The NBA bestows a historic basketball honor for the late Bill Russell by retiring his jersey number 6 with all teams. But they could do more to honor his legacy as a fighter for social justice, starting with more equitable treatment of its sister league, the WNBA.
The NBA had to do something.
Bill Russell played the game at the highest level imaginable, a winner in every sense of the word on and off the court.
With the 88-year-old passing away on July 31, the league had to do something to ensure his memory, like the impact he made on the game, would live on.
So the league announced on August 12 that Russell’s No. 6 jersey would be retired throughout the NBA.
No player in NBA history has ever been bestowed such an honor, making this the latest and arguably the greatest first in a career filled with them for Russell.
“Bill Russell’s unparalleled success on the court and pioneering civil rights activism deserve to be honored in a unique and historic way,” said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. “Permanently retiring his No. 6 across every NBA team ensures that Bill’s transcendent career will always be recognized.”
Tamika Tremaglio, the National Basketball Players Association’s Executive Director, echoed similar sentiments about Russell.
“This is a momentous honor reserved for one of the greatest champions to ever play the game,” said the NBPA’s executive director “Bill’s actions on and off the court throughout the course of his life helped to shape generations of players for the better and for that, we are forever grateful. We are proud to continue the celebration of his life and legacy alongside the league.”
While it’s truly a great moment to acknowledge what Russell has meant to the league and the NBA’s first real dynasty, the Boston Celtics, there’s so much more that the NBA can do to honor his legacy.
Russell, recipient of the Medal of Freedom in 2011 (the highest honor bestowed upon an American civilian) from then-president Barack Obama, was one of the first high-profile athletes to speak out candidly about the injustices of his time.
"Bill Russell, the man, is someone who stood up for the rights and dignity of all men," Obama said in 2011. "He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King; he stood by Muhammed Ali. When a restaurant refused to serve the black Celtics, he refused to play in the scheduled game. He endured insults and vandalism, but he kept on focusing on making the teammates who he loved better players, and made possible the success of so many who would follow."
Despite his enormous success with the Boston Celtics, winning 11 championships within a 13-year window, it did not insulate Russell from racism.
In a 1987 first-person article in The New York Times Magazine, Karen Russell, Bill’s daughter, discussed the family returning to their home in Boston from a three-day weekend to find their home had been burglarized.
"Our house was in a shambles, and 'NIGGA' was spray-painted on the walls," she wrote in the article. "The burglars had poured beer on the pool table and ripped up the felt. ... The police came, and after a while, they left. It was then
that my parents pulled back their bed covers to discover that the burglars had defecated in their bed."
Boston’s pathetic history when it came to treatment of Blacks has been well-documented. The same holds true for the distinction drawn by Russell and many others in how the Celtics embraced Blacks at that time which was in sharp contrast to how the city of Boston and nearby towns treated people of color.
Russell’s goal of fair and equal treatment for all, was no greater on the court than it was on the court.
The league has done right by honoring his basketball legacy with the jersey retirement, as well as the plans this season for a commemorative patch on all NBA player uniforms along with a special logo displayed on all NBA courts.
But the league should be doing more to honor Russell’s push for equality for all.
One of the more sensible ways the league can stay true to the Russell spirit and make a difference, is to do better in its handling of the WNBA and its players when it comes to travel.
Comparable travel has been a chief concern of the WNBA from its inception. But the problems really hit home recently when the Los Angeles Sparks had their flight canceled following a win, which resulted in players having to sleep in the airport.
"It's the first time in my 11 seasons that I've ever had to sleep in the airport," Nneka Ogwumike, who is also president of the WNBPA, said in a video posted on Twitter. "... It was only a matter of time. Half of us are sleeping in the airport. Half of us are at a hotel. There weren't rooms after our flight got delayed, delayed and then canceled at 1 a.m. It is now 1:44, and we are here until 9 a.m."
Can you imagine heading to baggage claim and seeing LeBron James curled up in the waiting area?
Of course not.
That would never happen to him or any other NBA player, and the same should hold true for the WNBA.
The NBA does a great job of talking up the importance of equity and inclusion, and can point to various programs to back up their efforts.
But there’s room, a lot of room, for growth.
Doing better by the WNBA is low-hanging fruit in the grand scheme of equity-driven endeavors the league can get behind; the kind of efforts that would fall well in line with the pioneering spirit of Russell and do right by his legacy as a social justice pioneer.