By now, Atlanta Hawks fans are aware that it was this organization that originally drafted the legendary Bill Russell. Likewise, many NBA fans are well aware that he never donned a Hawks jersey but, instead, playing his entire 13-year career with the Boston Celtics before becoming their head coach.
In that time, the Celtics won 11 NBA Finals including eight straight from 1959-66.
What many may not have known until last year was how racial tensions played into Russell’s not wanting to play for the Hawks who were then playing in St. Louis. Imagine how different things would have been if they were in current-day Atlanta.
The Atlanta Hawks could have been a team of legend with Bill Russell
Originally dubbed the Buffalo Bisons, this organization was one of the founders of the old National Basketball League before moving to the Moline, Illinois area and re-branding as the Tri-City Blackhawks.
Ironically, the Blackhawks first head coach would be Red Auerbach, the eventual Celtics coach who would be key in Russell’s eventual preference for Boston.
They moved to St. Louis from Milwaukee in 1955 and made it to four of the next six NBA Finals, winning the franchise’s lone championship (which came against the Celtics) in 1958, Russell’s second professional season.
The trade returned Cliff Hagan and Ed Macauley, two frontcourt players whose careers would include six All-Star nominations as Hawks (13 total), six All-NBA selections, and an MVP for Macauley.
Neither Hagan nor Macauly, who was closer to the end of his career) were slouches. They also weren’t Bill Russell.
He is a 12-time All-Star, 11-time All-NBA choice, five-time MVP, four-time rebounding champ, and that’s not even all of his accomplishments as a player, let alone coaching the Celtics to the last two of his 11 total championships as a player and coach.
But his activism is just as well-known and far more important to his legacy.
Atlanta was not without its own racial turmoil at the time, as much of the country was. But it was right around the time Russell entered into the league that that began to change and Atlanta became a hub for the Civil Rights movement.
Russell, who was never shy about voicing his opposition to the status quo with racial inequities, was frequently pictured with fellow-athlete activists Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jim Brown, and Muhammad Ali. He would have been another great ally for the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr at a time when the movement needed it most.
“We did a survey about what we could do to improve attendance,” Russell said. “Over 50% of the responses were ‘there’s too many black players.’ The Celtics, to me, were a blue team in a sea of red. That means there was really no connection for me between the fans in Boston and the Boston Celtics.”
In many ways, it would seem that landing with the Celtics was best. Atlanta is a hub for civil rights activism to this very day and Boston gained an advocate that might not have otherwise come for some time.
Obviously, he was still able to accomplish a great deal and even received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. Russell was recently inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame for a second time, this one as a coach.
But it’s hard not to look at all he accomplished for the Celtics on the court and how big of a role that played in the stature they have today as one of the NBA’s most storied franchises and wonder, “what if?”