Between the 1950s and 1970s, a number of impressive and important figures helped to change the league and change society at large. In particular, three of the league’s most impressive big men had an influence on basketball that has continued throughout time. Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar each had a very different personality and impact on the league, and each had a much different impact on society at large. Together, though, these big men helped to shape NBA rules, helped to motivate various movements, and reflected the changing times in the United States in their own unique ways.
Bill Russell’s story was reflective of many of the challenges faced by African-American people in the South during his youth. He grew up in Monroe, Louisiana, a place where racism and segregation were the cultural norms. On multiple occasions, Russell witnessed his parents facing abuse from everyone from business owners to police officers. His family later moved to Oakland, where he lived in poverty, but they were trying to get away from the danger of the racist Louisiana society in which they tried to raise Russell. Russell was eventually exposed to basketball, and later, he was able to go to the University of San Francisco, where he starred as a player. Russell was so effective in college that the NCAA instituted some rule changes to keep people like him from dominating the game. For one, they widened the lane to ensure that players could not be as effective playing a post-up game like Russell had. In addition, college basketball added rules about goaltending because of Russell’s effectiveness at erasing shots.
In addition to his impact on the court, Russell had a major impact off the court. He became a Civil Rights Movement hero almost by default. He led a number of movements, both openly and internally, to resist racism. Playing in the city of Boston, which had a reputation for racism, he was often abused by his own fans. Many took his example as one of strength, as he made a great career despite this abuse. More openly, he and teammates once refused to play in a game in Lexington, Kentucky after they were refused service there. This happened in the early 1960s, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, bringing more attention to the plight of black people there and cross the country.
Wilt Chamberlain came a bit after Russell, but he was arguably the most dominant players in the history of the NBA. He once scored 100 points in a game, he was notorious for dunking from the free throw line, and he was an intimidating presence both on and off of the court. Chamberlain brought about rule changes like the widening of the NBA lane. One of the things that made him special was his unique ability to jump over defenders and use his fingeroll to make easy baskets. When the lane was made wider, Chamberlain had to start from further out, and though this did not totally stop him, it did provide him with an additional challenge. On top of that, the NBA put into place a rule that required all players to release their free throws from behind the free throw line. Because Chamberlain was not a very good free throw shooter, he attempted to get a running start and jump in order to release the ball closer to the basket. This did not work well, but his athleticism forced the NBA to reconsider the rules, making life more difficult on him.
Off the court, Chamberlain was a notorious man about town. He claimed to have slept with hundreds of women, and in fact, he was an embodiment of the changing nature of American society. His career coincided with the free love movements and a more progressive understanding of America. In addition, he was one of the first black athletes to truly take on the celebrity aspect of his skill set. While he did not do as much direct advocacy as Russell, his success was important for the Civil Rights Movement and for showing the changes in America.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was also associated with some of the most important changes in American history. In particular, his play on the court revolutionized college basketball. As a member of the powerhouse UCLA teams of the 1960s, Lew Alcindor, as he was then known, dominated the game with his easy ability to dunk the ball. Fearful that this would change the game entirely, the NCAA banned the dunk because of his athleticism. This was eventually reversed, of course, but it shows the way in which he impacted the game. His impact was felt even more off the court, as he was one of the figures that helped to move the Civil Rights Movement toward a black power movement. He even changed his name in part because of his understanding that many of the slaves who had come to the United States were Muslim. This was a part of a larger movement, specifically within the Nation of Islam, that sought to convince black people to abandon the desire for acceptance and assimilation through the Civil Rights Movement, and adopt a more pan-African separatist ideal through the black power movement. While Abdul-Jabbar never got too much into this movement, he did legitimize is, along with Muhammad Ali, with his name change.
The three big men mentioned above all changed the NBA for the better. They used their particular talents to dominate in various ways, forcing the league to adjust in their wake. They also changed society in ways that were critical during that time. It was through their play and advocacy that various movements, including the Civil Rights Movement and the black power movement, gained some steam.