On Twitter, Bill Russell Has Jokes, Takes, and a Lasting Legacy of Activism
Since joining the social media platform last year, the Boston Celtics legend has reminded old fans and taught new ones about a lifetime spent speaking truth to power.
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports
Many things are different about this year’s Boston Celtics, including how one fan, Bill Russell, publicly supports the team from the sidelines and cyberspace. The 84-year old legend, long a pioneer on and off the court, joined Twitter in September, years after the social media platform became a dominant community for the sports world. Yet, with one Tweet, Russell splashed his way back into pop culture headlines and began a season’s worth of commentary that is, knowingly or not, helping to recalibrate his legacy.
It began as a potent, visual statement of solidarity with Colin Kaepernick and NFL players protesting social injustice. Posted amidst public acrimony over sports, politics, protest, and patriotism last fall, the photo of Russell on one knee with his Presidential Medal of Freedom hanging from his neck quickly went viral with nearly 15,000 retweets and 46,000 likes. As he explained to ESPN, his motivation for joining Twitter and putting out the post was to let players know that he stood with them, that they weren’t alone.
For historian Aram Goudsouzian, author of King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution, it was an influential gesture of camaraderie. “Sports can be so powerful politically, because it reaches an audience that isn’t looking for politics,” he told VICE Sports. For Goudsouzian, the post was compelling, “a very conscious use of imagery within the American tradition.” It reminded the public that present day players’ actions are no different than those undertaken by Russell decades earlier.
Throughout his career, from college courts to the hardwood of Boston Garden and beyond, Russell confronted and spoke out against many forms of racism. He was subjected to Jim Crow segregation while traveling with the Celtics for exhibition games in the late 1950s and early 1960s; after a restaurant in Lexington, Kentucky refused to serve him and other African-American teammates in 1961, the group boycotted the game. A Civil Rights activist, Russell proactively supported friend Muhammed Ali’s 1967 refusal to be drafted by the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. Despite being a well-known and talented professional basketball player, Russell still encountered everyday discrimination, and he readily called attention to it. In short, according to Goudsouzian, as one of its first great black superstar athletes, Russell helped integrate the NBA.
Given his decades of outspokenness, Twitter is perhaps an ideal match for the Celtic legend, who as a player could have used the new medium’s direct-to-public approach. “Russell can be very opinionated and individualistic, and if he saw racism, he was going to highlight it,” Goudsouzian said. Russell’s comments were often censored or distorted by editors and press outlets, and some of his remarks about encountering discrimination while living in Massachusetts sowed seeds of discontent with fans. Yet, much of the rift, at least on the side of the public, has mended over the years, attributable, Gousouzian argues, to greater racial openness and an embracement of the legend.
Russell has become known as a man of principle and a great champion. “He gets hailed as the intellect and saving basketball,” Goudsouzian said. “He fits the traditionalist notion of what a great athlete is, even when he was disrupting traditional notions of what athletes should do in public.” That duality helped make Russell authentic to the American public, Goudsouzian said and gave Russell a unique platform for his activism, a sentiment renewed this season as his online presence evolved.
Since that first post, Russell’s feed, spearheaded by his wife, Jeannine, continues to reinforce his support for and solidarity with those fighting for greater justice. He urged people to stand up to bullying and honored the hard work and memories of friends Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Muhammed Ali. His humanity is displayed through support for #PuertoRicoRelief long after most U.S. citizens and media outlets forgot about the hurricane-ravaged island. Russell tips his hat to colleagues past and present, including longtime friend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, humorously ribs Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal, and supports other New England athletes and teams. And, every so often, Russell remembers the past, such as his participation in U.S. Government Cold War sports diplomacy in a special Christmas Day post.
Russell’s social media presence is more than mere entertainment, it’s a lifeline to the newer, more geographically diverse audiences that underpin the NBA’s global growth. In a league where roughly one in four players are international—the Celtics roster features six—having the game’s legends online can serve as a gateway for new fans.
For Nicolas Evrard, a Belgium-born journalist, Russell is doing just that. As founder and editor-in-chief of BostonSportsActu.com, the first French-language website dedicated to Boston sports teams, Evrard is a close Celtics observer, a passion born during the team’s 2008 championship run.
“You have this Celtics mentality, the Celtics spirit,” he told VICE Sports of the team, its fans, and history. “That’s one thing that no other team has in the NBA and that’s what attracted me.”
Evrard spent part of his childhood in Jacksonville, Florida, and later worked in Boston, a period that solidified his love for the city and its sports stories. As an ardent Celtics fan, Evrard was aware of the star’s basketball prowess and activist roles, including as the first African American NBA coach. But the same can’t be said for newer NBA fans or those just getting to know the Celtics thanks to their competitiveness in postseason play.
“A lot of people went on the Internet and tried to find out something about him,” Evrard related following Russell’s impactful September 2017 Twitter debut. As a result, more people overseas are learning about the man, the Civil Rights Movement, and its trajectory through the present day.
“For these people,” Evrard said, “it’s great that Bill Russell is on Twitter for it connects him to the people more easily. It helps people a lot to start to know him better because he’s retired now for 40 years” and wouldn’t otherwise have the same levels of recognition or exposure by these new fan bases. “People are happy to hear of him.”