On a cold, blustery June day in 1972, NBA great and civil rights pioneer Bill Russell received an honorary doctor of laws degree at Union’s commencement.
At 6 feet, 10 inches tall, Russell towered over those gathered on the crowded dais. At 38, he was also the youngest of the seven honorary recipients, which included noted choreographer Jerome Robbins and Walter Fallon '40, president and CEO of Eastman Kodak.
The temperature was 48, with winds gusting up to 30 miles an hour, making it one of the College’s coldest commencements.
“It’s late, I’m cold, and you’re cold. My hands hurt, so I’ll be brief,” President Harold C. Martin said as he prepared to deliver his charge to the Class of 1972.
Martin invited Russell, who died Sunday at 88, to campus. At the time, Russell’s resume included 11 NBA titles, two NCAA championships and an Olympic gold medal. Retired from the game, he worked as a broadcaster for ABC and hosted a syndicated TV talk show, “The Bill Russell Show.”
Yet it was Russell the person that Union also celebrated. Growing up in the segregated South, Russell was an outspoken advocate for civil rights his entire life. He attended the March on Washington in 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. He publicly supported Muhammad Ali, who was vilified when he refused induction into the Army. He joined the college lecture circuit, visiting dozens of schools and universities to discuss everything from basketball to racism.
In 2011, President Obama awarded Russell the Medal of Freedom.
Upon his death, the Washington Post called Russell a disrupter and a “fully dimensional Black athlete more than a half century before it was okay to be one.”
“Bill stood for something much bigger than sports: the values of equality, respect and inclusion that he stamped into the DNA of our league,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “At the height of his athletic career, Bill advocated vigorously for civil rights and social justice, a legacy he passed down to generations of NBA players who followed in his footsteps. Through the taunts, threats and unthinkable adversity, Bill rose above it all and remained true to his belief that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity.”
Union’s conferral of an honorary degree to Russell achieved a modicum of national attention.
“Time does not dim, nor absence wilt, the record of your achievements as player, coach and man,” reads the citation to William Felton Russell.
In an editorial, “A slightly stilted accolade,” which was picked up by numerous media outlets, the Minneapolis Star nominated Union’s citation as the “sharpest (needle-sharp, that is) of commencement season.” The newspaper thought the citation, believed to be written by Martin, was aimed at Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain, Russell’s fiercest rival on the court.
A few days after collecting his honorary degree, Russell made the short trip to New York City for an appearance on “The Tonight Show.” Joined by guests the Amazing Kreskin, a mentalist, and poet Nikki Giovanni, Russell bantered about his Union honor with Flip Wilson, who was filling in for regular host Johnny Carson.