Bill Russell And I

The Things I Wished I’d said

William Spivey
3 min readAug 1, 2022


Photo by Kylie O’Sullivan at Unsplash

I’ve been in the same room as Bill Russell on a half-dozen occasions; you could take off points for those rooms being arenas that seated between 12,000–20,000 people. I get extra points given the arenas weren’t full, and once I was within ten feet of him. Russell was known for not signing autographs, and I really didn’t have anything to say to him, so I just let him be.

The times I saw him were always at basketball games. Not NBA games, but small conference tournaments like the MEAC, CIAA, or the NCAA Tournament early rounds. Sometimes he was with others like former teammate John Thompson, the late coach of the Georgetown Hoyas. Other times he was alone. He always seemed relaxed, watching the game when it suited him or chatting with an old friend.

While at the moment, I had nothing to say, looking back, there are some things I wished I had said. I may have been in high school when I read, Go Up For Glory, an autobiography covering Russell up to that point in his career. I learned about the two National Championships he won while at the University of San Francisco, in addition to his Olympic Gold Medal. Add those to his eleven NBA Championships, including two as player-coach (the first Black coach in the NBA). He is the winningest basketball player of all time. But I wouldn’t have asked him about any of that.

I wish I’d asked him about his involvement in the civil rights movement, especially while living/working in Boston, which was as hostile a racial environment as one can imagine. I’d ask about when a Lexington, KY restaurant refused to serve him, and the entire team left, boycotting the exhibition game the Boston Celtics were supposed to play that night. I’d ask how he felt when segregated hotels in North Carolina refused to provide lodging to his team. How did it feel being booed by white students while in college? What was it like joining forces with other prominent athletes in support of Muhammad Ali when the government lined up against him?

I wished I’d thanked him for standing up and being a man when the easier path would be to say and do nothing. Bill Russell didn’t sign autographs, rarely posed for pictures, and didn’t smile for the fans. He knew many if not most, of the fans were hypocritical, and while they might grin in his face…



William Spivey

I write about politics, history, education, and race. Follow me at and support me at


See more recommendations