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Who is the First Black Coach in the NBA?

The NBA was founded in 1946 and since then, the world’s best basketball association has gone through numerous changes. This was a period in the United States history where racial diversity was at its peak and the diversity also had an impact on sports.

Who was the first black coach in the NBA? Legendary Bill Russell became the first black player-coach for the Boston Celtics in 1968 making history. He was also the first black coach in North American professional sports. Bill Russell went on winning 2 championship titles.

Bill Russell enjoyed a stellar career and did not disappoint as a coach of the Boston Celtics as well. Right now it is no more surprising to see black coaches in the NBA, but back then it was a furore in the whole American sports. 

NBA and Racism – Evergreen Problem

Before we move to specific details surrounding the coaching career of Bill Russell it is necessary to point out that the topic of racism has always been a sensitive issue in the NBA. When Russell became a coach, it was unexpected, as racial diversity was a massive problem in the whole of the United States at the time. It could be called a turning point in the NBA because after Russells appointment as a coach,  more and more black coaches appeared in the league. Bill Russell himself suffered racial abuse during his playing career and always stood up for the rights of black people. 

The same problem started to light up in 2020 after the death of George Floyd. It coincided with the coronavirus pandemic and a lot of athletes were against the resuming of the season, including LeBron James who is also a staunch supporter of black people’s rights. 

First Year as a Coach

When legendary Red Auerbach – the person who created history with the Boston Celtics retired in 1966, he had several candidates to succeed his position. The first one was his old player Frank Ramsey, but he was too busy with other activities. The second one was Bob Cousy, who rejected the invitation. When he asked Bill Russell to occupy the position of a player-coach the latter agreed and on April 16, 1966 Russell became the coach of the Celtics.

During his first year as a coach, he suffered an astounding defeat against the Philadelphia 76ers. The latter were too strong for the Celtics and they beat the opponents 4-1. Russell personally congratulated Wilt Chamberlain, who played a pivotal role in defeating the Boston Celtics. 

Successive Years and 2 Championships 

In the next season, Bill Russell statistics looked average compared to previous years. He became older and his numbers declined. Russell averaged 12.5 points and 18.6 rebounds per game. Even by today’s standards, such stats are magnificent but we are talking about Bill Russell who was dominating the whole NBA alongside Wilt Chamberlain. 

This was a pretty tough season – Martin Luther King Jr. was just assassinated and there were rumours that the series between the 76ers and the Celtics was to be cancelled. However, spectators got to see what turned out to be one of the greatest series of all time. The Boston Celtics, with Russell being a head coach, came back from a 3-1 deficit and won the series. 

In the Finals, they defeated the Los Angeles Lakers. Russell won his 10th championship ring and the first one as a coach. He was also named the Sportsman of the Year because of his achievement. 

The following year was also tough for the Boston Celtics and Bill Russell in general. He was shocked by the fact that John Kennedy was assassinated. Russell skipped mandatory meetings, gained weight and it seemed everything was over for the legendary center. Once again, Bill Russell proved everyone wrong and his Boston Celtics again defeated the Lakers in the Finals. It was a dramatic series, where Jerry West from the losing side became the Finals MVP. After that season Russell retired, having won his 11th championship ring and the second one as a head coach.

However, the retirement was not as good as fans would have liked. Bill Russell cut all ties with the Celtics and literally left the team without a coach and a center. Fans and the whole franchise felt betrayed and they did not anticipate such action from their legendary figure. 

Unsuccessful Stints with Seattle and Sacramento

After retiring from the NBA, Russell pursued a career as a coach. He was appointed as a head coach of the Seattle SuperSonics in 1973 where he remained until 1977, but Russell did not achieve anything significant. It seemed that he had a unique bond with the Celtics only. The style he tried to incorporate in the SuperSonics did not turn out to be effective. We should not forget, though, that he led the struggling team to the playoffs. 

In 1987 he became a head coach of the Sacramento Kings where he stayed only for a year. In short, the successive coaching stints were lacklustre for the legendary player and he did not take up any other job.

Inspiration for Other Coaches 

It can be said that Russell’s actions became exemplary for other coaches. Bill Russell paved the way for others, such as Lenny Wilkens and Al Attles. The domino effect started to spread quickly and black coaches quickly became successful. In addition to being one of the greatest players of all time, Bill Russell left his legacy for coaches as well – and it can be seen even today.