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Bill Russell Paved the Way for Black Coaches to Defy Doubters

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Bill Russell and Red Auerbach came to an agreement.

Auerbach, the longtime Boston Celtics coach, had confided in Russell, his star center, that he planned to retire from coaching. Russell and Auerbach had created a dynasty together, with Russell dominating on the court and Auerbach cementing their championship victories with plumes of celebratory cigar smoke.

They would each write down their top five preferred coaches to succeed Auerbach and consider any name who landed on both lists.

They found no matches. Auerbach had already approached Russell about taking over the job and continuing on as a player, but Russell, who had witnessed the toll coaching took on Auerbach, quickly rebuffed him.

Now, as he reviewed the lists of candidates again, Russell reconsidered his position and decided that nobody else, beyond Auerbach, could coach Bill Russell quite like Bill Russell.

“When Red and I had started to discuss my becoming coach, there were some things we didn’t have to say,” Russell wrote in his book about his friendship with Auerbach in 2009. “For example, when I was finally named publicly, I didn’t know that I had just become the first African-American coach in the history of major league sports.”

It was 1966, and the distinction did not cross his mind until Boston reporters informed him. “When I took the job, one reporter wrote seven articles focusing on why I shouldn’t be coaching the Celtics,” Russell wrote.

Russell, who died Sunday at 88, would go on to win two championships as the head coach of the Celtics, his 10th and 11th championship rings. He would also coach the Seattle SuperSonics and the Sacramento Kings and inspire a generation of Black players to try their hand at coaching, too. The skepticism that accompanied his hiring in Boston is perhaps less of an issue now, but still a factor in whether Black people are hired to coach in the N.B.A. today.

Bernie Bickerstaff, who is Black, watched Russell take over as coach of the Celtics just as he was about to enter into a life of coaching. He began as an assistant at the University of San Diego under Phil Woolpert, who had coached Russell at the University of San Francisco.

“At that time, you didn’t think about anything like that,” said Bickerstaff, who became the coach of the SuperSonics in 1985. “In fact, if you’re sitting back and you’re a young Black at that time, it seemed far-fetched.”

Russell, the coach, mimicked Russell the player. He was a longtime civil rights activist who coached the Celtics during the assassinations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. “It rubbed a lot of Bostonians the wrong way,” Russell wrote in his 2009 book. “At the time, Boston was a totally segregated city — and I vehemently opposed segregation.”

He demanded respect and competed fiercely during an era when he had no assistant coaches. He played and coached the Celtics for three seasons before closing out the N.B.A.’s most successful and long-lasting championship reign.

“That speaks volumes in itself for who he was as a person and a humanitarian, if you understand the culture of this country, especially in certain places,” said Jim Cleamons, who is Black and became the coach of the Dallas Mavericks in 1996.

Al Attles and Lenny Wilkens followed Russell as the next Black N.B.A. head coaches. They, like Russell, led teams to championships. It took a while for the rest of the professional sports world to catch up. Frank Robinson, Russell’s former high school basketball teammate, became Major League Baseball’s first Black manager, in Cleveland, in 1975. Art Shell became the N.F.L.’s first Black head coach in the modern era for the Oakland Raiders in 1989.

“Bill Russell was an inspiration, period, with coaching,” Bickerstaff said. “But as a human being, during times when it wasn’t popular to be someone of our complexion, he stood up and he represented. He had no fear. He was genuine. He was a success. He was a leader on and off the court.”

Russell became the fifth person inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and a coach when he earned enshrinement as a coach last year.

By then, something that seemed far-fetched when Bickerstaff broke into coaching seemed common. Half of the N.B.A.’s 30 coaches will be Black heading into the 2022-23 season, including J.B. Bickerstaff, Bernie’s son and the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

But as recently as 2020, only four Black coaches roamed N.B.A. sidelines. “There is a certain natural ebb and flow to the hiring and firing, frankly, of coaches, but the number is too low right now,” N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver said before the 2020 finals.

Other sports leagues continued to lag. Nearly two decades after Russell won his first championship as a coach, Al Campanis, a Los Angeles Dodgers executive, expressed doubt about the ability of Black people to hold managerial level positions.

“I don’t believe it’s prejudice,” Campanis said in an interview on ABC’s “Nightline” in 1987. “I truly believe that they may not have some of the necessities to be, let’s say, a field manager, or perhaps a general manager.”

M.L.B. recently commemorated the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s major league debut, yet only two of its current managers — Houston’s Dusty Baker and the Dodgers’ Dave Roberts — are Black.

In the N.F.L., Brian Flores, the former coach of the Miami Dolphins, recently sued the league over discriminatory hiring practices. Flores is the son of Honduran immigrants. The N.F.L. created a diversity advisory committee and mandated that every team hire a minority offensive coach after Flores’s suit.

Russell did not talk often about being the first Black coach in a major sports league. But after his hiring, he felt the stress that awaited him as the “the first Negro coach,” as he wrote in his book.

The hope of his relationship with Auerbach evolving from a superficial coach-player bond into a deeper friendship comforted him.

“So I started looking forward to that,” he wrote.

Russell left the Celtics in 1969 but took over the SuperSonics from 1973 until 1977. He guided Seattle to the franchise’s first-ever playoffs, but the success he found in Boston eluded him.

Russell coached a final season with the Sacramento Kings in 1987-88 before he was fired and moved into the front office after a 17-41 start.

“With a lot of truly great players, it was tough for him to understand why regular players did not have the same drive, focus and commitment to winning that he did,” Jerry Reynolds, an assistant for Russell on the Kings, said in an interview Sunday. “There’s just not very many people wired like that. That’s why they’re great. In some ways, it was hard for him to understand that. Most of the guys, they wanted to win. They didn’t have the need to win every game like him.”

All along, Russell remained true to who he was while coaching.

Bickerstaff recalled Russell offering a set of golf clubs to one of Woolpert’s sons instead of signing an autograph for him — an act that Russell was known to steadfastly refuse throughout his career.

Cleamons said that a booster introduced his high school team to Russell shortly after it had won the Ohio state championship. Russell hardly looked up from his soup. He hated to be interrupted from a meal.

Cleamons understood the mind-set after reading Russell’s autobiography.

Before being thought of as a basketball player, before being looked upon as a coach, Russell wanted to be viewed as a human being.

“He was a little bit like Muhammad Ali,” Reynolds said. “He was always who he was. Society and people changed. Things changed to fit more like it should have been all along.”

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Knicks vs. Bulls prediction: NBA picks, odds

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The NBA’s longest win streak is finally over after the Knicks suffered their first loss in nine games on Wednesday. Expect New York to start a new streak Friday against a team it dominated the last time they faced off.

The Knicks were playing like the best team in basketball during their lengthy win streak, posting the league’s best net rating (+17.3) with six double-digit victories in that eight-game run. That included a 23-point beat-down of the Bulls exactly a week ago, when New York drained 17 3s and saw three players score at least 22 points in an easy win.

Knicks vs. Bulls (7:30 p.m. Eastern) prediction: Knicks -5.5 (Caesars Sportsbook)

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That game marked the worst offensive showing of the season for Chicago (91 points), which has struggled with chemistry and spacing issues all year long. The Bulls rank dead last in 3-point attempts per game (28.8) and third-worst in offensive rebounding rate (23.6%), which leaves very few easy scoring chances for one of the NBA’s worst offenses.

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It’s the opposite story for the Knicks, who boast three legitimate shot-creators and also rank among the league leaders in points in the paint. Julius Randle (31 points) relentlessly attacked this Chicago defense in their first meeting before allowing RJ Barrett (27 points) to lead the way in the second affair — his fourth of five straight games with at least 22 points. 

I don’t see this Knicks attack slowing down against one of the league’s most inconsistent defenses. And until Zach LaVine returns to his All-Star form, I’m skeptical of the Bulls’ offense showing up on Friday, too.

Knicks vs. Bulls pick: Knicks -5.5 (Caesars Sportsbook)

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Devils vs. Bruins prediction: Bet on New Jersey to end slide on NHL Friday

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After starting the season 21-4-1, it looked like the New Jersey Devils were going to run away with the Metropolitan Division as one of the very best teams in the NHL.

Not only were the Devils cruising, but their underlying metrics were elite. New Jersey was the best 5-on-5 team through the first quarter of the season.

Three weeks and one six-game losing streak later, and the Devils have fallen back to earth and are now two points behind the Carolina Hurricanes in the Metropolitan Division. 

The Devils were able to get off the schneid with a win over Florida on Wednesday, but the task doesn’t get any easier with the league-leading Boston Bruins in town.

New Jersey is a slight +102 home underdog against Boston starting at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN+ and the NHL Network.  

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Tomas Tatar #90 of the New Jersey Devils
Tomas Tatar #90 of the New Jersey Devils
NHLI via Getty Images

Bruins vs. Devils prediction

Even though the Devils have struggled to get results over their last 10 contests, their underlying numbers don’t suggest there’s all that much wrong with how they’re playing. New Jersey isn’t posting the pace-setting numbers it did through Thanksgiving, but it’s still skating to the fifth-best expected goals rate and high-danger scoring chance rate in the league over its last 10 contests.  

Those numbers should help ease any sense of panic that New Jersey could continue to fall back further into the pack as we head toward the New Year. 

So if New Jersey is still tilting the ice in the right direction, what is the issue for the Devils? 

For one thing, the Devs are struggling to find the back of the net like they did when they were rolling. New Jersey has scored just nine goals in its last five games, and four of those tallies came in a 4-2 victory over Florida on Wednesday. Over their last 10 games, the Devils rank 25th in the NHL with a 6.56% shooting percentage. 

Additionally, the Devils are not getting the goaltending needed to stabilize them. New Jersey’s netminders were always thought to be the team’s biggest weakness, and that has started to show lately as the Devils rank 23rd in the NHL in 5-on-5 save percentage over the last 10 games.

Hampus Lindholm #27 of the Boston Bruins
Hampus Lindholm #27 of the Boston Bruins
NHLI via Getty Images

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The Bruins, meanwhile, continue to roll. Boston is 7-1-2 over its last 10 contests and ranks third in the league over that span in expected goals rate and fourth in high-danger chance percentage. The Bruins pace the NHL with a +54 goal differential, which is 25 goals better than the team in second (Toronto). 

But as impressive as Boston has been over its first 31 games of the season, the Bruins are playing on a back-to-back on Friday, while the Devils were off on Thursday night. 

The Bruins are the better team in a vacuum, but this is a good buy-low spot on the Devils, who are still playing solid hockey but are just not getting the results.

Devils vs. Bruins pick

New Jersey Devils +102 (FanDuel)

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At the Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, a Female Crew of Two

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Kathy Veel has come a long way since 1989, when she first sailed in the Sydney Hobart Yacht Race with an all-female crew on the Belles Long Ranger.

“It started off with four of us women — we figured, let’s give it a shot,” said Veel, 70, a retired teacher who lives in Bullaburra, about 60 miles west of Sydney, Australia. “We didn’t have a boat. We didn’t have any money. It was a real start from scratch. No one took us seriously.”

Not anymore. Veel is now back for her third Sydney Hobart, which starts on Monday, this time also breaking ground. She will be part of the only all-female crew competing in the race’s two-handed division on the Currawong, at 30 feet long the second smallest boat in the fleet. She will be sailing with Bridget Canham, 62, of Sydney, a veteran of several Sydney Hobart races.

Veel said that in 1989, there were doubts the crew of women could handle the grueling conditions of the race.

“We were kind of a token gesture,” she said. “There were a lot of people who didn’t think we were up to it. They would ask, what we were going to do when it’s blowing 30 knots and the boat is swamped? We’ll be doing pretty much what they’ll be doing — putting up sails and racing the boat.”

Their goal was to simply finish the race, which they did. “It opened the door for us,” Veel said.

“Women in sailing have come so far,” she said. “Most boats these days have got women on them. And that’s great.”

Canham, a retired nurse who volunteers as an emergency boat pilot, said sailing had indeed changed.

“Sailing is more of an integrated sport now,” she said. “Now, it’s just by coincidence that we are just two women on a boat. We’re just sailors. We don’t think of ourselves as anything different.”

The two-handed division, where a boat is raced by two sailors — as opposed to a large crew ranging from 6 to 25 — is now in its second year at the Sydney Hobart. For Veel and Canham, the draw of two-handed racing is access.

“Having a fully crewed racing yacht was way outside of my resources,” Veel said. “I’m retired. But now that they have the two-handed, we can do the race. It gives people the opportunity to sail in the race who aren’t on a fully crewed yacht.” Yearly maintenance on two-handed boats might be $10,000, while much larger yachts require millions of dollars to maintain.

Canham also said the sailors in the two-handed division were a tightknit group. “The two-handed community is just so supportive; it’s like we are all on the same team,” she said.

Veel and Canham generally split duties on the boat, taking turns on the sails and at the wheel, with Canham focusing on sails and Veel on navigation and race tactics.

“Bridget knows the wind and is good at getting the best out of the boat,” Veel said. “She’ll have every sail tweaked and tuned. She never takes her eye off the ball. She’s also extremely gutsy and strong-minded and determined.”

Veel and Canham have prepared for the event by sailing in four other races this year. Over that time, they realized the boat, a Currawong 30, built in 1974 with beaten 20-year-old sails, needed upgrades, but they’ve accepted its limits.

“We’ve been able to test out our boat in these previous races, but it really has felt that 90 percent of this race has been just getting to the start line,” Veel said. “We’ve just been focused on getting the boat ready. Now that we are there, and there are no more obstacles between us and the race, that’s when I’m starting to wonder what have I got myself into. Now it’s real.”

Canham heads into the race committed, but knows their limitations.

“No one is expecting us to do anything,” she said. “But I don’t think they realize just how determined we are.”

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