FILE – San Francisco NCAA college basketball player Bill Russell shows how he scores baskets, Feb. 23, 1956. The 6-foot-10 center had one of most dominating NCAA Tournament games in history during the 1956 title game, finishing with 26 points and 27 rebounds in a win over Iowa. He also was believed to have swatted at least a dozen shots, though blocked shots were not yet an official stat. (AP Photo/File)

NBA players who reach greatness are rare, like finding a diamond in a sea of rocks. NBA players like Bill Russell are rare because they combine exceptional talent, dedication, and leadership.

Russell’s impact goes beyond the court; he broke barriers as a black athlete in a time of racial segregation and discrimination, inspiring generations of black athletes to strive for greatness. His legacy as an NBA champion and civil rights advocate continues to inspire not just basketball players, but all individuals who face adversity with resilience and determination.

Most would think one of the all-time greats has always been a star player. Surprisingly, Russell did not catch the attention of college recruiters until recruiter Hal DeJulio from the University of San Francisco (USF) saw him play in a high school game. Despite Russell’s low scoring and poor fundamentals, DeJulio noticed his exceptional instinct for the game, particularly in critical moments. When DeJulio offered Russell a scholarship, he gladly accepted. This offer marked a turning point in Russell’s life as he recognized basketball as his opportunity to overcome poverty and racism, committing to making the most of it.

While at the University of San Francisco, Russell guided the Dons to back-to-back NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956. He was chosen as the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament (1955) and led the U.S. National Basketball Team to win the gold medal at the 1956 Summer Olympics.

Related Stories

Tee Divas and Tee Dudes Honor Black Golf History

Above the Rim: Lisa Leslie’s Evolution From Athlete to Advocate

Russell was drafted by the St. Louis Hawks as the second overall pick in the 1956 NBA Draft, but was traded shortly to the Boston Celtics. With Russell leading the team as their main center and defensive leader, the Celtics won their first NBA championship in 1957. They made history by winning eight championships in a row from 1959 to 1966.

Russell, who won MVP five times and made the All-Star team twelve times, was known for his incredible defense, rebounding skills, and leadership. He was 6’ 10” with long arms, which helped him block shots and defend against opponents. Russell was also great at grabbing rebounds, ranking second all-time in total rebounds and rebounds per game.

Russell played at a time when racial barriers were being broken, and he became the first Black NBA superstar. In the last three seasons of his playing career, he even became a player-coach for the Celtics, making history again as the first Black NBA coach to win a championship. He retired from playing and coaching after helping the Celtics win the 1969 NBA championship.

After Russell’s playing days, he was both head coach and general manager for the Seattle Supersonics between 1973 and 1977. He also coached the Sacramento Kings during the 1987 to 1988 season. Additionally, Russell worked as a color commentator (CBS and TBS) including writing a few books such as “Go Up For Glory” and “Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man.”

President Barack Obama reaches up to present a 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom to basketball hall of fame member, former Boston Celtics coach and captain Bill Russell, Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2011, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Russell received several prestigious honors throughout his basketball career. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975, honored as one of the founding inductees into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006, and was inducted into the FIBA Hall of Fame in 2007. Additionally, he was selected for significant recognition by the NBA, being named to the NBA 25th Anniversary Team in 1971 and the NBA 35th Anniversary Team in 1980. In 1996, he was named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History, a distinction shared by only four players.

His legacy continued to be celebrated with his selection to the NBA 75th Anniversary Team in 2021. The NBA further honored him by renaming the NBA Finals MVP Award in his honor in 2009. Beyond basketball, Russell’s impact extended to civil rights activism, leading to President Barack Obama awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. In recognition of his coaching career, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame for a second time in 2021. Following his passing in 2022, the NBA retired his jersey no. 6, league-wide, a unique honor only he has received in NBA history. This also marked him as the third person in major professional sports, after Jackie Robinson and Wayne Gretzky, to have their jersey number retired in the league they played in.

Despite all the Success accomplished over his career, Russel encountered numerous obstacles due to racism. He faced discrimination both on and off the court, enduring taunts and unequal treatment because of the color of his skin. Remarkably, Russel received harsh treatment from Celtics fans.

“The Boston Celtics proved to be an organization of good people––from Walter Brown to Red Auerbach, to most of my teammates. I cannot say the same about the fans or the city. During games people yelled hateful, indecent things: Go back to Africa, Baboon, Coon,” Russel said. (

Despite these challenges, Russell persevered and became one of the greatest athletes in history, inspiring others to fight against racism. Russell used it as motivation and didn’t let discrimination stop him from achieving his goals and proving his skills on the basketball court. Instead, he used those obstacles to push himself harder and show that talent knows no color.

“ I used their unkindness as energy to fuel me, to work myself into a rage, a rage I used to win. I refused to let the “fans” bigotry, evidence of their lack of character, harm me. As far as I was concerned, I played for the Boston Celtics, the institution, and the Boston Celtics, my teammates. I did not play for the city or for the fans.” Russel Said. (