Bill Russell, who passed away on July 31, won a record 11 NBA championships, and will be remembered as the most prolific winner in American sports history. He was also a member of a “dream team” that, as teammate Oscar Robertson explains, “you’ve probably never heard of.”
In 1964, the U.S. State Department tasked Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach to assemble a team of NBA players for a goodwill tour of Eastern Europe. Like countless African Americans, Bill Russell knew racial discrimination from experience. Even so, he signed on to represent his country.
The team had only eight players: Bill Russell, Tom Heinsohn, K.C. Jones and Bob Cousy from the Boston Celtics; Jerry Lucas and Oscar Robertson from the Cincinatti Royals; Bob Pettit from the St. Louis Hawks, and Tom Gola from the New York Knicks. The tour opened in Poland and some box scores are available here. Safe to say, the Americans crushed the opposition, but there’s more to the story.
In Yugoslavia, the hosts declined to display the American flag. Auerbach told them they better put up Old Glory or the Americans were not going to play. The games duly continued, to packed houses. For further reading see Let Me Tell You a Story: A Lifetime in the Game, by Red Auerbach and John Feinstein.
Auerbach tasked Russell to guard hot-shooting Radivoj Korac. The six-foot-ten Russell, pioneer of the blocked shot, rejected Korac’s first five shots. On the other hand, Russell was not a one-man team.
“When we went into the key, we couldn’t see the hoop, let alone have an opportunity to shoot at it,” recalled Zlatko Kiseljak. “None of us were dunking back then, and that was the first time we saw Bill Russell do it, and his elbow was above the rim.” This was not showboating on the part of Russell.
As he often explained, a shot not released until the ball is in the basket is the best “high-percentage shot” of all. The Americans dominated start to finish but Russell praised some European opponents as NBA caliber. Korak went on to score 99 points in a professional-level game in Belgrade, but he never played in the NBA.
Bill Russell, K.C. Jones, Jerry Lucas and Oscar Robertson had been Olympic gold medalists and all eight players, plus Red Auerbach, are now in the Hall of Fame. Despite the overwhelming victories, America’s team got little notice and that was not entirely accidental.
At the time, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement were promoting integration. On the other hand, leftist radicals of the time supported the Communist Party doctrine that blacks were not Americans and should be segregated in a separate “black belt” in the south. As Sidney Hook noted in Out of Step: An Unquiet Life in the Twentieth Century, that reflected the Soviet doctrine of national homelands, literally a policy of apartheid.
Josef Stalin established Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Republic, in the distant reaches of Siberia. Millions perished in deportations to the various homelands, and as the United Nations refugee agency notes, “the Soviet Union’s 2.5 million Jews were only saved from a similar fate by Stalin’s death in March 1953.”
American leftists were not about to celebrate an overwhelming USA victory over teams from allegedly superior Communist countries. Nearly 60 years later, the left contends that America was never anything more than a bastion of racism, slavery and oppression, a belch from CPUSA dogma. So no surprise that in 2022, the victorious 1964 American dream team again failed to garner the attention it deserves. So have some of Bill Russell’s best performances off the court.
“Come on, coach” says player Bill (Bill Murray), we were better than that team. We would have won if you’d let us play five guys at a time!” Lewis responds, “You’re just saying because I’m black!”
Curtis tells a female student (Laraine Newman) “I’m crazy about you baby!” She responds, “Ohhh, God. I mean, don’t you see? I’m fifteen; you’re forty! When you’re fifty, I’ll be twenty-five.” The coach “should be seeing women your own age, going out and having fun!” coach Lewis responds, “It’s because I’m black, isn’t it?”
The team wins a crucial game 100-99 but coach Lewis gets fired.
“I don’t understand,” he says, “I paid back all the money I stole. I flushed a pound of heroin down the toilet and turned in my drug contact. I won the respect of my team, and led them to victory. And now you tell me I’m fired. Why?”
“Because you’re black,” says Mrs. Crane (Jane Curtin). “Just kidding!” The theme song follows:
He fails, not because he’s colored
but because he’s troubled and bewildered.
The team cares about him because only they
know his background.
He’s the Black Shadow.
He’s a coach in trouble.
He’s the Black Shadowwwww!
Aside from his victories on the court, Bill Russell evokes a time when Americans laughed longer and louder. Rest in peace, great champion, you will not be forgotten.