The Muhammad Ali Thing is happening again. This time, it features Bill Russell, evolving in death from the guy who the New York Times
Well . . .
Russell led the Boston Celtics to 11 of their 17 world championships during the 1960s. Courtesy of his aura in general, he also set the foundation for why the franchise is fifth on Forbes’ list of NBA team valuations at $3.55 billion.
Still, Russell didn’t make New Englanders feel warm and fuzzy when he said Boston was racist, and he refused to attend the ceremony at Boston Garden in 1972 when his No. 6 jersey was retired.
He was active in the Black Power movement. He created enemies by blasting the Vietnam War during the height of his playing career, and by insisting the Boston media was corrupt, and by refusing to attend his induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975.
A lifetime filled with universal love?
That wasn’t the case for Russell.
Neither was it for Ali nor for Jackie Robinson or for Hank Aaron, but I cherished the philosophies of all four players. To me, they were American heroes from Day One — both inside and outside of their uniforms — and contrary to the re-writing of history (again), I was part of the large and noisy minority.
As for the truth, Russell, Robinson and Aaron joined Ali as prominent African American athletes who remained fierce defenders of social justice, and much of the nation couldn’t stand them since they wouldn’t keep their mouths shut.
Now back to the re-writing of history (again): It has occurred, because Russell, Robinson, Aaron and Ali spent the final stretch of their lives through death having their slew of former detractors suffer from amnesia.
Or so they claim.
Take Robinson, for instance. He broke baseball’s color barrier 75 years ago with the Brooklyn Dodgers. If you didn’t know better from current media reports, you would think Robinson’s critics during his 53 years on earth mostly involved those hurling insults his way after his Major League debut on April 15, 1947.
Robinson was as provocative as a civil rights leader as he was during his decade sliding spikes high with the Dodgers. He worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., including during the 1963 March on Washington. He ripped baseball for its lack of African American managers and even of third-base coaches.
Not only that, but Robinson was an equal opportunity critic of Democrats and Republicans, which surfaced for the 1960 presidential election. He told John F. Kennedy (Democrat) he needed to show more sincerity when speaking with people by making better eye contact, and he blasted Richard Nixon (Republican) for not helping in the fall of 1960 to free King out of a Georgia jail on bogus charges involving a lunch-counter demonstration.
While Malcolm X and other African Americans called Robinson an “Uncle Tom” who catered to Whites (especially after he became a Black Republican), many non-Blacks said Robinson was ungrateful or something by operating as baseball’s biggest critic regarding minorities in the game.
Then came that re-writing of history (again): You only heard about Robinson’s grace, integrity and courage when he was nearly blind and suffering from diabetes among other ailments along the way to his death and afterward in October 1972.
Robinson was Aaron’s hero. As Aaron told me for my book that was published this summer called “The Real Hank Aaron: An Intimate Look at the Life and Legacy of the Home Run King,” Aaron asked Willie Mays and Ernie Banks after Jackie died to help him keep Robinson’s social causes alive. When Mays and Banks refused, Aaron said he would do it himself.
I was the person Hank called for the last 40 years of his life through January 22, 2021 when he wished to deliver his messages to the public on civil rights matters and baseball’s shaky legacy with African Americans. He was an executive back then for the same Atlanta Braves organization that featured the famed slugger for 21 of his 23 Major League seasons.
Aaron swung as hard against social injustice as he did to produce his 755 lifetime home runs. Before he slid into an unofficial retirement with the Braves after his highly active front-office role from 1976 to 2007 following his playing career, he often received hate mail and racist calls on the level he did in the early 1970s while chasing the homer record of Babe Ruth, the beloved White icon.
None of that was mentioned when Hank reached his late 70s. By then, he needed a golf cart or a wheelchair to move around, and he was cheered from then through beyond his death at 86 as a player instead of an activist.
Just like the masses ignored or forgot about The Bad Jackie and The Bad Bill in their minds, they did the same with The Bad Hank.
Then there was The Bad Muhammad.
Remember the 24/7 tributes to Ali six years ago after he died at 74? They praised his courage, and they applauded his dance with principles.
They ignored the other stuff.
I’m old enough to remember the 1960s, when Ali was ripped by even African Americans for his brash talk on racial issues and the Vietnam War, which led to his refusal to join the armed forces. He was found guilty of draft evasion and stripped of his heavyweight title. Not coincidentally, Russell ignored his status with the Celtics at the time as the NBA’s most prominent player to join 10 other athletes in June 1967 to support Ali at the so-called Cleveland Summit.
Many among the masses saluting Russell these days forgot he was there, but the FBI remembered.
See those files.