Bill Russell will receive the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at Wednesday night’s ESPY Awards at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. The Celtics legend announced that he would be the 27th recipient of the honor on Twitter back in late May.
According to ESPN, the award “recipients reflect the spirit of Arthur Ashe, possessing strength in the face of adversity, courage in the face of peril and the willingness to stand up for their beliefs no matter what the cost.”
On the court, many of Russell’s feats are unmatched. He is an 11-time NBA champion, as well as a 5-time MVP. However, the 85-year-old has earned several accolades in his retirement for his work off the court to further civil rights.
He was the first black player inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in 1975. He also experienced pushback from Boston media when he was named the first black coach in NBA history in 1966.
“I remember at the press conference,” he said to the New York Times in 2011, “probably the second or third question one of the Boston reporters asked me, ‘Can you coach the white guys without being prejudiced?’ Now, I didn’t recall anybody asking a white coach if he could coach the black guys without being prejudiced. All I said was, ‘Yeah.’”
After taking over for the legendary Red Auerbach, he won two titles in three years as a player-coach for the Celtics. According to SLAM, he experienced severe racism in the city of Boston, as his former teammate Bob Cousy stated that some white people “defecated in his bed.”
A life full of resistance against racism fueled his work in several high-profile civil rights demonstrations. Per SLAM:
When a restaurant in Lexington, Kentucky refused to seat Russell and his black teammates in 1961, they boycotted the ensuing game. Russell walked in the 1963 March on Washington for civil rights and frequently called out ways in which he perceived the NBA to be limiting its population of African-American players.
His perseverance through these trying times is part of the reason President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. True to form, Russell wore it around his neck in 2017 in protest of President Trump’s disparaging comments towards NFL players protesting police brutality against African Americans.
According to ESPN, he took a knee in solidarity with the movement started by former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
A solemn-faced Russell, bearing his trademark white goatee and crew cut, is shown bent to the floor in what appears to be the beige-carpeted room of a home, balanced on his right arm with his other arm resting on his thigh, looking intently into the camera in a light-blue T-shirt and khaki slacks.
“Proud to take a knee, and to stand tall against social injustice,” the photo’s caption reads, followed by the hashtags #takeaknee #medaloffreedom #NFL #BillRussell #MSNBC.
This past February, Russell again tweeted his support for Kaepernick, this time with the Know Your Rights Camp. According to the camp’s website, it is a campaign aimed at raising “awareness on higher education, self-empowerment, and instruction to properly interact with law enforcement in various scenarios.”
Now in July 2019, he is adding another trophy to his stacked case.
“I’m humbled to receive the Arthur Ashe Award,” Russell said in a statement to NBA.com. “It is a great honor to be part of a unique group of previous recipients.”