Bill Russell, Hall of Famer, winner of eight consecutive N.B.A. titles as a player and two as the first Black head coach in a major sports league, died July 31. In a statement released by his family, Russell was called “the most prolific winner in American sports history.” The esteemed Boston Celtic and civil rights activist was 88.
Born William Felton Russell on February 12, 1934, to Charles and Katie Russell, he and his older brother Charles Jr. grew up witnessing the worst of humanity in Monroe, Louisiana. In his memoir, “Go Up for Glory,” written with Bill McSweeney, Russell described his father as a proud man who could not stay in Louisiana.
“Louisiana wasn’t the place for him. There were other things you couldn’t cope with because you couldn’t stand up to them, face to face.” Charles Russell would move his family to the Bay Area, where Russell attended McClymonds High School in Oakland.
Russell’s introduction to formalized basketball at McClymonds did not begin with great success. In fact, he would recall an incident where his coach lamented getting him as a player in front of the team, saying, “Why is it that if there are two brothers in school, we always get the bum? It left me shaken. Nearly broken,” Russell said.
He eventually found his place in basketball, winning two state high school championships and receiving a scholarship offer from the University of San Francisco. Russell described his California life as “good but many things happened there.”
“One day I came home from school, and my mother was not there. She was in the hospital, and she was sick. Two weeks later, she was dead. I never found out why. She was thirty-two, and she was dead.”
His father would comfort both boys, telling them they had to stick together, and for Russell, the thought of togetherness left him feeling secure during the traumatic time of losing his mother. “My father did the best that he could,” Russell would write.
Russell would meet K.C. Jones, his first roommate and future N.B.A. teammate at college. During their initial meeting, Russell said, “For one month, he didn’t talk to me. Nothing. Not a word. Not hello. Not goodbye. Not a single word.”
Russell and Jones would lead their college team to 55 wins; he averaged more than 20 points and 20 rebounds a game during his three-seasons and two N.C.A.A. titles (1955 and 1956). In 1955, Russell was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player after defeating La Salle and posting 23 points and 25 rebounds.
In 1956, Russell led his team to a second title and undefeated season with 26 points and 27 rebounds, defeating Iowa. Since the Russell years, his alma mater has not won another N.C.A.A. title.
In 1956, Russell led the U.S. basketball team (8-0) to a gold medal against the Soviet Union at the Olympic games in Melbourne, Australia, scoring an average of 14 points per game. His next stop was the parquet floor of Boston’s T.D. Garden. But before his Celtics run, Russell was courted by the Harlem Globetrotters. Russell would meet with the Globetrotters; however, that pursuit was never taken seriously as Russell wrote, “their specialty is clowning, and I had no intention of being billed as a funny guy in a basketball uniform.”
Russell joined the Boston Celtics in December 1956, the only Black player on the team. He averaged 19.6 rebounds as a rookie, and the franchise would win their first N.B.A. title that year. Russell won his first M.V.P. award in his second season, although the Celtics would lose in the finals. The Celtics would win again in season three, winning eight consecutive N.B.A. Championships.
Speaking about his extraordinary play, Russell would say, “The most important measure of how good a game I played was how much better I made my teammates play.”
Russell was a five-time most valuable player and a 12-times All-Star. Red Auerbach, his coach for nine championship games, called Russell “the single most devastating force in the history of the game.”
Russell also saw success as a player-coach of the Celtics from 1966 to 1969. He became the first Black coach in N.B.A. history and guided Boston to their 1968 and 1969 titles. His playing days in Boston encompassed magical moments and times when he endured insults, vandalism, and disrespect. When asked about playing for a city that he once called “a flea market of racism,” Russell wrote: “Every time I came into an adversarial situation, I decided to take control of it so that if a guy came up to me and tried to give me a bad day, I made sure that he was the one who left with the bad day.”
Over the years, he fondly remembered his time with the Celtics: “Every minute I played for the Celtics was a joy to me. From there, I couldn’t go to heaven. Leaving there and going anywhere else was a step-down.”
Long before the Magic – Bird rivalry, there was the Russell and Wilt Chamberlain matchup. According to Basketball-Reference.com, Russell went 57-37 against Chamberlain in the regular season and 29-20 in the playoffs. Russell described their epic battles this way, “If Chamberlain got 62 points and we won, it wouldn’t mean anything. If he got 62 points and they won the game, that bothered me.”
Never one for personal adulations unless it furthered a cause, Russell took part in the 1963 March on Washington and was present in the audience for Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” He marched in Mississippi after the slaying of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, and along with Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and others, he attended the “Cleveland Summit” supporting Muhammad Ali and his refusal to enter the military during the Vietnam War.
Through the years, Russell continued his social advocacy showing his support for Colin Kaepernick by posting a photograph of himself taking a knee while wearing his Medal of Freedom award on social media. “Asked once if he was worried about being killed for his beliefs, Russell said: He would rather die for something than live for nothing.”
Russell received numerous awards during his lifetime, too many to list in this space. Still, one of his greatest honors was the Medal of Freedom awarded to him by President Barack Obama in 2011, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Obama honored Russell as “someone who stood up for the rights and dignity of all men.”
“Today, we lost a giant.” As tall as Bill Russell stood, his legacy rises far higher — both as a player and a person. Perhaps more than anyone else, Bill knew what it took to win and what it took to lead,” Obama said. Leading the tributes worldwide, N.B.A. commissioner Adam Silver called Russell “the greatest champion in all team sports. Bill was the ultimate winner and consummate teammate, and his influence on the N.B.A. will be felt forever.”
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar remembered his long-time friend as the “quintessential big man, not because of his height but because of the size of his heart.”
In February 2020, Russell sat courtside at a Celtics-Lakers game to honor the memory of Kobe Bryant. Russell did not wear his customary Celtics jersey but instead wore a white Kobe jersey as a memorial to Bryant, whom he had “much love and respect for.” It also displayed once again that Bill Russell was a class-act personified.
Russell is survived by his wife, Jeannine, and two of his three children (from his first marriage), Karen and Jacob. His son, Williams Jr., died in 2016, and his brother, Charlie, died in 2013.