Whether Black, White, Catholic or Jewish, Heroes Transcend Barriers

This should not be that difficult. If you live your life in a righteous fashion, if you abide by a strict code of morals and values, and if you put yourself in harm’s way to help others, you are a hero. If you subjugate your own livelihood specifically to elevate the plight of somebody else, you are a hero. To whatever person or group of people you help out, you are a hero. A black guy can be a hero to a white family (like during Hurricane Harvey), much in the same way a Catholic priest can help out Jewish people (like in the Holocaust). There are heroes of every color, of every shape, of every creed. Real heroes see people in need of help, and immediately run to their side. That is why they are heroes. They act on the basest human instinct; this person needs help, I am the one that can help them. It is a horrific shame that such thoughts and actions are deemed heroic, but it is also reality. You do not have to identify with the other person in order to help them beyond their identity of a human. That is the only identity that matters to someone that acts as a hero.

This past weekend the Boston Police Department sent out a tweet honoring Red Auerbach for Black History Month:

There was a massive and instant backlash to this post; “how could the Boston Police Department honor a white guy during Black History Month?” Well, because Red Auerbach is a black hero. Could (and should) the Boston Police Department honored Bill Russell before Auerbach? Probably yes (update: They actually did JUST THAT on February 3rd). But without Red Auerbach, there is no Bill Russell as we know of him today. There are no 14 championships in 16 seasons (including Olympics) for Russell dating back to his junior season as a Don at the University of San Francisco without Auerbach. There is no title of “Greatest Basketball Winner Ever” if Red Auerbach was not there at the helm of Russell. And there is surely no “First Black Head Coach” if Auerbach did not make it so.

Is it appalling that Bill Russell and other black NBA players needed somebody to help them along the way to gain respect and recognition? Of-freaking-course. It is a sad and dismal part of American History that blacks (and other ethnicities) were seen as inferior simply because of the color of their skin or their country of origin. However, it is still the reality. And the reality of the matter is that Red Auerbach did more for the normalization of black athletes than just about any (non-black) man in American sports history (yes, more than Branch Rickey).

Although the tweet was pilloried, it is 100% correct: Auerbach drafted the first black NBA player in 1950 (Chuck Cooper), started the first ever all-black starting five in 1964 (Russell, Tom Sanders, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones, and Willie Naulls), and resigned as head coach to name his successor, Bill Russell, the first ever black coach in the NBA (and first professional black coach in sports since Fritz Pollard in 1925). That last one is key. He purposely named Russell his successor at a time when he knew the Celtics were more than capable of winning a couple more championships with whoever would coach them next. Would anyone dare argue with Red Auerbach’s pick as his successor? Hell no. If Auerbach said Russell was his successor, and a worthy successor at that, the NBA world knew it to be true. The only vindication Russell would need was to win a championship. If he did so then nobody for the rest of NBA history could say, “yeah, but a black coach cannot lead his team to victory.” Sure enough, the Celtics indeed won two championships with Russell serving as their player-coach.

But the backlash to the Boston Police Department tweet is just as pitiful. The immediate reaction was simply, “how dare a white person to be honored during black history month.” I get it if you are annoyed that the BPD chose Auerbach before Russell, but as laid out above, no Auerbach, no Russell. Being a history buff, I would have loved if the BPD went with Crispus Attucks (a Boston pick if there ever was one) or Frederick Douglass, but just because Auerbach is white does not exclude him from being a black hero. The same way a non-Jewish person cannot be excluded from being a Jewish hero.

The Holocaust is quite possibly the biggest atrocity constructed by man. A man (Hitler) convinced almost an entire nation to systematically treat another group of people as inferior and did so in such a successful way that it made it relatively easy to starve and later exterminate that other group of people (the Jews). More than six million Jews were slaughtered at the hands of the Nazi’s and Hitler (and more than 200,000 Roma–Gypsies). The state of Israel has an entire museum dedicated to the Holocaust.

However, what strikes most people while walking among the harrowing pictures, videos, and lists of Yad VaShem is the “Righteous Among Nations” section. Yad VaShem (the Holocaust Memorial) has an entire section devoted to the non-Jewish heroes of World War II. People who risked their lives in order to save the lives of Jewish people (men, women, and especially children) that they did not know. They are as much Jewish heroes as Samson or the Maccabees. And yet, not a single one of those people honored as “Righteous Among Nations,” is Jewish. They are Jewish heroes specifically because they are not Jewish. They saw something horrible and decided to go out of their way to fix it. And while doing so, saved hundreds and thousands of lives, all because they knew it was the right thing to do.

That is the sad part about modern heroism. Many of the people considered heroes by others do not consider themselves heroes. Whether it be Marines jumping on grenades to save their buddies, firefighters and police officers running into burning and crumbling buildings to extract people, or farmers hiding slaves as part of the Underground Railroad, these people, these heroes, did what they did because it was the right thing to do. Unfortunately in this day and age, doing the right thing has become heroic. However, a hero is a hero is a hero, no matter their skin color, and sometimes specifically because they do not have the skin color (or share the same religious beliefs) of the person or people they are helping. If you want to complain about the Boston Police Department honoring Auerbach before Russell, fine, but if you have any complaints beyond that, maybe you should think about what matters most. Do you deem skin color to matter most or do you think words and actions are paramount? To paraphrase a great American hero; do you think we live in a nation that judges people by the color of their skin, or by the content of their character?