Two Icons: Beyond Court And TV Set
There are many champions of basketball
It is not possible for me to name them all
Yet a Celtic has had the winningest career
As both player and coach rivals had to fear
Bill Russell, who didn’t know how to lose
11 titles in 13 years? He knew how to abuse…
But besides his prowess on the court
To racism he dedicated himself to thwart
He attended MLK’s “I have a dream” speech
His example of activism did inspire and teach
Many others, including Kareem Abdul Jabbar
Who without Russell would not have gotten as far.
By going where no woman had gone before
Nichelle Nichols became so much more
Than Lt. Uhura on a sci-fi television set.
When she and Martin Luther King Jr. met
He told her that how many she could inspire!
If a civil rights leader your work does admire…
She decided not to leave Trek for Broadway
If she had, across sci-fi and Hollywood would she have sway?
An interracial kiss when interracial marriage wasn’t accepted
Uhura and Kirk did their part to leave intolerance disrespected
For generations after she left the Enterprise
Nichols guided people to the stars and skies.
This past weekend, the world lost two icons of sports, entertainment and civil rights. Bill Russell and Nichelle Nichols may have had their greatest limelight a generation prior to my birth, yet they still had as much of an impact on me as many of the icons I grew up with.
I remember talking with my father at a young age about Russell. His playstyle appealed to me as a different kind of superstar. The offensive minded Michael Jordan or Lebron James style of play is “sexier” than Russell’s strong defense, rebounding and fundamentals. In my flash in the pan basketball career, I focused on defense so I liked to think of myself as a dollar store Russell, minus the height and talent.
As the above poem references, Russell played his entire career for the Boston Celtics from 1956–1969, winning 11 championships in 13 years. From 1958–1966, the Celtics won eight championships in a row. For those who grew up in the 90s, the Chicago Bulls had two three-peats or three championships in a row, which was quite the big deal.
The Celtics’ “eight-peat,” dominance at any level of professional sports whether it be basketball, football, baseball, you name it, is unlikely to ever occur again. Naturally, there were many pieces to those Celtics teams, such as Coach “Red” Auerbach and other Hall of Fame players such as guard Bob Cousy, but Russell was the centerpiece.
Some of Russell’s stats are still records, despite not having played in over 50 years. He and rival Will “The Stilt” Chamberlain are the only players to grab 50 rebounds in a game. Russell and Chamberlain dominate the leaderboard for single game rebounding records, appearing over and over. For some perspective, a NBA game lasts 48 minutes, so getting 50 works out to more than a rebound per minute, with 9 other professional level athletes capable of rebounding themselves.
Once Auerbach retired, Russell became player and coach, the first Black coach of the NBA. He won two championships while balancing both roles, the only player-coach to win multiple championships. Considering that he did so in the tumultuous 60s, on the heels of the Civil rights movement, with the often cantankerous and racist Bostonians heckling him as he delivered championships, shows incredible composure.
As impressive as Russell was as an athlete, he was just as much if not more so as a civil rights leader. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, another basketball legend, credits Russell as inspiration to become an activist in a recent post:
“As I had emulated him (Russell) on the court, I chose to also emulate him off the court. I read interviews with him and read his 1966 autobiography Go Up For Glory about his experiences growing up in segregated America and the obstacles he faced as a Black man in America, despite his fame and accomplishments. What especially struck home was his refusal to become the stereotypical Angry Black Man that many tried to force him to be. Instead, he chose to focus on finding a path to change and social justice through specific action and programs.
Years later when some in the press tried to characterize me as the Angry Black Man, I tried to follow Bill’s rational example to remain calm and join the fight by championing specific solutions rather than just rage and shake my fist. Although, sometimes the frustrations call for a good fist-shaking.”
As Abdul-Jabbar has, I find power in the simple idea of getting more than angry, instead focusing on specific action and programs. For those who have read my blog in its infancy, you know I have struggled mightily with an often apathetic public in regards to politics and current issues.
A few of my satirical pieces to illustrate:
I attempted to mask my frustrations with satire, as satirists do. Nevertheless, I found myself becoming so frustrated that I forgot about solving the problem, contenting with complaining about it.
It’s easy, it’s comforting to get angry and tell everyone to go hell or something similar when you face a difficult issue such as poor voter turnout, uneducated voters and deep polarization.
But as I reflect on Russell, who was forced to face the ugliness of racism and discrimination, unlike my optional crusade against various political ills, I keep reminding myself to let my frustrations lead somewhere. Russell wasn’t afraid to tell it like it was- his relationship with Bostonians is evidence of this- but at the same time, he didn’t let his anger define him. He ascended beyond the awful racial divisions of his time, cementing his legacy as a champion on and off the court.
Whenever I fall down the angry path, Russell’s legacy and life prod me to ask some questions:
Do I comprehend the issue(s)?
Who knows more about the issue(s) than I do?
Where do I fit into the discussion?
How can I help the most? Can I?
Which solutions have been already suggested?
I will never play professional basketball. I may never have a national platform.
Yet, Russell’s life on and off the court is inspiration to me.
Just like Russell, Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Commander Nyota Uhura was a fixture of the 60s, twenty some years before I was born. Still, her impact is everywhere in the beloved field of science fiction.
Think of the female badasses of the genre.
Princess Leia Organa, a decade later in the late 70s.
Lieutenant Ellen Ripley in the 1980s.
Captain (later Admiral) Kathryn Janeway in the 1990s.
Princess Neytiri of the 2000s.
All of these characters and actresses built upon the foundation Nichols erected.
I got around to watching Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS) a few years back. Despite my dad’s belief I would be underwhelmed by its technical limitations, I greatly enjoyed it, as its themes hold up and its influence on sci-fi and pop culture is undeniable.
While Uhura wasn’t the center of the episodes like the “Big Three” of Kirk, Spock and McCoy, I couldn’t watch TOS without her on the bridge. If I were to serve in Starfleet, I would most likely specialize in communications and language as she did, so I feel a further kinship to her character.
TOS truly went where no man had gone before.
Nichols went where no woman had gone before. In the 1960s, a period of intense upheaval and racial tension, Nichols played a minority in an authority position. Although I have studied Martin Luther King Jr. a fair amount, I didn’t know he encouraged Nichols to keep playing the role due to the example it could set for so many.
Nichol’s true passion was musical theatre. After TOS’s first season, she received offers, including for a play on Broadway. On a Friday, she went to TOS creator Gene Roddenberry’s office to give her resignation.
Roddenberry told her to think about it over the weekend. Nichols attended a fundraiser, at which she was introduced to her “biggest fan”- Dr. Martin Luther King.
As Nichols recounted Dr. King’s words to her:
“This (Star Trek) is the only show on television that my wife Coretta and I will allow our little children to watch- to stay up and watch because it’s on past their bedtime. We admire you greatly, you know.
For the first time on television, we will be seen as we should be seen every day. As intelligent, quality, beautiful people who can sing, dance and go into space. Who can be lawyers, who can be teachers, who can be professors. Who are, in this day and you don’t see it on television. Until now.
If you leave, Nichelle, Gene Roddenberry has opened a door for the world to see us. If you leave, that door can be closed because you see, your role is not a black role. And it’s not a female role. He (Roddenberry) can fill it with anything, including an alien.”
If she had left, who would have kissed Kirk?
Nichols had a long partnership with NASA after TOS ended. Many NASA employees were inspired by Uhura, including astronaut Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to go to space and systems engineer Tracy Drain.
Furthermore, a generation after the original Uhura took her last mission, female and minority characters such as starship captains, military commanders, Jedi and the like are becoming more common.
They all owe their opportunities to Nichols.
Her career and life demonstrates how much fiction and its characters can influence real life.
As I write my fantasy saga and other fictional works, I think about the influence my story and its characters could have on its readers. As Nichols, Roddenberry and the cast of TOS fought against racial injustices and other crimes, I seek to combat the abuse against our environment and Mother Nature which created us.
Who knows how far my work will spread, but it’s wise to think of how you’d want to influence people, instead of being unpleasantly surprised.
As I began with rhyme, let me end with it:
Two icons famous before I was born
Two icons with many awards adorned
Yes, of entertainment and sports
But in all future historical reports
Will recognize that their impact
Cannot be fully tracked.
Two icons reached beyond court and tv set
To their fine example I am forever in debt.