On the eve of the 2018 NBA All-Star Weekend this Sunday, it seems appropriate to recognize Bill Russell, arguably the best NBA center to ever play the game and certainly the league’s most-winningest player. Russell helped elevate the Boston Celtics with his imposing defense and feel for the game en route to becoming one of the best athletes of all-time.
William Felton Russell was born February 12, 1934 in Monroe, Louisiana. As a child Russell’s family faced serious racism, prompting the family to move west to California. After settling in Oakland, the family fell into poverty and Russell turned to sports as a way out for him and his family. Basketball didn’t come easy, and it took work with a high school coach who saw a hunger in Russell to help him excel.
He attended McClymonds High School in Oakland, breaking out as a star in his final two years there. One of his teammates was future MLB Hall of Fame player Frank Robinson. Despite Russell’s potential, most colleges were not about to give a free ride to a Black player during the tense racial climate of the time.
However, the University of San Francisco gave Russell’s game a chance to flourish and won two NCAA championships with him on the floor alongside future Celtics player and coach, K.C. Jones.
Celtics coach Red Auerbach helped crack the color barrier in the NBA by drafting the league’s first Black player in Chuck Cooper. So it was not unexpected that Auerbach put together a deal to bring the big man to the Celtics team. It was a most fruitful union, culminating into 11 NBA championships with Russell winning two of those titles as a coach.
On the road, and even in Boston, Russell faced racist jeers and boos but he didn’t allow for the insults to affect him. Instead, he quietly dominated on the floor, using his massive size, quickness, and wingspan to shut down opposing teams and even became an adept scorer.
However, it was his basketball intelligence and feel for the game that made the league’s first legitimate superstar. Still, the Celtics struggled with basketball attendance for much of Russell’s glory years. The city embraced the Celtics more when white stars Larry Bird, Danny Ainge and Kevin McHale emerged in the 80’s.
Among his achievements are becoming the NBA’s first Black head coach and the first Black player/coach to win a championship. He’s also an Olympic gold medalist, a 12-time All-Star, a five-time NBA MVP winner, and a three-time all-NBA First Team player. In 2009, former NBA commissioner David Stern renamed the NBA Finals MVP Award after Russell. Russell was also an outspoken proponent of racial equality.
In 1961 when a Kentucky restaurant wouldn’t serve Russell and his Celtics teammates, they boycotted the game. In 1967, Russell, along with other Black athletes including Kareem Abdul Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) supported Muhammad Ali at the so-called Cleveland Summit meeting of Black athletes. In 2017, via his Twitter account, Russell pictured himself kneeling in support of the NFL anthem protests.
In 1999, the Celtics re-retired Russell’s number in their new arena. The first jersey retirement took place, at Russell’s request, in an empty Boston Garden. In 2013, a statue of Russell was erected in Boston’s City Hall Plaza.
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