Bill Russell had a breathtaking career in the NBA as a player and coach with the Boston Celtics. The Hall of Famer also was an outspoken opponent of racial injustice and social inequities, particularly at a time when the civil rights movement was gaining momentum.
Hunt Auctions announced Thursday that Russell had consigned his collection of basketball memorabilia and civil rights artifacts to a live auction that the company will conduct later this year. Among the items set to be sold are Russell’s first and last NBA championship rings, his MVP awards and game-worn items.
“There are a few things I’m going to keep for myself but the rest I’m going to share with the world,” Russell said.
A portion of the proceeds will benefit MENTOR, an organization that helps ensure youths receive support through mentoring. Other groups that will benefit include Boston Celtics United for Social Justice, which addresses racial and social injustice in the Boston area.
Russell, 87, who played for the Celtics from 1957 to 1969 and coached in Boston in 1967-68, is one of the NBA’s greatest players, particularly on defense. He won 11 titles during a 13-year span with the Celtics, was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player five times and was a 12-time all-star selection. “Russ” also was an 11-time All-NBA team selection.
He also led the University of San Francisco to back-to-back NCAA crowns — which included a 55-game winning streak — and captained the 1956 Olympic basketball team to a gold medal, has assembled an enormous collection of memorabilia.
Highlights of Russell’s personal collection that will be sold by Hunt Auctions at an as yet undetermined location and date include:
Some of the items will be on display at the National Sports Collectors Convention in Chicago next week.
Russell said he was proud to sell part of his collection, knowing that some of proceeds will help benefit MENTOR.
“I have been fortunate to be a part of so many historic teams and play with a great number of incredible teammates and even better men. I am eternally grateful to (Celtics owner) Walter Brown and my coach and lifelong friend, Red Auerbach, for allowing me to be the man I was, both on and off the court.
“At this point in my life, I am happy to share a part of my personal collection with the world and proud that the auction will in part benefit MENTOR. MENTOR aims to close the mentoring gap and drive equity through quality mentoring relationships for young people,” Russell added. “Potential is equally distributed; opportunity is not. The work that MENTOR does has a special place in my heart and I am honored to provide support in some small way.”
Russell was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a player in 1975 and was elected as a coach this year.
His 1979 autobiography, Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man, details Russell’s career but also allows him to speak his mind about freedom, race, marriage, religion and American culture.
Russell was at the heart of controversy in October 1961, when he boycotted an exhibition game in Lexington, Kentucky, along with fellow Black teammates Sam Jones and “Satch” Sanders. Jones and Sanders were refused service in the coffee shop at the hotel where the Celtics were staying, and the trio refused to play that night against the St. Louis Hawks.
“We had gone downstairs to eat, and they said, ‘Well, we really can’t serve you people,’” Sanders told WBUR in a 2018 interview.
Russell was having none of that, and got Celtics coach Red Auerbach to drive the three players to the airport. Teammates K.C. Jones and a fifth Black player for Boston, rookie Al Butler, refused to play, according to The Washington Post.
“I never permitted myself to be a victim,” Russell remarked.
Some of Russell’s memorabilia in the auction include scrapbook entries about what is now known as the “boycott game.”
“Of the civil rights pieces, my favorite is an amazing page from (Russell’s) personal scrapbook that chronicles the Lexington ‘boycott’ game,” Hunt Auctions president David Hunt told Sports Collectors Daily. “In addition to period newspaper headlines and related paper items, it also includes a poignant Jackie Robinson signed letter to Bill.”
Hunt said that Russell’s achievements on and off the court were significant.
“Bill single-handedly revolutionized the game of basketball and the manner in which it was played,” Hunt told Sports Collectors Daily. “Perhaps equally of note, he was a champion of the civil rights movement during a seminal period in the country.
“To be afforded the honor to interact with Bill, listen to various accounts from his career, and personally work with the array of significant memorabilia items from his collection has been humbling to say the least.”
For more information or to register for the Bill Russell Auction, collectors can visit the Hunt Auctions website or call 610-524-0822.