Tomase: What a racist 1969 letter tells us about Bill Russell and Boston


The unsigned letter arrived in all caps with no return address, the writer precisely penning each line with the aid of a ruler, like the nuns used to teach. It's postmarked Feb. 3, 1969, and is affixed with a stamp commemorating the 1968 World's Fair in San Antonio.

It's addressed to my great uncle, Joe Looney, in the sports department of the old Boston Herald-Traveler. And it is filled with two pages of casually cruel racism directed at one target -- Bill Russell.

I found the letter recently in a box of my uncle's things. He died 35 years ago after a lengthy career at the many incarnations of the Herald before finishing at the Globe in the early 1970s.

Though he served as president of the Golf Writers Association of America, Looney was actually an original Celtics beat writer, chronicling the fledgling NBA in the late 1940s when baseball ruled. He knew all the old C's. Tommy Heinsohn once lit up at the mention of his name and called him "a great man." Looney wrote the program at Bob Cousy's retirement. He received Christmas cards from Celtics owner Walter Brown, who broke the NBA's color barrier by drafting Chuck Cooper in 1950.

Looney also greatly admired Russell. In the days before Twitter and Reddit and email, feedback arrived in the form of letters to the newsroom. We found dozens of them in Uncle Joe's things, many from golf luminaries like Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, and Arnold Palmer.

For whatever reason, he kept this letter, too, and it provides a contemporaneous window into the vitriol directed at Russell during his complicated Boston years, when he could simultaneously be hailed as the greatest winner in sports, and also reviled for being a black man in a white city that wouldn't even begin desegregating its schools for another five years.

The letter, on a plain 6x7 piece of stationary, is stunning in multiple ways. The first is that it includes a detailed illustration in colored pencil of a blonde woman with a tear rolling down each cheek. The choice of hair color feels obviously intentional, and the quality of the artwork is alternately amazing and alarming.

"I am so depressed after reading your heart rendering report of brave Mr. Russell," the letter starts, again in all caps scrawled across rigid scaffolding. "It's sickening all the fuss they make over those kids in Vietnam while the real heroes at home -- Russell, Cassius Clay, et al. -- really are our heroes. Good work, Joe."

If you're wondering what caused the writer to mock Russell's bravery while also pointedly refusing to identify the antiwar heavyweight champ by his legal name of Muhammad Ali, it's over the ultimate mundanity: a knee injury.

Russell had just played three games in three nights, grabbing 28 rebounds but shooting an uncharacteristic 2 for 13 in the last game. With seconds remaining in that one-point loss to the Knicks, he crumpled following a collision. The coverage in the rival Globe reflected the concern that Russell could be sidelined indefinitely, but he'd ultimately only miss a week with a ligament strain.

Just days shy of his 35th birthday, and in his final season as a player-coach, Russell had earned a break. The Traveler's archives aren't available online, but it's clear from context that my uncle had simply written an injury update like everyone else. There's no arguing its newsworthiness. Russell was trying to become an 11-time champ in the twilight of his career.

Our letter writer had other ideas. Their missive turned nasty, and please note, the following contains racist language.

"Poor Mr. Russell (who really is an arrogant pompous black) hurts his little knee and the press and T.V. explode with the enormity of it," they wrote. "Good kids in Vietnam have had their young lives blasted into eternity without half the fuss over a black man's knee. This elongated freak should be picking cotton in the Mississippi Delta.

"You clowns that don't make as much in a year as he does in a month extol these overpaid goons to a nauseous degree."

As we honor the occasion of the late Russell's 89th birthday this weekend, and as the NBA continues its yearlong celebration of his life, it's disheartening but essential to consider his experiences as they actually happened, and not as we wish them to be.

Celebrating Bill Russell: On-court achievements | Legacy as Civil Rights activist

Russell famously described Boston as a "flea market of racism" in his 1979 memoir, but it's a mark of the city's slow, difficult reckoning that he died a beloved icon who had reluctantly and cautiously reconciled with his longtime home. From the belated Bill Russell Night that he finally assented to in 1999 as long as the proceeds went to the National Mentoring Partnership, through his support of the C's during last summer's Finals, just putting his face on the Jumbotron guaranteed an ovation.

Let's just remember it wasn't always this way. That one Boston fan felt emboldened to put their virulence to paper made enough of an impression on my uncle that he kept that letter for the rest of his life. As we honor what would have been Russell’s 89th birthday this Sunday, we dishonor his legacy if we leave those memories packed away.

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