Today we will visit with NBA Hall of Famer Bill Russell. Russell was the first Black head coach to win a championship in a Major American sport in 1968.
Bill Russell is a retired Hall of Fame center who played for the Boston Celtics between 1956 and 1969. He helped his Boston Celtics win 11 NBA titles in 13 seasons with the team, including a stretch of eight consecutive championships. He was widely considered the best overall basketball player in the history of the NBA during his time in the league. Russell recorded 21,620 career rebounds, the second-highest total in NBA history, and averaged 22.5 rebounds per game over his career. He led the league in rebounding five times. Ironically, although he dominated the defensive side of the ball his entire career, he was only named to the All-NBA Defensive Team once, in 1969. Russell also coached in the NBA for sporadic periods between 1966 and 1988, helming the Celtics, Seattle Supersonics, and Sacramento Kings.
Bill Russell changed the way the game was played, as never before had the NBA had such a dominating big man. He worked more on the defensive side of the ball than on his offensive skills, because he knew there were plenty of shooters but not enough players willing to do the dirty work. Russell was a defensive force with his height, ability to jump, and speed. His presence caused teams to alter their strategies, and ultimately led to rules being changed to put the other players on more of a level playing field. Russell’s abilities won him many awards during his playing career, including 5 MVPs and 12 All-Star appearances. In 1996, Russell was named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History.
William Felton Russell was born February 12, 1934 in Monroe, Louisiana, to Charles “Mr. Charlie” Russell and Katie King. He was a sickly child, battling through several illnesses as an infant. On one occasion, Russell was taken to a hospital for nuns to pray for his health as doctors were at a loss for how to help him. The Russell family experienced racism in the South, and, like many blacks of the era, in 1943 Charles Russell moved north to better provide for his family. The idea was to leave the low-paying jobs of the South, and his family, behind for the time being, and head to Detroit in search of high-paying factory work. After a brief stop in Detroit, Charles Russell settled in Oakland, California, where he found work in a shipyard, and sent for his family to join him.
The Russells settled in Oakland and started their new life, but stability was short-lived. In 1946, Bill Russell’s mother Katie came down with the flu and was hospitalized for several weeks. Eventually, Katie Russell passed away from complications with the flu. Bill Russell threw himself into his studies in honor of his mother, knowing how much she valued his education. At the same time, Russell, not considered very athletically talented at a young age, started playing basketball on the playgrounds of Oakland and improving his skills. Russell struggled with his grades after his mother’s death. As a result, Russell enrolled in local school McClymonds High rather than following his brother to Oakland Tech. That decision would change his fortunes forever.
Russell didn’t start for McClymonds High until his senior season. During a basketball game that year, a San Francisco University scout was on hand to look at another player. Russell impressed him so much that the scout offered the scholarship to Russell instead, and it would be the only scholarship offer he received.
Bill Russell made the University of San Francisco varsity basketball team as a sophomore, after working on his game as a freshman. While not blessed with the best of dribbling skills, he worked on his defense and quickly grew into a force on that side of the ball.
Russell had the rare ability – for a big man – to run fast and jump high. In addition, he was able to cover the supposedly quicker and smaller players, which was a skill never before seen in college basketball for a center. Russell’s shot blocking was so feared among his opponents that they often changed their tactics to shooting further away from the basket due to the inability to get shots off. He was such a good rebounder, with a great understanding of body positioning, that the opposing team often didn’t get another chance if they missed the first shot.
Times were different then, and coaches and players had never seen anyone play defense in the manner in which Russell did. His coach at the University of San Francisco initially tried to get Russell to keep his feet on the ground and not attempt to block shots. “My coach (Phil Woolpert) said, ‘You can’t play defense that way. A defensive player never leaves his feet,'” Russell was quoted as saying. “Basically, we fought for three years. And when I played the way he wanted, we got our butts kicked.”
Russell and his University of San Francisco teammates went on to win the National Championship in both his junior (1954-1955) and senior (1955-1956) seasons, including a stretch of 55 consecutive victories, culminating with the National Championship in his last game for the Dons. Russell was named the NCAA Tournament MVP as a junior, and as an All-American in each of his final two seasons.
After Russell’s senior year, the NCAA rules committee changed two rules for college basketball directly related to Russell’s dominance. The free throw lane was widened from 10 feet to 12 feet due to his ability to grab rebounds. In addition, offensive goaltending — touching the ball inside the cylinder — was banned.
Bill Russell set a personal goal to reach the Olympics. During his senior year at University of San Francisco, he became a great high jumper and even considered trying for Team USA as a high jumper if he didn’t make the basketball team. At one event at the University of San Francisco, he nearly broke the world record with a jump of six foot nine and one quarter inches.
Although he was a great track & field athlete, basketball was where Russell would achieve Olympic glory. At the Melbourne Olympics in 1956, he and his fellow teammates dominated the tournament like no team had in the history of the Olympics. Russell, along with former University of San Francisco teammate K.C. Jones, led the US Men’s team to an 8-0 record and a 53.5 point margin of victory, the largest in Olympic history.
Boston Celtics head coach Red Auerbach had put together one of the best offensive teams in the NBA in the early 1950’s with players such as Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, and Ed Macauley. But Auerbach knew the Celtics desperately needed a defensive stalwart if they were to win the NBA Championship. Auerbach felt that Bill Russell was the missing piece to the Celtics puzzle, but the Celtics would pick too late in the Draft to get Russell. So Auerbach had to improvise.
In knowing that the Rochester Royals, with the first overall pick and a young starting center, wouldn’t draft Russell, Auerbach turned his attention to the St. Louis Hawks, who had the second pick. The Celtics had starting center Ed Macauley, but were willing to part with him in order to draft Russell. Macauley had attended St. Louis University and was a hometown hero, but the Hawks didn’t want to give up the pick for just Macauley. It wasn’t until the Celtics were willing to part ways with rookie Cliff Hagan that the trade would go through.
The St. Louis Hawks selected Russell with the second overall pick in the 1956 NBA Draft, and quickly traded him to the Boston Celtics. In brokering a deal for Russell, Auerbach sent his two best players to the St. Louis Hawks but filled the gap by selecting Russell’s college teammate K.C. Jones and adding Tom Heinsohn, who went on to become the 1957 NBA Rookie of the Year.
In his rookie year, Russell helped the Celtics to their first NBA title in franchise history (ironically, against the St. Louis Hawks) as he averaged 19.6 rebounds per game. In Russell’s second season, he led the league in rebounds with 22.7 per game. In one game iduring the ’57-58 season, Russell turned in a dominant performance by setting the record for most rebounds in a half with 32, and finished the game with a total of 49.
The Celtics breezed their way through to the 1958 NBA Finals, again against the St. Louis Hawks. But in game 3 of the Finals, Russell twisted his ankle, and wasn’t able to be effective. With Russell at less than 100 percent, the Celtics weren’t the same team, and lost two of the last three games to lose the series.
Considered the two best big men in the game during this time period, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain had a rivalry that was fierce, yet friendly. While Chamberlain put up gaudy numbers, often overtaking Russell on the score sheet, Russell was known for making his team better and being the consummate team player. Former teammate Don Nelson once said of Russell, “There are two types of superstars. One makes himself look good at the expense of the other guys on the floor. But there’s another type who makes the players around him look better than they are, and that’s the type Russell was.”
Chamberlain, considered by many to be the best offensive talent in the game during the 1960’s, often outscored Russell when they went head to head. But Russell usually had the advantage on the boards, and in the column that really counted: wins. In their first-ever meeting in 1959, Chamberlain outscored Russell 30-22, but Russell had the rebound advantage, 35-28, and his Celtics won the game, 115-106. This first game was a microcosm of their careers.
In 1960, Russell set a rebounding record with 51 in a single game, which Chamberlain broke nine months later, when he grabbed 55 in a game against Russell’s Celtics. Russell’s teams won seven of eight playoff series against Chamberlain’s squads, and Russell amassed 11 NBA Championships to Chamberlain’s 2. In 1965, after Chamberlain signed a deal for $100,000 a year, Russell threatened to retire if the Celtics didn’t up his salary one dollar higher to $100,001.
Off the court, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain were actually close friends. The Celtics and Wilt Chamberlain’s Philadelphia Warriors often played each other on Thanksgiving Day. On games in Philadelphia, Russell, along teammates K.C. Jones and Sam Jones, would eat turkey dinner at Chamberlain’s house. Russell and Chamberlain remained close well after their respective careers ended, prompting Russell to speak at Chamberlain’s funeral in 1999.
“People say it was the greatest individual rivalry they’ve ever seen,” Russell was quoted as saying, “and I agree with that. I have to laugh today. I’ll turn on the TV and see the Knicks play the Lakers, and half the time Patrick (Ewing) isn’t even guarding Shaq (O’Neal), and vice versa. Let me assure you that if either Wilt or Russ’s coach had ever told one of them he couldn’t guard the other guy, he would have lost that player forever!”
Bill Russell was slowing down near the end of his career, but that didn’t stop his Celtic teams from winning games and championships. In the 1965-66 season, the Celtics won another NBA title and Russell received his fifth and final MVP award. After the Finals, Celtics head coach Red Auerbach resigned and turned the team over to Russell, who became a player/coach. Russell became the first black head coach in any major professional sport.
Russell’s first year in charge saw the Celtics’ eight-year championship run come to an end when the Celtics lost to Chamberlain’s Philadelphia 76ers in the playoffs. A year later, Russell became the first black coach in any major professional sport to win a championship when the Celtics beat the Lakers in the NBA Finals. The subsequent season, Bill Russell led the Celtics to their 11th championship; in the ensuing offseason, he retired at the age of 35.
In 2001, Auerbach was quoted as saying, “I didn’t care if Russell never scored a point. We needed a player who could dominate on defense. And we got that. We got, arguably, the greatest basketball player of all time.”
Once Russell retired from playing at the end of 1969, he took a four-year hiatus from the NBA. In 1973, he became coach and general manager of the Seattle Supersonics. After winning a modest 36 games in his first season at the helm (up from 26 the year before his arrival), Russell would take the SuperSonics to the NBA playoffs in his second year and a 43-39 record. He quit after four years on the Seattle sidelines.
Russell returned to the sidelines in 1987 with the Sacramento Kings. Their season never got off the ground, as the Kings rolled out a 17-41 record on the way to Russell’s midseason departure. That would be the last time Bill Russell would grace the sidelines as an NBA coach.
Russell would go on to become the Sacramento Kings President of Basketball Operations in the late 80’s. He held the position for twenty-one months before being let go in 1989.
He also took on the task of color commentator for televised games after he retired, pairing with Rick Barry. The duo worked well together, but Russell wasn’t happy with the job in general, later saying, “The most successful television is done in eight-second thoughts, and the things I know about basketball, motivation and people go deeper than that.”
Bill Russell was an outspoken proponent of the civil rights movement. He was one of the first high-profile figures to refer to himself as “black”. His interest in black culture led him to invest in a rubber plantation in the former freed-slave colony of Liberia.
Russell endured racial abuse during his childhood and his playing career. On at least two separate occasions, Russell refused to play scheduled games when the other black players weren’t given equal treatment. During college, Russell and his teammates traveled to New Orleans, but the black players (all six of them) were forced to stay in a different hotel from the rest of the team. Russell recalled the event by saying, “In New Orleans, we had to stay in different hotels than the white players. That was one situation where the coach wouldn’t have to give us a motivating speech. That team was in trouble.”
Although a high-profile player in the NBA, Russell was accustomed to abuse from fans and was often forced to use different bathrooms and sleep in different hotels than his teammates. In one incident while he was living in Reading, a suburb of Boston, Russell’s home was broken into and vandalized. His trophies were smashed and excrement was smeared over his walls and bed. While Russell was angered by his treatment, he remained close with many of his white teammates and their families. “When I got into the Celtics’ locker room, we were the Celtics,” Russell was quoted as saying. “We cared about each other and we took care of each other. Every other guy respected the other guy’s humanity.” Former teammate Bob Cousy remembered a time when the Celtics were winning the NBA Championship year after year, but Russell wasn’t treated as part of the group by the community. “Here we are winning four, five and six championships,” Cousy said, “and by the same token they’re breaking into your home and defecating on your bed. Can you imagine the kind of pain that must have caused?”
Russell married longtime sweetheart Rose in 1956, after returning from the Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia. Over their 17-year marriage, the Russells had a daughter, Karen, and two sons, Buddha and Jacob. Karen Russell is a TV reporter with Huffington Post, and is a noted writer for sitcoms, movie producer, and creator of tributes to her father.
After the couple’s divorce, Bill Russell married former Miss USA Didi Anstett in the late 70’s. Shrouded in controversy because Didi was white, the relationship didn’t last long. Russell’s third marriage, to Marilyn Nault, lasted until her death in January 2009.
Bill Russell’s brother, Charlie L. Russell, is a playwright who created the play “Five on the Black Hand Side”. It was originally produced in New York and starred Demond Wilson. Later, the play was made into a movie featuring Godfrey Cambridge.
Thanks for your attention.