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Decades before Wednesday's walkout by the Milwaukee Bucks brought the playoffs to a halt, a few NBA pioneers took a similarly brave stand against racial injustice.
They boldly walked out on a game during an era when it wasn't yet socially acceptable for Black athletes to demand change.
On Oct. 17, 1961, the NBA champion Boston Celtics visited Lexington, Kentucky, to play an exhibition game against the St. Louis Hawks. The purpose of the matchup was to drum up interest in the NBA in a new market by showcasing former University of Kentucky stars Frank Ramsey of the Celtics and Cliff Hagan of the Hawks.
Soon after the Celtics arrived at the Phoenix Hotel in Lexington and checked into their rooms, Sam Jones and Tom “Satch” Sanders came downstairs for an early dinner. The two Black future Basketball Hall of Fame members asked for a table at the hotel’s cafe, but Jones told Yahoo Sports on Thursday that the hostess turned them away at the door.
“Ma'am, we’re staying at the hotel,” Jones incredulously told the hostess.
“I’m sorry but we don’t serve Negroes,” he recalls her responding.
Incensed and humiliated, Jones told Sanders that he was ready to pack his bags and fly home. They were on their way back upstairs when they ran into teammates Bill Russell and K.C. Jones getting off the elevator.
Russell said he and K.C. were on their way to eat.
“Not in this hotel,” Sam Jones replied.
The Boston Celtics were the first NBA team to draft a Black player and to do away with racial quotas, but playing for the league’s most progressive franchise didn’t make Jones and his teammates immune to racism. In fact, burglars once infamously broke into Russell’s home in the Boston suburbs, smashed his trophies, defecated in his bed and spray-painted racial slurs on the walls.
One night during that era, the Celtics arrived in St. Louis after 9 p.m. and found the dining room at their hotel had already closed for the night. Jones and Russell had to drive to a predominately Black part of town to eat because nearby restaurants wouldn’t serve them.
It was even worse when the Celtics showed up to their Charlotte hotel the night before a game in the late 1950s. The hotel manager told Celtics coach Red Auerbach that he would not provide rooms to the team’s Black players, leaving them scrambling to find other accommodations.
“Red was flabbergasted,” Sam Jones said. “He thought the league had taken care of it. That’s when Russell turned to Red and told him, ‘This is never going to happen again. If this ever happens again, we’re not playing.’ ”
Russell and his Black teammates followed through on that promise in 1961 when denied service in Lexington. They knocked on the door of Auerbach’s hotel room and explained what happened downstairs at the cafe.
The way Jones remembers it, Auerbach called the hotel manager to demand an apology. The Celtics coach managed to secure permission for the players to eat in the cafe, but that was not enough to appease their anger.
“Coach, I’m not going to eat in this hotel,” Jones told Auerbach. “First of all, I’ve been embarrassed. Second of all, even if we eat here, they’re not going to let any other Blacks eat at this hotel. So I don’t want to eat here. I want to go home.”
Auerbach eventually acquiesced. Not only did he give Boston’s Black players permission to fly home, he also personally drove them to the airport.
A fifth Black player for the Celtics, rookie Al Butler, left with Russell, Sanders, K.C. Jones and Sam Jones. Two Black members of the Hawks, Woody Sauldsberry and Cleo Hill, also chose not to play in the exhibition game out of solidarity.
The white players on both teams remained in Lexington and played the game, something that Jones said he encouraged Auerbach to do out of respect for Ramsey and Hagan. The Hawks throttled the shorthanded Celtics, 128-103.
By the time the Celtics’ Black players arrived back in Boston, news of their protest had already spread. Jones recalls that a predominately white crowd had gathered on the tarmac to welcome them back.
“There were people who wanted to take us out to dinner to make up for what happened,” Jones said.
The next day, the Boston media picked up the story. Celtics owner Walter Brown promised that his team would never play another exhibition game in a Southern city where his Black players could be embarrassed. Russell told reporters, “We’ve got to show our disapproval of this kind of treatment or else the status quo will prevail. We have the same rights and privileges as anyone else and deserve to be treated accordingly. I hope we never have to go through this abuse again.”
Throughout his 13-year NBA career, Russell was a vocal advocate for social justice. He was part of the NBA’s first all-Black starting five in 1964 and two years later became the league’s first Black coach.
In retirement, Russell has remained an ally of activism. In 2017, he showed support for Colin Kaepernick by declaring on Twitter, “Proud to take a knee and stand tall against social injustice.” The tweet featured an image of himself kneeling proudly, his presidential medal of freedom dangling from his neck.
Almost six decades after the walk-out he helped orchestrate, Russell watched NBA players take a similar stand this week. The Bucks’ protest was the culmination of days of simmering anger from NBA players over the shooting of Jacob Blake by Wisconsin police.
On Wednesday night, Russell wrote that he was “moved by all the NBA players standing up for what is right.” He specifically thanked TNT analyst Kenny Smith for leaving the set that evening in solidarity with the Bucks and other NBA teams.
“Keep getting in good trouble,” Russell told Smith, referencing the famous John Lewis quote.
Russell was back behind the keyboard again Thursday encouraging his NBA brethren to keep fighting.
In 61 I walked out if an exhibition game much like the @nba players did yesterday. I am one of the few people that knows what it felt like to make such an important decision. I am so proud of these young guys. It reminded me of this Pls RT @MSNBC @CNN pic.twitter.com/70VAIFxhtf
— TheBillRussell (@RealBillRussell) August 27, 2020
At his home in Florida, Jones had a similarly proud response to Wednesday’s walk-out. He has experienced firsthand driving through a predominately white neighborhood and having police pull him over for no apparent reason.
“I’ve never been arrested or in jail, but I’m a criminal when I get pulled over just because of the color of my skin,” Jones said.
Just like the Bucks’ protest brought back memories of 1961 for Russell, Jones also harkened back to that day in Lexington when he was denied service.
“We thought if we were staying in a hotel we would be able to do the same things anybody else would get to do no matter what ethnic group they were from,” Jones said. “To use all the amenities that they had. That’s what we figured. But it just didn’t happen.”
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