Who Is the First Black Coach to Win the NBA Championship?

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The National Basketball Association (NBA) was formed in 1946 when racism peaked. In the following years, the league made incredible strides in addressing the problem. This culminated in one of the biggest game changes, which we are addressing in this article.

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Who Was the First Black Coach in the NBA?

It took 20 years for the NBA to see a black coach on the touchline. In 1966, legendary player Bill Russell made history when he became the first black coach in the NBA. Bill was part of the Boston Celtics, the only team he played for in the league between 1956 and 1969.

Bill had an impressive career. He won the NBA Championship 11 times and was named to the NBA All-Star team five times. Was his coaching career going to reflect the same success?

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How Bill Russell Became the First Black Coach in the NBA 

By the time Boston Celtics head coach Red Auerbach was retiring in 1966, he had a couple of names in mind to fill in his position. Frank Ramsey, who played for Boston Celtics, Bob Cousy and Tom Heinshon

However, the former was occupied with other interests, the latter turned down the proposal. And Tom, who put forward Bill Russell’s name, didn’t think he was good enough for the job. 

Auerbach approached Bill Russell, who accepted the challenge and made history by becoming the first black coach in the league. He was still an active player so he played and managed the team. 

That said, not everyone thought he was equipped to lead the team. In an interview, Bill Russell expressed disappointment with the criticism, which he said was racially motivated.

“When I was appointed, it was the first time I heard the qualifications of a manager being questioned. Even though managers in other leagues are regularly replaced, it was the first time a manager’s qualifications became the talking point. No one else had this directed at them except me, that’s what tells me that it was a racial thing.” Bill Russell told the NBA History & Black Storytellers on the CLNS YouTube channel. 

Let’s look at Bill Russell’s coaching track record.

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Bill Russell’s Coaching Track Record

Bill Russell’s first year as player-coach ended in defeat. Philadelphia 76ers put a halt to their eight-game winning streak and beat them to the title. He accepted the defeat and congratulated the opponent, particularly Wilt Chamberlain, whom he said was unplayable. 

In the 1968 season, it was clear that age was catching up with Russell. It turned out to be a tough one not just for the players but the United States. One of the most recognizable civil rights figures, Martin Luther King, was assassinated. 

The games in the NBA still produced one of the best series in the league’s history. They trailed 3-1 and overturned the deficit to win the series. 

In the final, Boston Celtics defeated the Los Angeles Lakers, which saw Bill Russell win his 10th championship and first as a coach. This made him the first black coach to win the NBA championship. 

In 1969, Bill Russell won the league again, his 11th as a player and second as a coach. At the end of the season, Russell retired.

After his departure from Boston Celtics as a player and coach, he pursued his coaching career at the Seattle SuperSonics between 1973 and 1977 and the Sacramento Kings between 1987 and 1988. However, Bill Russell couldn’t replicate the same success he got at Boston Celtics.

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Who is Bill Russell?

Bill Russell was born in West Monroe, Louisiana on February 12, 1934. He grew up during the Jim Crow era when racial discrimination was enforced in law. As a result of the impact of racism, Bill Russell and his family moved to California. 

Life wasn’t particularly easy for him. He suffered from various illnesses due to poor health. The turning point in his life came after his mother died. He committed himself to studies, and he picked up basketball outside the classroom. His start was slow, but Bill Russell became unplayable the moment he hit his stride. 

He dominated his college basketball career playing for the University of San Francisco, and in 1965, the Boston Celtics drafted him.

How Many Black Coaches Have Since Worked in the NBA?   

Following the success of Bill Russell, Lenny Wilkens and Al Attles coached at the Seattle SuperSonics and San Francisco Warriors.

In 1972, Early Llyod was the first black coach to work full-time in the NBA for the Detroit Pistons. He didn’t stay long in his position as he left after an unsuccessful stint. Ray Scott replaced him in the 1974 season

In the subsequent seasons, Attles won the NBA title in 1975 with the Golden State Warriors and became the second black coach to achieve this feat. 

In 1979, Wilkens joined this illustrious list after winning the championship title with SuperSonics. These achievements demonstrated that black coaches were just as deserving of the opportunities as their white counterparts. 

By the 2022 season, half (15) of the coaches in the NBA are black.  

Chauncey Billups Portland Trail Blazers
J.B. BickerstaffCleveland Cavaliers
Dwane CaseyDetroit Pistons
Tyronn LueLA Clippers
Jason KiddDallas Mavericks
Willie GreenNew Orleans Pelicans
Doc RiversPhiladelphia 76ers
Jamahl MosleyOrlando Magic
Ime UdokaBoston Celtics
Stephen SilasHouston Rockets
Nate McMillanAtlanta Hawks
Monty WilliamsPhoenix Suns
Wes Unseld Jr.Washington Wizards
Source: Sporting News

 The NBA has come a long way in promoting racial diversity. Bill Russell’s success was important and those who came after him only reinforced that they are just as capable. 

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