Author’s Note: This is a post from March of 2021. In light of Russell’s passing on Sunday, it felt appropriate to bring this back up as I still believe it. Bill Russell was an activist, a father, a leader, and a man of integrity, courage, and power. Yes, he was also a champion. His wry humor and his frank honesty will be missed. All of us at MMH send our thoughts and condolences to his family.
I wonder if you asked a group of people who aren’t really into basketball who the National Basketball Association logo was styled after, how many would get it right? If you asked the same group what the logo looked like, I think more people would be able to describe it in some way.
Clearly, in this fictional study I made up, the impact of the logo outlasts its creation. The symbol grows to mean something more than the subject itself. For the record, Jerry West was the basis for the image. West has been a powerful figure in the NBA since 1960. He’s won awards and championships as a player and an executive. He’s fine, I suppose.
Still, the conversation around who should serve as inspiration for a new logo crops up every once in a while. The most recent debate started around Kobe Bryant’s death last year. In the aftermath of his passing, a petition circled to make the Black Mamba the iconic figure.
A couple of weeks ago, Kyrie Irving brought that conversation back to the forefront. Kyrie normally likes to make statements as crazy as his handles, but this time, he had a succinct point. He posted a graphic on instagram of Kobe as the logo with the caption, “Gotta happen, idc what anyone says. BLACK KINGS BUILT THE LEAGUE.” I am totally behind changing the NBA logo to represent long under-represented voices. I’m glad he brought it up, I just think Kyrie has the wrong guy. I have a lot of thoughts on Bryant, but that is not what this piece is about.
I believe that the NBA should select William Felton Russell to be the silhouette. The quick case is that Bill Russell was a great player and a great man. One who had to overcome even greater challenges. He’s got a Presidential Medal of Freedom. I can elaborate though.
Bill Russell’s basketball resume alone is enough to put him in the conversation. He is the best winner the National Basketball Association has ever seen. Even more so than that guy in Chicago. (Not best player, so don’t freak out). He won high school titles. He won back-to-back NCAA championships with the powerhouse program at the University of San Francisco.
After that second title in 1956, Bill Russell was drafted to play for the Boston Celtics (well, technically he was drafted by the Hawks and traded). He couldn’t join them right away because he was busy winning an Olympic gold medal. When he did catch up with his pro-team, he helped lead them to the title as a rookie. Russell won 11 NBA titles in his 13 years in the league. One of those two years he lost? He got injured in the ‘58 finals. Oh and his final two ‘chips? He was player and coach.
He was not just the ultimate team player. Russell won five MVP awards and was second in two more. He played in twelve All-Star games and was named to 11 All-NBA teams. For his career, he averaged 15 PTS, 22.5 REB, and 4.3 AST. If they kept blocks as a stat when he played, he would have produced staggering numbers in that area too. If you prefer advanced analytics, he was first in defensive win shares every season. My favorite stat is that, according the basketball-reference.com, in the 1962 playoffs, he averaged 48 minutes/game. There are 48 minutes in a basketball game.
Russell was a gifted athlete. He was an incredible high jumper, even saying he would have competed in the Olympics had the basketball thing not worked out. But the trait that set him apart was his determination. He didn’t just want to win, he had to win. And that’s what he did.
He was not playing against scrubs, either. His chief rival was Wilt Chamberlain, maybe the most dominant individual player of all-time. (OK, he’s at least top three.) Bill Russell routinely clowned the larger, more statistically superior player. Jerry West–the logo guy–was good enough to be the only player to ever win Finals MVP while on the losing team. Russell beat him over and over. Talent was concentrated on fewer teams, so Russell’s Celtics were stacked too. Still, you can only beat who’s in front of you and he beat them all.
As a man, Bill Russell’s resume is even more important. He’s been labeled as conceited, stand-offish, surly, and rude. He often refused to give autographs to fans. Those labels and those experiences came from a fan base and a public that Russell had no reason to trust.
When he was drafted, he was the only Black man on the team. During games, fans would scream racial epithets. In a poll of his own Boston fanbase, Russell explained in a Slam Magazine article, over 50% of the responses said that one solution to having better attendence would be to “have fewer black guys on the team.” Read that again. That team became the only group he could be open with, outside of his family.
Playing basketball all around the country meant that there were times when a professional athlete–more importantly, a human being–was denied service in restaurants and hotels. Russell and the other Black Celtics boycotted a game in one such instance in Kentucky. They were skewered for the move in most press markets.
Back home, he was not able to buy a house in certain areas around Boston. It is impossible to fathom LeBron being turned away from a community. When he did settle his family in a predominantly white neighborhood, he was harassed. People broke in to his home, graffitied slurs on the walls, and took a shit in his bed.
Russell did not let these physical and emotional invasions deter him. He stood for the rights of people of color. He marched on Washington. He sat in the first row for Martin Luther King’s speech. He supported Muhammed Ali when he refused to fight in Vietnam.
Remember earlier, when I said that Bill Russell was a player-coach? He was the first Black professional coach since Fritz Pollard coached the NFL’s Akron Pros in 1920. At the press conference introducing him as the coach, Russell was actually asked if he could do the job impartially, without applying reverse racism. This was by a real reporter. Russell rose above it, explaining how respect works.
The weight on his shoulders must have felt like a Wilt Chamberlains sitting on each one. If he had not succeeded, it would have been easy for all those white owners to hold that up as an example when ignoring future black applicants. The numbers are still terrible as it is. All this man ever did was show up for those that needed him. One more example. In 2017, he posted a picture of himself on social media taking a knee in support of the NFL players doing so.
He is the ultimate winner in my opinion and forged his legacy in the most trying of circumstances. This is the man I want to act as a symbol for those that have come after him. No one has combined on and off the court excellence and dignity like Bill Russell.
The threads he and his contemporaries began have woven into the fabric of the league. The NBA continues to have outspoken leaders and LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Jaylen Brown, and countless countless others add to that legacy every day.
There you have it. That is my case for changing the logo to Bill Russell. Putting one of the league’s primary trailblazers, disrupters, and champions right out front to be lauded and not feared feels like the right thing to do. I may disagree with Kyrie Irving on the subject of the design, but I appreciate him for continuing to push the conversation. These are the debates, much like that of the Washington Redskins, that can seem isolated, but inspire so much more.
I want to close on a personal note and just thank Bill Russell for inspiring my own father on and off the court. As someone who had very little interaction with people of color growing up, I think having him as a role model opened his eyes in ways he passed down to me. Be good to each other and have a great day.