By Antonio R. Harvey | OBSERVER Staff Writer

It was 35 years ago when the Sacramento Kings hired NBA legend and highly regarded civil rights leader Bill Russell as head coach.

Russell, an 11-time NBA champion and five-time Most Valuable Player who passed away July 31 at the age of 88, spent a short stint in the city 80 miles east of his hometown of Oakland. That moment in time made an everlasting impression on former and current Kings.

“Rest well, Bill Russell: one of the greatest on the court, humanitarian, and a gracious human. My condolences and prayers to his family,” Kings forward Harrison Barnes posted on Twitter on July 31.

A statement on Twitter from the family said Russell, hailed as one of the greatest winners in sports, “passed away peacefully” in the Seattle area, where he had kept a residence for about four decades.

Russell, who became the NBA’s first Black head coach when the Boston Celtics made him a player-coach in 1966, was introduced as the Kings’ head coach April 28, 1987. Russell, then 53, signed a seven-year contract. The deal also stipulated that he would become the team’s general manager within four years.

Nine months after hiring him, the Kings moved Russell to the front office to be vice president of basketball operations. The Kings were 17-41 and last in the Western Conference’s Midwest Division under Russell in his last stint as an NBA coach. Jerry Reynolds, who had led the team to a 29-53 record in 1986-87, was reinstalled.

Russell was dismissed from the Kings’ front office after two years. But his brief and unsuccessful time in the River City could not overshadow a legacy that started when he was a teen in the Bay Area. 

“The Kings join the basketball community in grieving the loss of NBA legend Bill Russell. A storied champion and fierce advocate for civil rights and social justice, Bill was a trailblazer who always led with his values,” the Kings said in a written statement. “His immeasurable impact will continue to resonate both on and off the court for years to come. We are keeping his family and friends in our thoughts during this time.”

Russell led the U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal in Melbourne, Australia, in 1956. During his 13 years with the Boston Celtics, the last three as player-coach, William Felton Russell won 11 NBA titles. Russell retired in 1969 and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame six years later as a player.

After his hiring as the Kings’ coach, Russell added Don Chaney, a former NBA player and University of Houston standout who had been fired as the Los Angeles Clippers’ head coach, to the Kings’ staff as second assistant coach.

Russell and Chaney’s professional and athletic relationship was deeper than sports. Both were Louisiana natives, Russell born Feb. 12, 1934, in West Monroe, Chaney on March 22, 1946, in Baton Rouge. They won the NBA championship in 1969 as Boston Celtics. Russell was a player-coach and Chaney a rookie. It was Russell’s 11th and final championship in 13 seasons. Russell was a 12-time NBA all-star.

“Everything was winning with him, in terms of preparation and everything else,” Chaney said in a statement to Houston’s FOX 26 News after Russell passed. “He was all about winning. There’s no question about that. No-nonsense guy. When he walked on that floor he walked on the floor to win games.”

At the University of San Francisco, the Russell-led Dons won 55 straight games and back-to-back national titles in 1954-55 and 1955-56. K.C. Jones, the Celtics’ second Black coach, was a teammate.

Already enshrined as a player, Russell was in the hall of fame’s 18-member class of 2021 as a coach. He was honored that year with Kings legends Chris Webber and coach Rick Adelman, as well as Sacramento Monarchs star Yolanda Griffith, who won a WNBA title with the team in 2005.

An outspoken civil rights advocate, Russell continually shared his experiences and struggles with racism. He organized and boycotted many establishments in the early 1960s when he was reduced to the restraints of Jim Crow laws.

Russell often recalled that when he was living in Louisiana as a child, a White person who owned a gas station brandished a shotgun in his father’s face to prevent him from leaving and receiving service elsewhere. The White man demanded that Russell stay until he finished serving White customers.

Subjected to bigotry in Boston, he often slept in a different hotel than the rest of the club because of his color. He was the Celtics’ only Black player during his 1956 rookie season.

On Oct. 27, 1972, at Riverside Church in New York, Russell served as a pallbearer for Jackie Robinson, the first Black player in Major League Baseball who had integrated the game in April 1947.

In February 2011, Russell received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civil honor, from President Barack Obama.

“We lost a giant. As tall as Bill Russell stood, his legacy rises far higher – both as a player and as a person” Obama posted on Twitter. “Perhaps more than anyone else, Bill knew what it took to win and what it took to lead. On the court, he was the greatest champion in basketball history. Off of it, he was a civil rights trailblazer – marching with Dr. King and standing with Muhammad Ali. For decades, Bill endured insults and vandalism, but never let it stop him from speaking up for what’s right. I learned so much from the way he played, the way he coached, and the way he lived his life. Michelle and I send our love to Bill’s family, and everyone who admired him.”