Why NBA Legend Bill Russell Decided to Take a Knee on Twitter

The 83-year-old civil rights activist opened a new account in pursuit of social justice.

Boston Celtics' legend Bill Russell stands with his Presidential Medal of Freedom during the NBA All-Star basketball game in Los Angeles, Feb. 20, 2011 / REUTERS

Bill Russell, a trailblazing pioneer for Black men in the NBA, had a career of historic proportions. Russell led the Boston Celtics to win 11 championships in just 13 seasons (1956 to 1969) and he was the NBA's MVP five times.


But during the time of Jim Crow laws in the United States, which supported segregation, Russell's athletic prowess didn't make him immune to rampant racism. Celtics fans didn't accept him as they did his white teammates. Russell also experienced having to sleep in a different hotel than the rest of the team when on the road.

Instead of being silent, he became an outspoken supporter of the civil rights movement. Russell was in the front row during Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech in 1963 during the March on Washington.

And now, more than 50 years later, Russell is showing his support for NFL players who are silently taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality against Blacks in the U.S., a move initiated by former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016.

The 83-year-old, who became the first Black NBA coach in 1966 and the first Black NBA player inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975, decided to create a Twitter page at the end of September. And he grappled with being verified in order for people to believe it was actually his tweets. But it was worth it to Russell, who was intent on showing solidarity with NFL players.

On Sept. 25, the legend sent his first tweet, which included a photo of him wearing the Presidential Medal of Freedom and taking a knee.

Twitter user replied:

You are a true role model sir. Thank you for all you've done for the game and for your commitment to social justice. God bless.

For his social activism, Russell received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civil honor, from former President Barack Obama in 2011.

During the 1960-61 season with the Celtics, Russell linked arms with his teammates as a sign of unity:

He was a good friend of fellow civil rights activist and heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali. During a press conference in Cleveland, Ohio, on June 4, 1967, Russell was among the top Black athletes who supported Ali's decision to refuse military induction to fight in the war in Vietnam. The press conference became known as the Cleveland Summit.

Many white Americans at the time considered Ali's decision unpatriotic.

In a Sports Illustrated article published in 1967, Russell said he was supportive of Ali's decision to risk five years in prison for resisting the draft and was envious of his courage.

"I envy Muhammad Ali … He has something I have never been able to attain and something very few people possess: He has absolute and sincere faith. I'm not worried about Muhammad Ali. He is better equipped than anyone I know to withstand the trials in store for him. What I'm worried about is the rest of us."

Now, in the age of social media, where President Donald Trump uses Twitter as a megaphone, including pushing for NFL team owners to fire players who protest during the national anthem, Russell has adopted a method of instantaneously supporting social activism.

And, the NBA eventually confirmed that Russell's Twitter account is legit.

On the morning of Oct. 3, he thanked Twitter for the verification. Russell posted a photo of himself at a young age, without a beard.

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