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 twelve-time All-Star, the 6 ft 10 in (2.08 m) Russell was the centerpiece of the Celtics dynasty that won eleven NBA Championships during Russell's thirteen-year career. Along with Henri Richard of the National Hockey League's Montreal Canadiens, Russell holds the record for the most championships won by an athlete in a North American sports league. 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 Basketball as captain of the U.S. national basketball team.
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, and he inspired his teammates to elevate their own defensive play. 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 (the other being prominent rival Wilt Chamberlain) to have grabbed more than fifty rebounds in a game. Though never the focal point of the Celtics' offense, Russell also scored 14,522 career points and provided effective passing.
Playing in the wake of pioneers like Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper, and Ray Felix, Russell was the first African American player to achieve superstar status in the NBA. He also served a three-season (1966–69) stint as player-coach for the Celtics, becoming the first African American NBA coach. 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. but later became a trucker when World War II broke out. he simply did not understand the game and was cut from the team in junior high school. As a sophomore at McClymonds High School, Russell was almost cut again. However, coach George Powles saw Russell's raw athletic potential and encouraged him to work on his fundamentals.
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. 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 play help defense against opposing forwards and aggressively challenge their shots.
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 denying 13 shots in a game. UCLA coach John Wooden called Russell "the greatest defensive man I've ever seen". Besides basketball, Russell represented USF in Athletics (track and field) events. He competed in the 440 yard (402 m) race, which he could complete 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 9¼ inches (2.06 m).
After his years at USF, the Harlem Globetrotters invited Russell to join their exhibition basketball squad. Russell, who was sensitive to any racial prejudice, was enraged by the fact that owner Abe Saperstein would only discuss the matter with Woolpert. While Saperstein spoke to Woolpert in a meeting, Globetrotters assistant coach Harry Hanna tried to entertain Russell with jokes. The USF center was livid after this snub and declined 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.
1956 NBA DraftEdit
In the 1956 NBA Draft, Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach had set his sights on Russell, thinking his defensive toughness and rebound prowess were the missing pieces the Celtics needed. 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 had slipped 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 Basketball: Russell, K.C. Jones and Heinsohn. 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.
However, Russell also received negative attention. 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-dollar fine and was no longer a target of cheap fouls. 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. 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. 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",
The following season, Russell scored a career-high 18.9 points per game, accompanied by 23.6 rebounds per game. Though the game was tied, Russell had the daunting task of defending against Baylor with little frontline help, as the three best Celtics forwards, Loscutoff, Heinsohn and Tom Sanders, had fouled out. 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.
In the following 1963–64 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. It was their sixth consecutive and seventh title in Russell's eighth year, a streak unreached in any U.S. professional sports league. Russell later called the Celtics' defense the best of all time.
In the following 1965–66 season, the Celtics won their eighth consecutive title. Russell’s team again beat Chamberlain’s Philadelphia 76ers 4 games to 1 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. 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". 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. With eight of the ten starting players on Sixers and Celtics being African American, both teams were in deep shock, and there were calls to cancel the series. In a game called as "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. He was 15 pounds overweight, skipped mandatory NBA coach meetings and was generally lacking 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 1955–56, 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. L.A. 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 ordered 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 having 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 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. Although White became a standout Celtics player, the Celtics lacked an All-Star center, went just 34–48 in the next season and failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 1950. 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." 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.
Russell was married to his college sweetheart Rose Swisher from 1956 to 1973. They had three children, namely 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, 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 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. However, the relationship deteriorated into intense loathing after Game 7 of the NBA Finals, where Chamberlain took himself out of a close game with six minutes left and never returned. Russell accused Chamberlain of 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. At the eulogy, Russell stated that he 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 he was ordered to break the news to.
Racist abuse, controversy and reconciliationEdit
Russell's life was marked with an uphill battle against racism and questionable actions in the wake of this hardship. 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. Even after he became a star on the Boston Celtics, Russell was the victim of racial abuse. When the NBA All-Stars toured the U.S. in the 1958 offseason, white hotel owners in segregated North Carolina denied rooms to Russell and his black teammates, 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 1961–62 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: according to Taylor, he often imagined insults even if none existed. 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. Russell still has sore feelings towards the city, but there has been something of a reconciliation in recent years. In 1995, the Celtics left Boston Garden and entered the FleetCenter, now the TD Banknorth Garden, 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."
- Kornheiser, Tony (1999). "Bill Russell: Nothing but a Man". In ESPN SportsCentury. Michael MacCambridge, Editor. New York: Hyperion-ESPN Books. pp. 178-89.
- Bill Russell's oral history video excerpts at The National Visionary Leadership Project
- Bill Russell career stats
- NBA.com: Bill Russell
- Bill Russell: Hall of Fame
- FIBA Hall of Fame on Russell
- USFDons.com: Bill Russell years
- NBA.com about Russell
- Online excerpt of Russell's book "11 Lessons"
- Bill Russell: Foundation for Sarcoidosis Research
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