Bill Russell lived an unprecedented life.
From his accomplishments on the basketball court to his far more significant contributions to society, Russell was a truly remarkable man who left an indelible impact on the NBA and beyond.
He is the greatest winner in the history of American professional sports. He was a civil rights champion, including having to withstand abuse even while leading the Boston Celtics to their streak of 11 championships in 13 seasons. He became the NBA’s first black head coach, and his name now adorns the League Finals MVP trophy – a fitting tribute to a man who has won more championships than any player in the 75s. of NBA history.
Russell’s legacy, however, goes far beyond his name engraved on a trophy. He is one of basketball’s founding stars, more than half a century after playing his last game.
Here, then, is a collection of anecdotes that, in part, explain why Russell stands tall in the annals of NBA history — and why he will for as long as the league exists.
The ultimate winner
There are many ways to describe Russell’s dominance on the pitch. Most impressive, however, comes from another legendary basketball figure: Bob Ryan, longtime Boston Globe scribewho covered Russell’s final seasons with the Celtics:
Between Russell’s time at the University of San Francisco, the Olympics, and with the Celtics, he’s played in 21 different winning games: knockout games in the NCAA tournament or the Olympics, or a deciding game in the Series 5 or 7 in the NBA playoffs.
Russell’s record in those matches? A nice 21-0.
In a winning or winning match, Russell’s team never went home. This unparalleled will to win separated Russell from everyone in the history of the sport, including his greatest rival, Wilt Chamberlain.
There was no opponent that Russell would be intimidated by, or who would believe he was inferior to. That’s why, more than 50 years later, he remains the greatest winner in American professional sports history. It’s a title that, like many other things about Russell’s life, is hard to imagine anyone taking from him.
Suffice it to award a final victory to a man who has spent his life racking them up at a record pace.
Michael Wilbon discusses Bill Russell’s contributions beyond the basketball court.
A civilian in Alcatraz
In 1956, Russell and the four remaining starters of college basketball’s first dynasty crossed the San Francisco Bay to Alcatraz, the island’s notorious federal penitentiary that housed mob bosses, serial killers, bank robbers and other violent criminals that the US government believed could not be locked up anywhere else.
They were told civilians weren’t allowed, but Russell and his University of San Francisco teammates – winners of two consecutive national championships and a record 55 straight games – were given unprecedented access to the condemned. Why? Because the prison faced tension between its black and white inmates, and it was believed that USF Dons, the first team to pitch three African-American players (along with future NBA Hall of Famer and Boston Celtic KC teammate Russell Jones, and Hal Perry, a guard), could help.
In a suit and tie and with a fedora on his 6ft 9in frame, Russell made his way through the cell, kitchen, hospital and playground, and joined his teammates alongside a convict who was separated from all the others: Robert Stroud, the famous “Birdman of Alcatraz”.
“In my time, I never saw other civilians inside the [cellhouse]” John Hernan, a former corrections officer who was present that day and escorted the players to “Broadway”, the center aisle between Blocks C and B, once said. “And now that you mention it , they would be the only civilians who walked down Broadway like them.”
Convicts loved Russell, who averaged 20.6 points and 21 rebounds that season for USF. They shouted his stats at him. “They looked at Bill Russell like he was God,” said Carl Boldt, one of his USF teammates.
More than half a century later, the Golden State Warriors have forged their own dynasty, becoming the most dominant Bay Area basketball team since Russell’s Dons. In total, he played for 21 years and saw his teams win the championship in 18 of them, but his career was then in the rearview mirror, left to the history books. But Russell, who grew up blocks from Oakland’s Oracle Arena, and his teammates knew all too well what it was like to be the toast of the bay, crushing opponents game after game and to celebrate the end of the season. And whenever those Warriors were on, a source close to him said, Russell found a TV and tuned in.
The NBA Patriarch
Among all his accolades, we must also remember Russell as the NBA’s ultimate statesman, our champion emeritus who would always lend his unmatched gravity to elevate the league’s most important ceremonies.
It was in this role that the microphones captured his unforgettable conversation with Kobe Bryant on the sidelines of the 2008 All-Star Game.
“See, I watch a lot of your games,” Russell said then. “You see, when I watch your games, I try to figure out what each player’s agenda is and see how well they deliver on it. That’s how I look at it. Seriously, I couldn’t not be prouder of you if you were my own son and that’s the truth.”
“I got it because I read your book”
A heartfelt moment from the 2008 All-Star Game between Kobe Bryant and Bill Russell. pic.twitter.com/brGnkJAhO4
—NBA (@NBA) August 1, 2022
These kinds of fatherly moments capture the impact Russell had decades after he was done playing and coaching. He graciously became the NBA’s unofficial mentor until he was over 80 years old.
Yes, Russell’s untouchable resume as a player, coach and civil rights activist has always made him a perfect ambassador on paper, but it’s his affable presence, signature smile and legitimate support for young players that makes him stand out. really allowed him to thrive as the patriarch of the big league he helped legitimize decades earlier as a superstar and manager.
In February 2009, when former commissioner David Stern announced that the NBA would name its Finals MVP trophy after Russell, he said, “Bill inspired a generation of not just basketball fans, but also from Americans around the world. He is respected by his colleagues, coaches, fans and his legacy has clearly stood the test of time.”
Russell has used all of his 88 years to build the most comprehensive legacy the sport has ever seen.
— Kirk Golden Berry
Defense wins 11 championships
Russell has had more impact on basketball — and on his team’s ability to win — than any other NBA player. And it shows in the numbers.
Each of his 11 titles can be directly attributed to Russell’s dominance.
Despite all of his Hall of Fame teammates, Russell’s Celtics generally had below average offenses as measured by the team’s offensive rating. But the tusks… oh my God, the tusks!
The Celtics boasted the best defense in the NBA in 12 of Russell’s 13 seasons, sometimes by absurd margins. In the 1963-64 season, the Celtics’ defensive rating was 10.8 points per 100 possessions, above the league average. By comparison, the best offense this season was just 4.3 points per 100 possessions better than the league average. The Celtics won the championship that season despite finishing last in the NBA in offensive rating.
In 1964-65, the Celtics’ defensive rating was 7.4 points per 100 possessions better than second place team. Once again, the Celtics won the chip despite having one of the worst offenses in the league.
Russell’s arrival in 1956 kicked off this historic run, including five of the top 25 measured defenses in history in five straight seasons at Russell’s top. The Celtics won the championship with the best defense in the NBA in Russell’s rookie season, and they won the championship with the best defense in the league in his 13th and final season.
The season after Russell’s retirement, the Celtics’ defense dropped to the bottom half of the league.
— Andre Snellings