Celtics legend Bob Cousy calls Bill Russell ‘a very sensitive black man’ in light of the racism he faced
Boston Celtics great Bob Cousy will be soon honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom later this month, and as he reminisced on his life and what made him worthy of this honor, the 91-year-old former guard expanded on his regret of not having more conversations with fellow Hall of Famer Bill Russell on matters of race.
Russell was not only one of the greatest players to step foot on an NBA court, but also a civil rights pioneer — a forefather of fighting for civil justice, inclusion and a bevy of topics regarding race and opportunities for black players in the league. Yet Cousy still sees him as angry and deconstructive when looking back at the way he chose to fight his wars:
“Russell’s a very sensitive black man who resented any type of racism he endured. He decided to fight the battle in his way. I would not judge,” Cousy told Steve Aschburner of NBA.com. “You know, athletes are competitive, and it’s very hard for us to turn the other cheek. And he never did. He made outrageous statements when he had a podium. “Boston is the most racist city in the world,” and things like that. He was trying to get the attention of the majority. That, in his judgment, was his way to fight the good fight. Whether I agreed with that or not.
“I will tell you I had great respect for Arthur Ashe. I remember dropping him a note or two, in terms of how he fought it. He fought it in a different way, without becoming an “Uncle Tom” but also without pissing off the moderates. He reached out and tried to do it, I guess, the way Dr. [Martin Luther] King did it: With love. As opposed to Russ’ approach.
“You’ve got to follow your instincts in something like that. I had great respect for Arthur Ashe in how he fought the battle. But I would never criticize Russ for how his instincts told him he had to fight his battle.”
Bob Cousy’s version of “no offense, but …” is a clear reflection of the time he grew up in, where resenting any sort of uprise was the patriotic thing to do. The Celtics point guard extraordinaire doesn’t want to offend his former teammate, but can’t help himself but criticize his judgment and put out examples of how others did it right.
That is perhaps more telling than anything else as to why these two former All-Stars never shared these type of important conversations. Russell was keenly aware about who was on his side and who wasn’t, and the fact they wore the same jersey never meant they shared the same sentiments.
That “very sensitive black man” is revered to this day by a league that went from being predominantly white to one that is now composed of approximately 75% black players. It has been 69 years since Chuck Cooper, the first black man to be drafted into the league, put on an NBA jersey, but we’re still learning lessons of what it was like to fight those battles in times of ignorance.