Celtics Hire Bill Russell as first Black Head Coach in NBA History

April 17, 1966

“What I found with the Celtics was a set of other players who were brilliant and accomplished. I needed to know who the different players were, what their tendencies were, their habits, their preferences. I had to learn their thinking, their temperaments. For me to play my best game, I had to discover theirs.”

-Bill Russell

By the time Red Auerbach had achieved his mission of not only saving the Celtics but elevating them to the stature of having won nine world championships under his guidance, he was ready to leave the coaching grind at the tender age of 48 in 1966. Choosing a successor led him to canvas former stars such as Bob Cousy, Frank Ramsey, and Tom Heinsohn to see if they’d accept the position. Cousy was happy coaching at Boston College, Ramsey heading a bank and raising a family in Kentucky, and Heinsohn, always the wise owl, observing that coaching Bill Russell would be a challenge to coach and that perhaps Auerbach’s best move was to ask his star center to accept the role of player/coach.

Such a role was not unheard of as Richie Guerin and Dave DeBusschere served as players/coaches of the Hawks and Pistons respectively. And when Auerbach finally did ask Russell to accept the position the tipping point came when Russell learned that Auerbach was seriously considering hiring Celtic nemesis Alex Hannum instead.

Russell accepted the position 11 days before Boston defeated the Lakers in the seventh game of the NBA Finals. He made history as the NBA’s first Black head coach and the second Black coach in pro basketball after John McClendon who coached the Cleveland Pipers in the short-lived second version of the American Basketball League in 1961-62.

In his three seasons as Celtics player/coach, he won two world championships, including a title in his final playing season. Following his Celtics retirement in 1969 he went on to serve as head coach of the Seattle SuperSonics from 1973-77 and the Sacramento Kings from 1987-88.

He was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player (1975) and coach (2021), a distinction he shares with former Celtics teammates Bill Sharman and Tom Heinsohn.

About the Curator’s Corner

Richard Johnson’s “Curator’s Corner” is  where you will find videos featuring Richard and Sports Museum Executive Director, Rusty Sullivan, discussing Boston sports history, as well as blog posts written by Richard himself.

Winning was a magnificent obsession that allowed Mr. Russell a prominent platform from which to advocate for social justice and fairness at a time when such stances weren’t universally embraced by fellow citizens.
On his last day Nick had to have heard the unmistakable music of his preferred workplace as baseballs thwacked into mitts and a sort of anvil chorus of bats striking balls rang from the sun soaked cages near the path he walked at the Red Sox training complex.