Art Heyman went berserk,” Barnett said, appearing with author Howard Bryant on the episode of “Race in America: A Candid Conversation” scheduled to air at approximately 5 p.m. Wednesday on NBC Sports Bay Area.

“He called Russell every racist name you can think of. It was at the Boston Garden. He said it and Russell listened. He went on and on, for five minutes. (Russell) never said a word. He never defended himself. He let Art Heyman say all these things until he was tired of talking and yelling. And then he left the court.”

There was no need for Russell to fully engage. He discerned, perhaps before giving word to Heyman, that in case of insubordination there was no purpose in raising his voice or otherwise intensifying the moment. He was the coach.

 

This was the turbulent 1960s, with Muhammad Ali speaking loudly and without pause, with Dr. Martin Luther King preaching with the fire of conviction, with Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown vociferously imploring the oppressed to rise up and fight back.

Russell had something they did not. Power. He was that rare Black man who had been granted the voice of authority. He decided who played and who did not. Who stayed and who did not. That was enough to withstand a few minutes of wrath from someone disappointed and maybe even distraught.

Barnett recalled. “He knew when to be a little more outspoken, but he didn’t go over the edge. He didn’t do too much.”

Which is not to suggest Russell giddily welcomed hate speech from anyone, regardless of race or gender or occupation.

In the decade before Heyman’s outburst, Russell had experienced so much more. So much worse. He had been denied service at restaurants and hotels, based on his skin color. He had been cursed by “fans” at Boston Garden. His home, in suburban Boston, had been vandalized, burglarized and defaced with feces on numerous occasions – even as he was leading the home team to 11 championships in 13 seasons.

Russell had survived the vitriol and abuse from the worst of Boston’s white racists. His teammates knew of it and supported him. So, too, did Boston’s Black community, for which discrimination was routine.

“What I really admired about Russell, and about the Russell story, is that he provided a template for the way Black athletes could behave – if they wanted to or didn’t have to,” said Bryant, who grew up in Boston in the 1970s and ‘80s.

“What was really interesting about him was his willingness to maintain the connection to the Black community, in addition to being a superstar. A lot of players just don’t want to go political. They don’t want to talk about what’s happening in the world. They don’t want to connect.

“And in those times, during the civil rights movement, when everything is happening – the world was changing right in front of you – Bill Russell was willing to stand up and really challenge the city, a city that is a really racist town, and (basically) say ‘You can cheer for me, but I’m not going to separate what’s happening in Birmingham and what’s happening in Boston and what’s happening with MLK.’”

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Russell spent most of his 88 years on earth stirring and serving food for thought. He was an involuntary statesman/diplomat but a very voluntary warrior on issues of equality.

He didn’t cut Heyman from the roster because he was white. Don Nelson was white, as were John Havlicek, Bailey Howell, Toby Kimball and Larry Siegfried. So, too, was the 1966 first-round draft pick: Barnett.

Russell cut Heyman – who spent the season in the long-defunct Eastern Professional Basketball League – because the other 12 players were better.

 

And because, at a time when Russell was being told what he could not do, this was something he knew he could do.