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Looking back: The time Bill Russell never played for the Hawks because of racism

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While the YouTube conspiracies linger, the all-time great said it himself, there’s one common theme between him not wanting to play in St. Louis and him not feeling appreciated in Boston.

Boston Celtics Practice Photo by Paul J. Maguire/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

It’s one of the more famous trades in NBA history.

In 1956, the St. Louis Hawks traded No. 2 pick 6-foot-10 Bill Russell to the Boston Celtics for 6-foot-8 center Ed Macauley and 6-foot-4 forward Cliff Hagan.

Through three seasons at the University of San Francisco, Russell averaged 20.7 points and 20.3 rebounds. He was, without question, the best player in the draft. The rumor that ran rampant for decades is that the Celtics’ bribed the Rochester Royals with the Ice Capades to not select Russell first.

The Ice Capades was a traveling entertainment show that featured a group of figure skaters. The shows were so popular, the crowds even surpassed the size of Major League Baseball games. The Celtics owner at the time, Walter Brown, owned the Ice Capades as well. For decades, Red Auerbach claimed he had Brown call the Royals and tell them if they passed on Russell, Rochester could get the Ice Capades to come in town for an entire week. Royals’ representatives denied the tale, and the reason on record is the team didn’t want to pay Russell the $25K he requested in addition to future Hall of Fame center Maurice Stokes already being on the roster.

The official story on record for the Hawks being willing to trade for Macauley was because he was a local St. Louis product who grew up and went to college there.

There is another rumor, as laid out in this YouTube conspiracy, the Hawks were willing to trade Russell at pick No. 2 due to the city and franchise’s racial climate. Tensions were high in St. Louis at the time, and the Hawks had no black players on its roster. Macauley and Hagan were both white. The duo became Hall of Famers and the Hawks won the franchise’s sole championship in 1958, but Russell is arguably the game’s greatest defender, winner and one of the 10 best players to ever live.

In 2013, Boston diehard and sports entrepreneur Bill Simmons sat down with Russell to address all the whispers, regarding racism, not the Ice Capades, and the Hall of Famer confirmed it.

“St. Louis was overwhelmingly racist,” Russell said in the interview with Simmons, which aired on NBATV. “If I would’ve gotten drafted by St. Louis, I wouldn’t have been in the NBA.”

Celtics forward Don Barksdale told Russell he was with a progressive franchise in Boston. Barksdale was the first black player to appear in an NBA All-Star Game in 1953.

“‘Walter Brown and Auerbach, they’re really good people,’” Russell recalled Barksdale telling him.

The Celtics also made Chuck Cooper the first black player drafted into the NBA in 1950.

“When Cooper came into Boston and signed his first contract, one of the other owners asked Walter Brown, ‘you know he’s colored?’” Russell said. “Walter said ‘I don’t care if he’s polka dot, that’s the player we drafted.’”

At the start of the 1963-64 season, the Celtics became the first team to start five black players. Despite the organization’s desire to integrate and win 11 championships in 13 seasons, Russell felt the people of Boston didn’t appreciate the franchise’s feats.

“We did a survey about what we could do to improve attendance,” Russell said. “Over 50% of the responses were ‘there’s too many black players.’ The Celtics, to me, were a blue team in a sea of red. That means there was really no connection for me between the fans in Boston and the Boston Celtics.”

In 1968, on the tail-end of Russell’s playing career, Sports Illustrated named him the Sportsman of the Year, in large part due to his efforts speaking out on social justice issues with his platform. Russell was a pallbearer at Jackie Robinson’s funeral in 1972.

“My attitude was that Jackie took us from point A to point B,” Russell said. “I wanted to go from point B to point C.”

During the 1961-62 preseason, Russell and the five black Celtics refused to play a game in Lexington, Kentucky after being denied service in an Indiana bar and a Kentucky hotel coffee shop. Russell said a publication wrote “the black players embarrassed the Celtics.”

That newspaper was in St. Louis.