The sports world recently lost a giant, as Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell passed away at 88. A few weeks have passed, and as the sports world continues to honor him, his accomplishments off the court are brought up as much as his on the court accomplishments. Russell was an athlete and activist. He spoke out on issues such as racism, and really paved the way for athletes of today. And he wasn’t alone. There were other athletes such as boxing icon Muhammad Ali, football legend Jim Brown and rival center and Los Angles Lakers great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the forefront of athlete activism.
These athletes were great in their respective sports, and on June 4, 1967, these powerful athletes came together. Russell and eleven other athletes traveled to Cleveland, Ohio, to discuss Ali’s decision to not serve in the Vietnam War. This meeting produced an iconic photo that features Ali, Abdul-Jabbar, Brown and Russell and is often shown when discussing the activism of them all.
The Cleveland Summit was a special moment that showed what athletes are capable of. And what happens when they are united, even if there are different stances or motives at play.
The year was 1967. Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics lost to the Philadelphia 76ers (who went on to win the championship) in the 1967 NBA playoffs. This Division Finals (now known as the Conference finals) matchup marked one of two times that the Celtics did not win a championship with Rusell on their roster. The Celtics lost the series 4-1 after a 140-116 loss to the Sixers on April 11.
There was something big brewing in boxing around this time, as on April 28, Ali refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army.
After Ali’s decision, Brown (who had recently retired) called Ali and several other athletes to discuss Ali’s stance. He organized a meeting that took place at the offices of the Negro Industrial Economic Union (an organization he founded).
The meeting was a chance for other athletes to hear Ali’s take, see how serious he was about it, and show support.
A recent article about the summit included a quote from Cleveland filmmaker and journalist, Branson Wright on how other athletes were during the event.
“They grilled him. I mean, they really grilled Ali on his beliefs,” said Branson Wright.
Wright said Ali wouldn’t budge and after hours of questioning, they decided to stand by him.
Before the event, Bob Arum, a boxing promoter, and members of the National of Islam, tried to persuade Ali to take a deal where he would perform boxing exhibitions for U. S troops. This way his draft evasion charges would be dropped. It is also believed that some attendees would convince him to accept the deal. And with the deal being lucrative (as Arum was prepared to compensate athletes that would convince Ali to accept), convincing Ali seemed like the right decision. But Ali stood firm and in the end, the group stood with him.
“They said, ‘We’re going to support him. We’re going to support his right to be a conscientious objector.’ And they had that press conference afterward and showing that support.” Wright said.
Ali used the press conference to elaborate on his position.
Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs?” Ali said.
Russell spoke on the matter in the June 19, 1967, issue of Sports Illustrated and commended Ali.
“I envy Muhammad Ali. … He has something I have never been able to attain and something very few people possess. He has absolute and sincere faith.”
Ali was convicted of draft evasion the next day (June 20). He was sentenced to five years in prison, fined $10,000 and banned from boxing. However, his case was eventually appealed.
The summit was a significant moment in sports history, and the athletes that participated were activists in their own way. Russell was no stranger to these matters, as he led a protest in 1961, after he was refused service from a coffee shop in Lexington, Kentucky. Russell boycotted the game, and years later the NBA is following suit. When the Milwaukee Bucks boycotted a game in 2020 after the shooting of Jacob Blake, it felt like the activism of Russell and his peers lives on.
And after Russell’s passing, that legacy will continue.