Dexter Rogers

Dexter Rogers

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Celtic Glory: Russell and Rivers excelled despite adversity




The Boston Celtics became the NBA champions by beating a youthful Los Angeles Laker team. Coach Glenn “Doc” Rivers lead the veteran Celtics to a place they hadn’t been since 1986: their victory certainly rekindled memories of days long past.

For me it marked an occasion to look beyond the obvious and find the true perspective behind the victory.

To me this championship series was about history. Someone paved the road for Rivers to excel in a town that historically hasn’t been kind to the African American athlete.

I don’t think Rivers hasn’t gotten enough credit for his leadership. Rivers out-coached a man with 9 championship rings to his credit, Phil Jackson. His father Grady Rivers, whom was dear to his heart, died during the regular season. Like any good father the elder Rivers taught his son about life, basketball, and to never give up.

Rivers has clearly profited from his father’s wisdom. Rivers recently lived in San Antonio before his home was burned to the ground by arsonists. He believed the incident was racially motivated. Disenchanted, angry, and frustrated Rivers put the life-lessons from dad to work and he has never looked back.

Last year after a horrendous 24-58 record the Celtic faithful wanted Rivers out. He stayed the course and didn’t falter. With the signings of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, and his persistence, Rivers molded a winner in compiling a 66-22 record a year later.

Not bad for someone the Celtics didn’t want.

Rivers story is reminiscent of a Boston legend few mentioned during their run this year, Bill Russell. Russell was named the first African-American head coach in the NBA in 1966. Excuse me, player-coach. You see, back in the day for an African American to coach in that era you had to come with something extra. You couldn’t just coach-the organization had to get a little extra bang for their buck.

Forty years ago Bill Russell was the first African American to lead a team to the NBA championship. Pioneers like Russell paved the way for Rivers. It’s a shame little attention was given to Russell’s feat as a coach.

For African American athletes today it’s about money, women, and drugs: in Russell’s day it was about inclusion, rights, and activism.

As a superstar Russell was revered for his athleticism but on the streets of Boston he was expected to accept racism.

In my opinion Russell is the great winner in all of sports. He won an Olympic Gold Medal in 1956. He led the University of San Francisco to back-to-back NCAA crowns in 1955-56. Russell won 11 NBA championships in 13 years as a player. Two of the three years he was player/coach he won the NBA crown.

What makes Russell so special was he excelled in the face of consistent racism. While a player Russell’s home was broken into by racists. They proceeded to defecate on his bed, threw garbage throughout his home, and smashed many of his trophies and other personal belongings.

Russell once wanted to move into white suburb of Redding just outside Boston. Despite being the star of the Celtics citizens of Redding formed a petition to keep Russell out of the neighborhood.

Why would someone who won so much as an athlete be treated so unjustly as a man?

In 1975 Russell was inducted into the Hall of Fame but refused entry because how African Americans were treated in society and in the NBA. Later that year the Celtics wanted to hold a ceremony in Russell’s honor to retire his jersey but he declined: instead Russell hoisted his number 6 to the rafters with only his teammates and coaches present in an empty Boston Garden.

Why?

He wanted to be in the presence of those who really respected him as a man-not the fans who really didn’t appreciate him. Russell felt he shouldn’t allow fans to cheer him as an athlete and disrespect him as a man.

Russell didn’t bow down to the establishment. He once told the people of Boston that, “I owe the public nothing.”

Why should anyone care about Russell’s past?

It’s very simple. To understand what happens today we must study what happened yesterday. Most of what’s been accomplished today in society and sports someone was responsible for opening a door.

Was Obama the first African American to run for President? Was Doc Rivers the first African American to win an NBA title as head coach?

No.

You see, sometimes in life you have to look beyond the obvious to gain true perspective.

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