The National Basketball Association was a much different place back in 1968. Players wore mostly Chuck Taylors instead of $200 sneakers. Few players dunked. The three-point shot? It didn’t even exist yet in the league.
And before Bill Russell, no black coach had ever led an NBA team, much less win a championship. In '68, the Celtics took down the Los Angeles Lakers in six games to bring home the title.
Since then, Russell has downplayed being both the NBA's first black coach and the first black coach to win the championship.
"The only significance to me will be when they’ll hire and fire coaches, and you’ll never know their race,” Russell said on WGBH’s “Basic Black” in 2001.
But even if Russell hasn't publicly acknowledged his milestone, others have. In 2011, President Barack Obama talked about Russell’s accomplishments when he awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“In 13 seasons with the Boston Celtics, he won 11 championships, a record unmatched, in any sport,” Obama said. “Won two while also serving as the team’s coach and so happens he also was the first African-American ever to hold such a position as a coach in a major league sports team of any sort.”
But even though Russell broke that coaching barrier half a century ago, not much has changed for black coaches looking for opportunities to lead teams to championships at any level.
In the NBA,only 5 other black coaches have gone on to win a championship. In the National Football League, only two have won a Super Bowl. In Major League Baseball, only one black manager has won a World Series. In the National Hockey Leauge, a black coach has never won a Stanley Cup.
In college, the story is largely the same, according to Merritt Norvell, the executive director of the National Association for Coaching Equity and Development. College sports even lack rules for ensuring minority coaching candidates get interviewed for jobs as with the NFL, said Norvell who played football at the University of Wisconsin and went on to become the athletic director at Michigan State.
That's why he's pushed the NCAA to adopt what he's called the "Eddie Robinson Rule," which would require at least one qualified minority candidate to be interviewed for coaching jobs.
"Part of the problem in the hiring process right now is that a lot of coaches aren't getting in to that particular pool because I think that hiring is really based upon comfort and privilege,” he said. “And that excludes, many many times, racial and ethnic minority coaches."
A 2002 study showed black coaches were less likely to be hired and more likely to be fired than white coaches in the National Football League.
"If coaches have a smaller window of time to turn around a team and foster a winning culture if they are a person of color, that minimizes their chances of ever building a championship team to begin with,” said Brett Estrella of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida.
But changes are slowly happening. The study helped lead to the Rooney Rule, which requires NFL teams to interview at least one candidate of color for coaching positions. Other initiatives like the NBA's Crossover program help develop the pipeline for former players who want to go into coaching.
"Not only are they benefiting with a larger pool to choose from, but they're also making sure that they're providing equal opportunity to everyone in their organization,” Estrella said.
Since Russell's days, four other black coaches have helmed the Celtics: Tom "Satch" Sanders, M.L. Carr, K.C. Jones and Doc Rivers. Jones and Rivers both led Boston to championships.
Jared Weiss, who covers the Celtics for The Athletic, said says Russell's impact isn't lost on the modern organization.
"His mural is up on the wall on the hallway outside the locker room. His number hangs from the rafters,” Weiss noted. “He's still looked at as one of the great winners of all time."
For fans, Russell’s legacy still lives on as well. At the TD Garden just before this year's first playoff game, Celtics fan Michael Deboe said he hopes Russell's legacy isn't lost on today's fans.
"He doesn't get the credit that he deserves, not what he did on the court, but off the court,” Deboe said. “It needs to be discussed more."
In 1968, Bill Russell quietly made history in a city he would later describe in his 1979 memoir as a "flea market of racism.”
Even 50 years later, black coaches are still trying to break through some of the same barriers he leapt over.