6 ft 10 in (2.08 m)
220 lb (100 kg)
|Born: February 12, 1934|
|NBA Draft: 1956 / Round: 1 / Pick: 2|
|College: San Francisco|
|Career highlights and awards|
|Basketball Hall of Fame|
William Felton "Bill" Russell (born February 12, 1934 in Monroe, Louisiana) is a retired American professional basketball player who played center for the Boston Celtics of the National Basketball Association (NBA). A five-time winner of the NBA Most Valuable Player Award and a 12-time NBA All-Star , the 6 ft 10 in (2.08 m) Russell was the centerpiece of the Celtics dynasty that won 11 NBA Championships during Russell's 13-year career. Before his professional career, Russell led the University of San Francisco to two consecutive National Collegiate Athletic Association championships (1955, 1956). He also won a gold medal at the 1956 Summer Olympics as captain of the U.S. national basketball team and is by most estimates the greater winner in professional team sports.
Russell is widely considered one of the best defensive players in NBA history. His shot-blocking and man-to-man defense were major reasons for the Celtics' success. Russell was equally notable for his rebounding abilities. He led the NBA in rebounds four times and tallied 21,620 total rebounds in his career. He is one of just two NBA players to have grabbed more than fifty rebounds in a game.
Playing in the wake of pioneers like Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper, and Ray Felix, and despite an often hostile racial climate in Boston, Russell was the first African American player to achieve superstardom in the NBA. He also served three seasons (1966–1969) as the Celtic player-coach, becoming the first African American coach in any major American professional sports league. Russell grew up in the segregated South and was deeply affected by the pervasive racism of the era. Despite his success on court, Russell remained suspicious and often scornful of white fans and particularly sports writers. Yet his athletic achievements, like those of baseball player Jackie Robinson, won admiration across racial lines during the civil rights era.
- 1 Early years
- 2 College career
- 3 1956 NBA Draft
- 4 1956 Olympics
- 5 Professional career
- 6 Legacy
- 7 Published works
- 8 Notes
- 9 References
- 10 External links
- 11 Credits
|Competitor for United States|
|Gold||1956 Melbourne||Team Competition|
Russell is a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. He was named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History in 1996 and named "Greatest Player in the History of the NBA" by the Professional Basketball Writers Association of America in 1980.
Bill Russell was born to Charles and Katie Russell in Monroe, Louisiana, which was strictly segregated and where his family often encountered racism. His older brother is the noted playwright Charlie L. Russell. Charlie Russell is described as a "stern, hard man" who was initially a janitor in a paper factory (a typical low paid, intellectually unchallenging "Negro Job," as sports journalist John Taylor commented), but later became a trucker when World War II broke out. Once, Russell's father was refused service at a gasoline station until the staff had taken care of all the white customers. When his father attempted to leave and find a different station, the attendant stuck a shotgun in his face, threatening to kill him unless he stayed and waited his turn. At another time, Russell's mother was walking outside in a fancy dress when a policeman accosted her. He told her to go home and remove the dress, which he described as "white woman’s clothing." Due to such incidents Russell's father moved the family out of Louisiana when Russell was eight years old and settled them in Oakland, California. While there the family fell into poverty, and Russell spent his childhood living in a series of project homes.
Closer to his mother than to his father, Russell received a major emotional blow when she suddenly died when he was 12. His father gave up his trucking job and became a steel worker to be closer to his semi-orphaned children. Russell has stated that his father became his childhood hero, later followed up by Minneapolis Lakers superstar George “Mr. Basketball” Mikan, whom he met when he was in high school.
In his early years, Russell struggled to develop his skills as a basketball player. Although Russell was a good runner and jumper and had extremely large hands, he simply did not understand the game and was cut from the team in junior high school. As a sophomore at McClymonds High School, he was a teammate of Frank Robinson, but Russell would be almost cut again. However, coach George Powles saw Russell's raw athletic potential and encouraged him to work on his fundamentals. Russell, who was used to racist abuse, responded positively to the encouragement of his white coach. He worked hard and used the benefits of a growth spurt to become a decent basketball player, but it was not until his junior and senior years that he began to excel. Russell soon became noted for his unusual style of defense. He later recalled, "To play good defense... it was told back then that you had to stay flatfooted at all times to react quickly. When I started to jump to make defensive plays and to block shots, I was initially corrected, but I stuck with it, and it paid off."
Russell was married to his college sweetheart Rose Swisher from 1956 to 1973, with whom he had three children, daughter Karen Russell, the television pundit and lawyer, and sons William Jr. and Jacob. However, the couple grew emotionally distant and got divorced. In 1977, he married Dorothy Anstett, the former "Miss USA" of 1968, but they eventually divorced.
During his career, Russell was one of the first big earners in NBA basketball. His rookie contract was worth $24,000, only fractionally smaller than the $25,000 of top earner Bob Cousy. In contrast to other Celtics, who had to work in the offseason to maintain their standard of living (Heinsohn sold insurances, Gene Guarilia was a professional guitar player, Cousy ran a basketball camp, and Auerbach invested in plastics and a Chinese restaurant), Russell never had to work part-time. When Wilt Chamberlain became the first NBA player to earn $100,000 in salary in 1965, Russell went to Auerbach and demanded a $100,001 salary, which he promptly received.
Russell was ignored by college scouts and did not receive a single letter of interest until Hal DeJulio from the local University of San Francisco (USF) watched him in a high school game. DeJulio was not impressed by Russell's meager scoring and "atrocious fundamentals," but sensed that the young center had an extraordinary instinct for the game, especially in clutch situations. When DeJulio offered Russell a scholarship, the latter eagerly accepted. Russell thus became a new recruit of USF basketball coach Phil Woolpert. Sports journalist John Taylor described it as a watershed in Russell's life, because he realized that basketball was his one chance to escape poverty and racism; as a consequence, Russell swore to make the best of it.
At USF, Russell became the new starting center for Woolpert. The latter emphasized defense and deliberate half-court play, concepts that favored Russell's defensive prowess. Woolpert was unaffected by issues of skin color. In 1954, he became the first coach of a major college basketball squad to start three African American players: Russell, K.C. Jones and Hal Perry. In his USF years, Russell used his relative lack of bulk to develop a unique style of defense: instead of purely guarding the opposing center, he used his quickness and speed to switch off his man and play help defense against opposing forwards, aggressively challenging their shots. Combining the stature and shot-blocking skills of a center with the foot speed of a guard, Russell became the centerpiece of a USF team that soon became a force in college basketball. After keeping Holy Cross star Tom Heinsohn scoreless in an entire half, Sports Illustrated wrote, "If [Russell] ever learns to hit the basket, they're going to have to rewrite the rules."
However, the games were often difficult for the USF squad. Russell and his African American teammates became targets of racist jeers, both at USF and on the road. In one notable incident, hotels in Oklahoma City refused to admit Russell and his black teammates while they were in town for the 1954 All-College Tournament. In protest, the whole team decided to camp out in a closed college dorm, which was later called an important bonding experience for the group. Decades later, Russell explained that his experiences hardened him against abuse of all kinds. "I never permitted myself to be a victim," he said.
On the hardwood, his experiences were far more pleasant. Russell led USF to NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956, including a string of 55 consecutive victories. He became known for his strong defense and shot-blocking skills, once blocking 13 shots in a game. UCLA coach John Wooden called Russell "the greatest defensive man I've ever seen." During his college career, Russell averaged 20.7 points per game and 20.3 rebounds per game. Besides basketball, Russell represented USF in track and field events. He competed in the 440 yard (402 m) race, which he ran in 49.6 seconds. He also participated in the high jump; Track & Field News ranked him as the seventh-best high jumper in the world in 1956. That year, Russell won high jump titles at the Central California AAU meet, the Pacific AAU meet, and the West Coast Relays. One of his highest jumps occurred at the West Coast Relays, where he achieved a mark of 6 feet 9 inches (2.06 m).
After his years at USF, the Harlem Globetrotters invited Russell to join their exhibition basketball squad. Russell was upset by the fact that owner Abe Saperstein would only discuss the matter with Woolpert. During the meeting, Saperstein mainly talked to him while Globetrotters assistant coach Harry Hanna tried to entertain Russell with jokes. The USF center responded to the slight by declining the offer: he reasoned that if Saperstein was too smart to speak with him, then he was too smart to play for Saperstein. Instead, Russell made himself eligible for the 1956 NBA Draft.
1956 NBA Draft
In the 1956 NBA Draft, Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach had set his sights on Russell, thinking his defensive toughness and rebounding prowess were the missing pieces the Celtics needed. In retrospect, Auerbach’s thoughts were unorthodox. In that period, centers and forwards were defined by their offensive output, and their ability to play defense was considered secondary. However, Boston's chances of getting Russell seemed slim. Because the Celtics had finished second in the previous season and the worst teams had the highest draft picks, the Celtics draft position was too low in the draft order to pick Russell. In addition, Auerbach had already used his territorial pick to acquire talented forward Tom Heinsohn. But Auerbach knew that the Rochester Royals, who owned the first draft pick, already had a skilled rebounder in Maurice Stokes, were looking for an outside shooting guard and were unwilling to pay Russell the $25,000 signing bonus he requested. The St. Louis Hawks, who owned the second pick, originally drafted Russell, but were vying for Celtics center Ed Macauley, a six-time All-Star who had roots in St. Louis. Auerbach agreed to trade Macauley if they gave up Russell, and after the Celtics also agreed to give up rookie Cliff Hagan, the Hawks made the trade. During that same draft, Boston also claimed guard K.C. Jones, Russell's former USF teammate. Thus, in one night, the Celtics managed to draft three future Hall of Famers: Russell, K.C. Jones and Heinsohn. The Russell draft-day trade was later called one of the most important trades in the history of North American sports.
Before his NBA rookie year, Russell was the captain of the U.S. national basketball team that competed at the 1956 Olympic tournament. It was a somewhat controversial affair, as Avery Brundage, head of the International Olympic Committee, argued that Russell had already signed a professional contract and thus was no longer an amateur, but Russell prevailed. He had the option to skip the tournament and play a full season for the Celtics, but he was determined to play in the Olympics. He later commented that he would have participated in the high jump if he had been snubbed by the basketball team. Under coach Gerald Tucker, Russell helped the national team win the gold medal in Melbourne, defeating the Soviet Union 89–55 in the final game. The United States dominated the tournament, winning by an average of 53.5 points per game. Russell led the team in scoring, averaging 14.1 points per game for the competition. His Celtics teammate K.C. Jones joined him on the Olympic squad and contributed 10.9 points per game.
Russell could not join the Celtics for the 1956–1957 season until December, due to his Olympic commitment. After rejoining the Celtics, Russell played 48 games, averaging 14.7 points per game and a league-high 19.6 rebounds per game. During this season, the Celtics featured six future Hall-of-Famers: center Russell, forwards Heinsohn and Jim Loscutoff, guards Bill Sharman and Bob Cousy, and forward Frank Ramsey, who came off the bench. (K.C. Jones did not play for the Celtics until 1958 because of military service.)
Russell's first Celtics game came on December 22, 1956 against the St. Louis Hawks, led by star forward Bob Pettit, who held several all-time scoring records. Auerbach assigned Russell to shut down St. Louis's main scorer, and the rookie impressed the Boston crowd with his man-to-man defense and shot-blocking. In previous years, the Celtics had been a high-scoring team, but lacked the defensive presence needed to close out tight games. However, with the added defensive presence of Russell, the Celtics had laid the foundation for a dynasty. The team utilized a strong defensive approach to the game, forcing opposing teams to commit many turnovers, which led to many easy fast break points. Russell was an elite help defender who allowed the Celtics to play the so-called "Hey, Bill" defense: whenever a Celtic requested additional defensive help, he would shout "Hey, Bill!" Russell was so quick that he could run over for a quick double team and make it back in time if the opponents tried to find the open man. He also became famous for his shot-blocking skills: pundits called his blocks "Wilsonburgers," referring to the Wilson NBA basketballs he "shoved back into the faces of opposing shooters." This skill also allowed the other Celtics to play their men aggressively: if they were beat, they knew that Russell was guarding the basket. This approach allowed the Celtics to finish with a 44–28 regular season record, the team's second-best record since beginning play in the 1946–1947 season, and guaranteed a post-season appearance.
Russell also received negative attention, however. Constantly provoked by New York Knicks center Ray Felix during a game, he complained to coach Auerbach. The latter told him to take matters into his own hands, so after the next provocation, Russell punched Felix unconscious, paid a $25 fine and was no longer a target of cheap fouls. With his teammates, Russell had a cordial relationship, with the notable exception of fellow rookie and old rival Heinsohn. Heinsohn felt that Russell resented him because the former was named the 1957 NBA Rookie of the Year: many people thought that Russell was more important, but Russell also had only played half the season. Russell also ignored Heinsohn's plea to give his cousin an autograph, and openly said to Heinsohn that he deserved half of his $300 Rookie of the Year check. The relationship between the two rookies remained reserved. On the other hand, despite their different ethnic backgrounds and lack of common off-court interests, his relationship with Celtics point guard and fan favorite Bob Cousy was amicable.
In Game 1 of the Eastern Division Finals, the Celtics met the Syracuse Nationals, who were led by Dolph Schayes. In Russell's first NBA playoff game, he finished with 16 points and 31 rebounds, along with a reported 7 blocks. (At the time, blocks were not yet an officially registered statistic.) After the Celtics' 108–89 victory, Schayes quipped, “How much does that guy make a year? It would be to our advantage if we paid him off for five years to get away from us in the rest of this series.” The Celtics swept the Nationals in three games to earn the franchise's first appearance in the NBA Finals.
In the NBA Finals, the Celtics met the St. Louis Hawks, who were again led by Bob Pettit, as well as former Celtic Ed Macauley. The teams split the first six games, and the tension was so high that, in Game 3, Celtics coach Auerbach punched his colleague Ben Kerner and received a $300 fine. In the highly competitive Game 7, Russell tried his best to slow down Pettit, but it was Heinsohn who scored 37 points and kept the Celtics alive. However, Russell contributed by completing the famous “Coleman Play.” Here, Russell ran down Hawks guard Jack Coleman, who had received an outlet pass at midcourt, and blocked his shot despite the fact that Russell had been standing at his own baseline when the ball was thrown to Coleman. The block preserved Boston's slim 103–102 lead with 40-odd seconds left to play in regulation, saving the game for the Celtics. In the second overtime, both teams were in serious foul trouble: Heinsohn had fouled out, and the Hawks were so depleted that they had only seven players left. With the Celtics leading 125–123 with one second left, the Hawks had the ball at their own baseline. Reserve guard Alex Hannum threw a long alley oop pass to Pettit, and Pettit's tip-in rolled on the rim for several seconds before rolling out again. The Celtics won, earning their first NBA Championship.
In the 1957–1958 season, Russell averaged 16.6 points per game and a league-record average of 22.7 rebounds per game. An interesting phenomenon began that year: Russell was voted the NBA Most Valuable Player, but only named to the All-NBA Second Team. This would occur repeatedly throughout his career. The NBA reasoned that other centers were better all-round players than Russell, but no player was more valuable to his team. The Celtics won 49 games and easily made the first berth in the 1958 NBA Playoffs, and made the 1958 NBA Finals against their familiar rivals, the St. Louis Hawks. The teams split the first two games, but then Russell went down with a foot injury in Game 3 and could no longer participate in the playoffs. The Celtics surprisingly won Game 4, but the Hawks prevailed in Games 5 and 6, with Pettit scoring 50 points in the deciding Game 6.
In the following 1958–1959 season, Russell continued his strong play, averaging 16.7 points per game and 23.0 rebounds per game in the regular season. The Celtics broke a league record by winning 52 games, and Russell's strong performance once again helped lead the Celtics through the post-season, as they returned to the NBA Finals. In the 1959 NBA Finals, the Celtics recaptured the NBA title, sweeping the Minneapolis Lakers 4–0. Lakers head coach John Kundla praised Russell, stating, “We don’t fear the Celtics without Bill Russell. Take him out and we can beat them… He’s the guy who whipped us psychologically.”
In the 1959–1960 season, the NBA witnessed the debut of legendary 7 ft 1 in (2.16 m) Philadelphia Warriors center Wilt Chamberlain, who averaged an unprecedented 37.6 points per game in his rookie year. On November 7, 1959, Russell's Celtics hosted Chamberlain's Warriors, and pundits called the matchup between the best offensive and best defensive center "The Big Collision" and "Battle of the Titans." Both men awed onlookers with "nakedly awesome athleticism," and while Chamberlain outscored Russell 30 to 22, the Celtics won 115–106, and the match was called a "new beginning of basketball." The matchup between Russell and Chamberlain, the greatest defensive and offensive centers in the NBA, respectively, became one of basketball's greatest rivalries. In that season, Russell's Celtics won a record 59 regular season games (including a then-record tying 17 game win streak) and met Chamberlain's Warriors in the Eastern Division Finals. Chamberlain outscored Russell by 81 points in the series, but the Celtics walked off with a 4–2 series win. In the 1960 Finals, the Celtics outlasted the Hawks 4–3 and won their third championship in four years. Russell grabbed an NBA Finals-record 40 rebounds in Game 2, and added 22 points and 35 rebounds in the deciding Game 7, a 122–103 victory for Boston.
In the 1960–1961 season, Russell averaged 16.9 points and 23.9 rebounds per game, leading his team to a regular season mark of 57–22. The Celtics earned another post-season appearance, where they defeated the Syracuse Nationals 4–1 in the Eastern Division Finals. The Celtics made good use of the fact that the Los Angeles Lakers had exhausted St. Louis in a long seven-game Western Conference Finals, and the Celtics convincingly won in five games.
The following season, Russell scored a career-high 18.9 points per game, accompanied by 23.6 rebounds per game. While his rival Chamberlain had a record-breaking season of 50.4 points per game and a 100-point game, the Celtics became the first team to win 60 games in a season, and Russell was voted as the NBA's Most Valuable Player. In the post-season, the Celtics met the Philadelphia Warriors (with Chamberlain), and Russell did his best to slow down the 50-points-per-game scoring Warriors center. In Game 7, the game was tied with two seconds left when Sam Jones sank a clutch shot that won the Celtics the series. In the 1962 NBA Finals, the Celtics met the Los Angeles Lakers featuring star forward Elgin Baylor and star guard Jerry West. The teams split the first six games, and Game 7 was tied one second before the end of regular time when Lakers guard Rod Hundley faked a shot and instead passed out to Frank Selvy, who missed an open eight-foot last-second shot that would have won Los Angeles the title. Though the game was tied, Russell had the daunting task of defending against Baylor with little frontline help, as the latter had already fouled out the three best Celtics forwards: Loscutoff, Heinsohn and Tom Sanders. In overtime, Baylor fouled out the fourth forward, Frank Ramsey, so Russell was completely robbed of his usual four-men wing rotation. But Russell and little-used fifth forward Gene Guarilia successfully pressured Baylor into missed shots. Russell finished with a clutch performance, scoring 30 points and tying his own NBA Finals record with 40 rebounds in a 110–107 overtime win.
The Celtics lost playmaker Bob Cousy to retirement after the 1962–1963 season, but they drafted future Hall-of-Famer, John Havlicek. Once again, the Celtics were powered by Russell, who averaged 16.8 points and 23.6 rebounds per game, won his fourth regular-season MVP title, and earned MVP honors at the 1963 NBA All-Star Game following his 19 point, 24 rebound performance for the East. The Celtics reached the 1963 NBA Finals, where they again defeated the Los Angeles Lakers, this time in six games.
In the following 1963–1964 season, the Celtics posted a league-best 58–22 record in the regular season. Russell scored 15.0 ppg and grabbed a career-high 24.7 rebounds per game, leading the NBA in rebounds for the first time since Chamberlain entered the league. Boston defeated the Cincinnati Royals 4–1 to earn another NBA Finals appearance, and then won against Chamberlain's newly-relocated San Francisco Warriors 4–1. It was their seventh title in Russell’s eighth year, and their sixth consecutive, a streak unmatched in any U.S. professional sports league. Russell later called the Celtics' defense the best of all time.
Russell again excelled during the 1964–1965 season. The Celtics won a league-record 62 games, and Russell averaged 14.1 points and 24.1 rebounds per game, winning his second consecutive rebounding title and his fifth MVP award. In the 1965 NBA Playoffs, the Celtics played the Eastern Division Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers, who had recently traded for Wilt Chamberlain. Russell held Chamberlain to a pair of field goals in the first three quarters of Game 3. In Game 5, Russell contributed 28 rebounds, 10 blocks, seven assists and six steals. However, that playoff series ended in a dramatic Game 7. Five seconds before the end, the Sixers were trailing 110–109, but Russell turned over the ball. However, when the Sixers’ Hall-of-Fame guard Hal Greer inbounded, John Havlicek stole the ball, causing Celtics commentator Johnny Most to scream: “Havlicek stole the ball! It's all over! Johnny Havlicek stole the ball!” After the Division Finals, the Celtics had an easier time in the NBA Finals, winning 4–1 against the Los Angeles Lakers of Jerry West and Elgin Baylor.
In the following 1965–1966 season, the Celtics won their eighth consecutive title. Russell’s team again beat Chamberlain’s Philadelphia 76ers, four games to one in the Division Finals, proceeding to win the NBA Finals in a tight seven-game showdown against the Los Angeles Lakers. During the season, Russell contributed 12.9 points and 22.8 rebounds per game. This was the first time in seven years that he failed to average at least 23 rebounds a game.
Before the 1966–1967 season, Celtics coach Red Auerbach retired. Initially, he had wanted his old player Frank Ramsey as coach, but Ramsey was too occupied running his three lucrative nursing homes. His second choice, Bob Cousy, declined, stating he did not want to coach his former teammates, and the third choice Tom Heinsohn also said no, because he did not think he could handle the often surly Russell. However, Heinsohn proposed Russell himself as a player-coach, and when Auerbach asked his center, he said yes. Russell thus became the first African-American head coach in NBA history, and commented to journalists: "I wasn't offered the job because I am a Negro, I was offered it because Red figured I could do it." The Celtics’ championship streak ended that season at eight, however, as Wilt Chamberlain's Philadelphia 76ers won a record-breaking 68 regular season games and overcame the Celtics 4–1 in the Eastern Finals. The Sixers simply outpaced the Celtics, shredding the famous Boston defense by scoring 140 points in the clinching Game 6 win. Russell acknowledged his first real loss in his career (he had been injured in 1958 when the Celtics lost the NBA Finals) by visiting Chamberlain in the locker room, shaking his hand and saying, "Great." However, the game still ended on a high note for Russell. After the loss, he led his grandfather through the Celtics locker rooms, and the two saw white Celtics player John Havlicek taking a shower next to his black teammate Sam Jones and discussing the game. Suddenly, Russell Sr. broke down crying. Asked by his grandson what was wrong, his grandfather replied how proud he was of him, being coach of an organization in which blacks and whites coexisted in harmony.
In Russell's second last season, the 1967–1968 season, his numbers slowly declined, but at age 34, he still tallied 12.5 points per game and 18.6 rebounds per game (the latter good for the third highest average in the league). In the Eastern Division Finals, the 76ers had the better record than the Celtics and were slightly favored. But then, national tragedy struck as Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4 1968. Since eight of the ten starting players on Sixers and Celtics were African-American, both teams were in deep shock, and there were calls to cancel the series. In a game called "unreal" and "devoid of emotion," the Sixers lost 127–118 on April 5. In Game 2, Philadelphia evened the series with a 115–106 win, and in Games 3 and 4, the Sixers won, with Chamberlain suspiciously often played by Celtics backup center Wayne Embry, causing the press to speculate Russell was worn down. Prior to Game 5, the Celtics seemed dead: no NBA team had ever come back from a 3–1 deficit. However, the Celtics rallied back, winning Game 5 122–104 and Game 6 114–106, powered by a spirited Havlicek and helped by a terrible Sixers shooting slump. In Game 7, 15,202 stunned Philadelphia fans witnessed a historic 100-96 defeat, making it the first time in NBA history a team lost a series after leading 3–1. Russell limited Chamberlain to only two shot attempts in the second half. Despite this, the Celtics were leading only 97-95 with 34 seconds left when Russell closed out the game with several consecutive clutch plays. He made a free throw, blocked a shot by Sixers player Chet Walker, grabbed a rebound off a miss by Sixers player Hal Greer, and finally passed the ball to teammate Sam Jones, who scored to clinch the win. Boston then beat the Los Angeles Lakers 4–2 in the NBA Finals, giving Russell his tenth title in 12 years. For his efforts Russell was named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year. After losing for the fifth straight time against Russell and his Celtics, Hall-of-Fame Lakers guard Jerry West stated, “If I had a choice of any basketball player in the league, my No.1 choice has to be Bill Russell. Bill Russell never ceases to amaze me.”
However, in the 1968–1969 season, Russell seemed to reach a breaking point. Shocked by the murder of Robert Kennedy, disillusioned by the Vietnam War, and weary from his increasingly difficult marriage to his wife Rose (whom he later divorced), he was convinced that the U.S. was a corrupt nation and that he was wasting his time playing something as superficial as basketball. He was 15 pounds overweight, skipped mandatory NBA coach meetings and generally lacked energy: after a New York Knicks game, he complained of intense pain and was diagnosed with acute exhaustion. Russell pulled himself together and put up 9.9 points and 19.3 rebounds per game, but the aging Celtics stumbled through the regular season. Their 48–34 record was the team's worst since 1955–1956, and they entered the playoffs as only the fourth-seeded team in the East. In the playoffs, however, Russell and his Celtics achieved upsets over the Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks to earn a meeting with the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals. Los Angeles now featured new recruit Wilt Chamberlain next to perennial stars Baylor and West, and were heavily favored. In the first two games, Russell ordered not to double-team West, who used the freedom to score 53 and 41 points in the Game 1 and 2 Laker wins. Russell then changed his strategy to double-team West, and Boston won Game 3. In Game 4, the Celtics were trailing by one point with seven seconds left and the Lakers possessing the ball, but then Baylor stepped out of bounds, and in the last play, Sam Jones used a triple screen by Bailey Howell, Larry Siegfried and Havlicek and hit a buzzer beater which equalized the series. The teams split the next two games, so it all came down to Game 7 in L.A., where Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke angered and motivated the Celtics by putting "proceedings of Lakers victory ceremony" on the game leaflets. Russell used a copy as extra motivation and told his team to play a running game, because in that case, not the better, but the more determined team was going to win.
The Celtics were ahead by nine points with five minutes remaining; in addition, West was heavily limping after a Game 5 thigh injury and Chamberlain had left the game with an injured leg. West then hit one basket after the other and cut the lead to one, and Chamberlain asked to return to the game. However, Lakers coach Bill van Breda Kolff kept Chamberlain on the bench until the end of the game, saying later that he wanted to stay with the lineup responsible for the comeback. The Celtics held on for a 108–106 victory, and Russell claimed his eleventh championship in 13 years. At age 35, Russell contributed 21 rebounds in his last NBA game. After the game, Russell went over to the distraught West (who had scored 42 points and was named the only NBA Finals MVP in history from the losing team), clasped his hand and tried to soothe him. Days later, 30,000 enthusiastic Celtics fans cheered their returning heroes, but Russell was not there: the man who said he owed the public nothing ended his career and cut all ties to the Celtics. It came so surprising that even Red Auerbach was blindsided, and as a consequence, he made the "mistake" of drafting guard Jo Jo White instead of a center.  Although White became a standout Celtics player, the Celtics lacked a center, went just 34–48 in the next season and failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 1950. In Boston, both fans and journalists felt betrayed, because Russell left the Celtics without a coach and a center and sold his retirement story for $10,000 to Sports Illustrated. Russell was accused of selling out the future of the franchise for a month of his salary.
Russell's No. 6 jersey retired by the Celtics in 1972, and he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975. Russell, like Boston's other sports legend, baseball player Ted Williams, had a difficult relationship with the media and was not present at either event. After retiring as a player, Russell had stints as head coach of the Seattle SuperSonics (1973 to 1977) and Sacramento Kings (1987 to 1988). His time as a coach was lackluster; although he led the struggling SuperSonics into the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, Russell’s defensive, team-oriented Celtics mindset did not mesh well with the team. Ironically, coach Lenny Wilkens would later use a similar concept to help the SuperSonics win the title in 1979. Russell’s stint with the Kings was considerably worse, his last assignment ending when the Kings went 17–41 to begin the 1987–88 season.
In addition, Russell ran into financial trouble. He had invested $250,000 into a rubber plantation in Liberia, where he had wanted to spend his retirement, but it went bankrupt. The same fate awaited his Boston restaurant called "Slade's," after which he had to default on a $90,000 government loan to purchase the outlet. The IRS discovered that Russell owed $34,430 in tax money and put a lien on his house. He became a vegetarian, took up golf and worked as a color commentator, but he was uncomfortable as a broadcaster. He later said, "The most successful television is done in eight-second thoughts, and the things I know about basketball, motivation and people go deeper than that." Russell also wrote books, usually written as a joint project with a professional writer. These included his early memoir Go Up for Glory, (1966)Second Wind (1979), and Russell's Rules (2001). After spending several years living out of the public eye on Mercer Island in Seattle, Russell rose to prominence again in January 2006, when he convinced Miami Heat superstar center Shaquille O'Neal to bury the hatchet with fellow NBA superstar and former Los Angeles Lakers teammate Kobe Bryant, with whom O'Neal had a bitter public feud. Later that year, on November 17, 2006, the two-time NCAA winner Russell was recognized for his impact on college basketball as a member of the founding class of the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. He was one of five, along with John Wooden, Oscar Robertson, Dean Smith and Dr. James Naismith, selected to represent the inaugural class. On May 20 2007, Russell was awarded an honorary doctorate by Suffolk University, where he served as its commencement speaker, and Russell received an honorary degree from Harvard University on June 7 2007.
Russell was driven by "a neurotic need to win," as his teammate Heinsohn observed. He was so tense before every game that he regularly threw up in the locker rooms; it happened so frequently that his fellow Celtics were more worried when it did not happen. He was also known for his natural authority. When he became player-coach in 1967, Russell bluntly said to his team mates that "he intended to cut all personal ties to other players," and seamlessly made the transition from their peer to their superior.
To teammates and friends, Russell was open and amicable, but was extremely distrusting and cold towards anyone else. Journalists were often treated to the "Russell Glower," described as an "icily contemptuous stare accompanied by a long silence." Russell was also notorious for his refusal to give autographs or even acknowledge the Celtics fans, so far that he was called "the most selfish, surly and uncooperative athlete" by one pundit.
For most of his career, Russell was close friends with his perennial opponent, Wilt Chamberlain. Chamberlain often invited Russell over to Thanksgiving, and at Russell's place, conversation mostly concerned Russell's electric trains. However, the relationship deteriorated into intense loathing after Game 7 of the 1969 NBA Finals, where Chamberlain took himself out of a close game with six minutes left and never returned. Russell accused Chamberlain being a malingerer and of "copping out" of the game when it seemed that the Lakers would lose; in retaliation, Chamberlain (whose knee was so bad that he could not play the entire offseason and ruptured it in the next season) was livid at Russell and saw him as a backstabber. The two men did not talk to each other for over 30 years, until Russell attempted to patch things up. Although he never uttered a genuine apology, the two were back on speaking terms again until Chamberlain died in 1999. At the eulogy, Russell stated that never considered Chamberlain his rival and disliked the term, instead pointing out that they rarely talked about basketball. When Chamberlain died in 1999, Chamberlain’s nephew stated that Russell was the second person to whom he was ordered to break the news.
Racist abuse, controversy and reconciliation
Russell's life was marked with an uphill battle against racism. As a child, the young Russell witnessed how his parents were victims of racist abuse, and eventually moved into housing projects to escape the daily torrent of bigotry. When he later became a standout amateur basketball player at USF, Russell recalled how he and his few fellow African-American colleagues were jeered by white students. Even after he became a star on the Boston Celtics, Russell was the victim of racial abuse. When the NBA All-Stars toured the United States in the 1958 offseason, white hotel owners in segregated North Carolina denied Russell and his black teammates vacancy, causing him later to bitterly write in his memoir Go Up for Glory, "It stood out, a wall which understanding cannot penetrate. You are a Negro. You are less. It covered every area. A living, smarting, hurting, smelling, greasy substance which covered you. A morass to fight from." Before the 1961–1962 season, Russell refused to play in an exhibition game in Lexington, Kentucky when he and his black teammates were refused service at a local restaurant.
As a consequence, Russell was extremely sensitive to all racial prejudice. Some accused him of imagining insults even if none was intended. He was active in the Black Power movement and supported Muhammad Ali's decision to refuse to be drafted. He was often called "Felton X" and even purchased land in Liberia: he invested $250,000 into a rubber plantation and planned to spend his retirement there, but it went bankrupt. Russell's thinking became increasingly militant, so far that he was quoted in a 1963 Sports Illustrated interview with the words: "I dislike most white people because they are people... I like most blacks because I am black," expressing that "human" was a negative trait and "black" was a positive trait which were mutually exclusive. However, when his white Celtics teammate Frank Ramsey asked whether he hated him, Russell claimed to be misquoted, but few believed it. Also, Taylor remarks that Russell overlooked that his career was only made possible by the white people who were proven anti-racists, namely his white high school coach George Powles (the person who encouraged him to play basketball), his white college coach Phil Woolpert (who integrated USF basketball), white Celtics coach Red Auerbach (who is universally regarded as an anti-racist pioneer and made him the first black NBA coach), and white Celtics owner Walter A. Brown, who gave him a high $24,000 rookie contract, just $1,000 shy of the top earning veteran Bob Cousy.
Nevertheless, as a result of repeated racial bigotry, Russell refused to respond to fan acclaim or friendship from his neighbors, thinking it was insincere and hypocritical. He decided that the world had given him nothing, so in return, he could give the world nothing. This attitude contributed to his legendary bad rapport with fans and journalists. He alienated the Boston Celtics fans by saying, "You owe the public the same it owes you, nothing! I refuse to smile and be nice to the kiddies." This cemented the general opinion that Russell (who was the highest paid Celtic) was egotistical, paranoid and hypocritical, and even the FBI described Russell in his file as "an arrogant Negro who won't sign autographs for white children." The already hostile atmosphere between Russell and Boston hit its nadir a few weeks later, when vandals broke into his house, covered the walls with racist graffiti, damaged his trophies and defecated on the beds. In response, Russell described Boston as a "flea market of racism." After his retirement, he viciously described the Boston press as corrupt, anti-black and racist, so far that Boston sports journalists Larry Claflin commented that Russell himself was the real racist. However, his oft-proclaimed disdain for fans or the establishment did not stop him from accepting a $250,000 contract to sign 5,000 pieces of memorabilia.
Russell, who invariably saw himself as a victim of the media, was neither present when his Number 6 jersey was retired in 1972, nor when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1975, shunning the limelight both times. Despite the bitterness that Russell felt toward Boston, in recent years he has visited the city on a regular basis, something he never did in the years immediately after his retirement. Russell still has sore feelings towards the city, but there has been something of a reconciliation in recent years. When Russell originally retired, he demanded that his jersey be retired in an empty Boston Garden. In 1999, the Celtics left Boston Garden and entered the FleetCenter, and as the main festive act, the Boston organization wanted to re-retire Russell's jersey in front of a sellout audience. Perennially wary of the "racist" city of Boston, Russell decided to make amends and gave his approval. On May 6, 1999 the Celtics re-retired Russell's jersey in a ceremony attended by Russell's on-court rival Chamberlain, along with Celtics legend Larry Bird and Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The crowd gave Russell a prolonged standing ovation, which brought tears to his eyes. Russell was visibly shaken at this outpour of adoration. He thanked Chamberlain for taking him to the limit and "making [him] a better player" and the crowd for "allowing him to be a part of their lives."
Russell is one of the most successful and decorated athletes in North American sports history. His awards and achievements include eleven NBA championships as a player with the Boston Celtics in 13 seasons (including two NBA championships as player/head coach), and he is credited with having raised defensive play in the NBA to a new level. By winning the 1956 NCAA Championship with USF and the 1957 NBA title with the Celtics, Russell became the first of only four players in basketball history to win an NCAA championship and an NBA Championship back-to-back (the others include Henry Bibby, Magic Johnson, and Billy Thompson). In the interim, Russell collected an Olympic gold medal in 1956. His stint as coach of the Celtics was also of historical significance, as he became the first black head coach in major U.S. professional sports when he succeeded Red Auerbach.
In his first NBA full season (1957–1958), Russell became the first player in NBA history to average more than 20 rebounds per game for an entire season, a feat he accomplished 10 times in his 13 seasons. Russell's 51 rebounds in a single game is the second highest performance ever, only trailing Chamberlain's all-time record of 55. He still holds the NBA record for rebounds in one half with 32 (vs. Philadelphia, on November 16, 1957). Career-wise, Russell ranks second only to Wilt Chamberlain in regular season total (21,620) and average (22.5) rebounds per game. Russell is the all-time playoff leader in total (4,104) and average (24.9) rebounds per game, he grabbed 40 rebounds in three separate playoff games (twice in the NBA Finals), and he never failed to average at least 20 rebounds per game in any of his 13 post-season campaigns. Russell also had seven regular season games with 40 or more rebounds, and holds the career playoff record for most rebounds (4,104, 24.9 rpg) in 165 games, the NBA Finals record for highest rebound per game average (29.5 rpg, 1959) and by a rookie (22.9 rpg, 1957). In addition, Russell holds the NBA Finals single-game record for most rebounds (40, March 29, 1960 vs. St. Louis and April 18 1962 vs. Los Angeles), most rebounds in a quarter (19, April 18, 1962 vs. Los Angeles), and most consecutive games with 20 or more rebounds (15 from April 9, 1960–April 16, 1963). Furthermore, Russell led the NBA in rebounds per game four times, recorded 21,620 career rebounds, and averaged 22.5 per game for his career. He also had 51 in one game, 49 in two others, and 12 straight seasons of 1,000 or more rebounds. Russell was known as one of the most clutch players in the NBA. He played in 11 deciding games (10 times in Game 7s, once in a Game 5), and ended with a flawless 11-0 record. In these eleven games, Russell averaged 18 points and 29.45 rebounds.
On the hardwood, he was considered the consummate defensive center, noted for his unmatched defensive intensity, his stellar basketball IQ and his sheer will to win. Russell excelled at playing man-to-man defense, blocking shots, and grabbing defensive and offensive rebounds. He also could score with putbacks and made mid-air outlet passes to point guard Bob Cousy for easy fast break points. He also was known as a fine passer and pick-setter, featured a decent left-handed hook shot and was a strong finisher on alley-oop passes. However, on offense, Russell's output was limited. His NBA career personal averages show him to be an average scorer (15.1 points career average), a poor free throw shooter (56.1 percent), and average overall shooter from the field (44 percent, not exceptional for a center). In his 13 years, he averaged a relatively low 13.4 field goals attempted (normally, top scorers average 20 and more), illustrating that he was never the focal point of the Celtics offense, instead focusing on his tremendous defense.
In his career, Russell won five regular season MVP awards (1959, 1961–1963, 1965), tied with Michael Jordan for second all-time behind Kareem Abdul Jabbar's six awards. He was selected three times to the All-NBA First Teams (1959, 1963, 1965) and eight Second Teams (1958, 1960–1962, 1964, 1966–1968), and was a 12-time NBA All-Star (1958–1969). Russell was elected to one NBA All-Defensive First Team. This took place during his last season (1969), and was the first season the NBA All-Defensive Teams were selected. In 1970, The Sporting News named Russell the "Athlete of the Decade." Russell is universally seen as one of the best NBA players ever, and was declared "Greatest Player in the History of the NBA" by the Professional Basketball Writers Association of America in 1980. For his achievements, Russell was named "Sportsman of the Year" by Sports Illustrated in 1968. He also made all three NBA Anniversary Teams: the NBA 25th Anniversary All-Time Team (1970), the NBA 35th Anniversary All-Time Team (1980) and the NBA 50th Anniversary All-Time Team (1996). In 2003, SLAM Magazine named Russell the #4 player of all time behind Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson. Finally, his number 6 jersey was retired by the Celtics in 1972.
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