Football was not the only hot topic at New England Patriots training camp on Monday morning. The death of Bill Russell was as well.
Russell passed away on Sunday at the age of 88, leaving behind a rich legacy that extends far beyond his accomplishments on the court. Yes, he did win 11 championships with the Boston Celtics and is therefore the most successful basketball player in history, but he also was a lifelong activist against racial inequality who became the first Black head coach in the NBA.
Russell helped open a lot of doors during his lifetime, and Matthew Slater sees himself as one of the beneficiaries of this. The Patriots team captain spoke with the media on Monday, and noted that he was thankful for Russell and that he “wouldn’t be here doing what I am doing today without men and women like that.”
“It’s really hard to put into words what a man like Bill Russell has not only meant to this city, but has meant to professional sports, has meant to Black athletes, and just the progress that we’ve seen in this country over the last 60 years or so,” Slater said. “When I think of Bill Russell, I don’t think of necessarily the championships or the Celtics and the winning — which is a legacy that speaks for itself. I think of what he did for Black athletes.
“I’m a beneficiary of the actions of men and women like Bill Russell, who were willing to step out on a limb and advocate for Black athletes and Black Americans, and really push for change, push for equality.”
Slater mentioned his parents growing up in the segregated South, and the stories they told about life in an age of deep-rooted institutional racism. Russell, who was born in 1934 in Louisiana, shared those experiences.
“I can’t imagine having to have gone through some of the things that he had to go through, especially early on in his life, in his career,” Slater said.
“The reality is that he wasn’t even seen as a full citizen of this country when he started his career, and certainly when he started his life. You really think about that; a couple generations removed from Black Americans really being seen as less than Americans. When I think about Bill Russell, I celebrate that part of his legacy more than anything else.”