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Bill Russell: The Greatest Winner In NBA History

Bill Russell: The Greatest Winner In NBA History

On July 31, 2022, the NBA lost one of its pioneers and nicest men the league has ever seen. Bill Russell peacefully passed away in his home, and fans across the globe are honoring his greatness while remembering his iconic laugh that was contagious.

Bill Russell has won more championships than any other player in NBA history. His defensive ability to dominate a game was unmatched. While his biggest rival, Wilt Chamberlain, was scoring the ball at a pace that we still haven't seen replicated, Russell was constantly walking away with wins.

Russell proved defense and teamwork were the ingredients to win championships. His 11 titles in 13 years will never be duplicated, and his importance to the game and society as a whole won't be duplicated either.

William F. "Bill" Russell

William Felton Russell, otherwise known as Bill, was born on February 12, 1934, in Monroe, Louisiana. When he was eight, his family moved to Oakland, California.

Russell attended Hoover Junior High School, where he tried out for the basketball team. Now, you'd think the player who won the most titles in NBA history would be a shoo-in to make the team, but this didn't happen.

As a young person, Russell wasn't that good at basketball. His skills were so bad that he was cut from his junior high school basketball team.

By the time Russell attended McClymonds High School, he had tried out again and barely made the time. The only reason Russell was selected to the team was because of height and because he was quick.

Russell struggled with ball handling and scoring, so he decided to focus on his defensive abilities. This would serve him well later in his basketball career.

Russell continued to work on his overall game, and his game started to improve. Russell's play led his high school team to two state championships.

Two-Time College Champion

After having success in high school, Russell struggled to find a college, as many top college recruiters ignored Russell. Then, recruiter Hal DeJulio from the University of San Francisco watched Russell play in a high school game, and he saw Russell's incredible instinct on the court.

Russell would play three years of college basketball, and his winning ways in high school followed him to college. While at the University of San Francisco, Russell won two championships for his school in 1955 and 1956.

Russell's athletic ability not only helped him on the basketball court but this led Russell to become a high-level sprinter and high jumper on his school's track and field team. The way Russell led his team to victories and his overall athletic ability caught the eye of an important coach in the NBA... Red Auerbach.

Bill Russell: NBA Champion And Civil Rights Activist

It was the 1956 NBA Draft, and the Boston Celtics had their eyes on one player only. This player was Bill Russell, and Celtics coach, Red Auerbach, wanted him.

The Celtics didn't have an early pick in the draft, so they needed to trade up to get Russell. Boston ended up making a deal with the St. Louis Hawks, and they traded away center Ed Macauley and the rights to guard/forward Cliff Hagan, who was in the military.

The Hawks held the third pick in the draft, and they selected Russell with their pick. This pick, of course, was traded to the Celtics, and the rest was history.

It's so hard to imagine Bill Russell in a jersey other than a Celtics jersey. So, it's good Red Auerbach pushed to get Russell on his team.

Before Russell would play a single game in a Celtics jersey, Russell dawned another jersey, the USA Olympic jersey. Russell was a member of Team USA in the 1956 Summer Olympics, and there he'd show his dominance.

Russell led Team USA in scoring with 14.1 points per game as Team USA won the gold medal. Team USA defeated their opponents by an average margin of 53.5 points per game.

Bill Russell was now an Olympic gold medalist, and he was now ready to take on the NBA. As a rookie, Russell averaged 14.7 points and 19.6 rebounds per game.

Russell led the Celtics to the best record in the NBA with a 44-28 record. In the playoffs, the Celtics made the Finals to face off against the team that drafted Russell, the St. Louis Hawks.

The series would go the distance, seven games, and Russell's Celtics would come out on top. Russell finished fourth in scoring for the Celtics in the Finals with 13.3 points per game, and he led the team in rebounding with 22.9 per game.

Russell's defense was the difference between the Celtics winning and not losing the series. He was proving to everyone that his defense could change the outcome of games.

A player winning the championship in his first season was definitely a good start to a professional basketball career. Things would get better for Russell, though.

After losing 4-2 in the 1958 NBA Finals to the St. Louis Hawks, where Russell injured his foot in Game 3 and didn't return until Game 6. The Celtics went on the greatest run in NBA history.

The Celtics would go on to win eight straight titles from 1959 to 1966. Then, after losing in the 1967 Eastern Division Finals to Wilt Chamberlain's Philadelphia 76ers, Russell's Celtics won two more titles in 1968 and 1969.

The 1969 NBA Finals was, in particular, a memorable series. The Los Angeles Lakers, who now had Wilt Chamberlain to go along with Jerry West, were the dominant team in the league.

The Lakers finished tied for the second-best record in the league with a 55-27 record. Russell's Celtics, on the other hand, struggled during the season, finishing with a 48-34 record.

The Celtics entered the playoffs as the fourth seed. After defeating the Philadelphia 76ers and the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference playoffs, they met the Lakers in the Finals.

The Lakers were heavy favorites to win the series as not too many people gave the Celtics a realistic chance to win the title. This seemed to be true after the Lakers won the first two games of the series. Russell's dominance appeared to be over.

Then, the Celtics rebounded by winning the next two games to tie the series at 2-2. The Lakers would bounce back after winning 117-104 in Game 5. Now, the Celtics trailed 3-2 and were one game away from a series defeat.

The Celtics bounced back with a 99-90 victory in Game 6, setting up a historic Game 7 in Los Angeles. Once again, everyone was picking the Lakers to win the title.

Jack Kent Cooke, who was the owner of the Lakers, ordered thousands of balloons that read “World Champion Lakers”. The City of Angels was ready for a celebration.

When the two teams were out in shootaround before the game, Russell famously said this to Lakers star Jerry West:

“Those fucking balloons are staying up there.”

The Celtics were dominating the Lakers, leading 91-76 after three quarters. Los Angeles made a run in the fourth, cutting the lead to 103-102 with 1:33 remaining.

Boston would hold on to win Game 7 by a score of 108-106. The Celtics and Russell were champions once again.

Russell's stat line in Game 7 wasn't that overly impressive, with 6 points, 21 rebounds, and 6 assists. But his defensive tone and leadership is what won the Celtics their 11th title.

Russell retired after the season with career averages of 15.1 points and 22.5 rebounds per game. Most importantly, he retired as an 11-time NBA champion.

Bill Russell Makes History As He Fights For Civil Rights

Bill Russell broke a lot of barriers when he played the game of basketball. When Russell started his career in 1956, Black athletes weren't allowed to be stars.

This was a problem Russell had dealt with throughout his career. In fact, the Celtics media and his own fan base would promote teammate Bob Cousy as the star, rather than Russell, since Cousy is white:

“The number one paper was the Boston Herald and they didn't like the idea of an NBA team having black players. Out there, the star was Bob Cousy. No matter what I did, Cousy was the star. I remember I had a game where I had 25 points, 25 rebounds, 10 blocks, and the Boston Herald said I was lucky to play with Cousy.”

Russell would make history as he slowly became the face of the Celtics. There was no denying the fact that Bill Russell was the real star on those championship-winning Boston Celtics teams.

This wasn't the only history Russell made. After Red Auerbach stepped down from coaching in 1966, Russell was named player-coach, making him the first Black head coach in the NBA.

Not only did Russell become the first Black head coach, but he became the first Black head coach to win a championship. His final two titles came as player-coach for the Boston Celtics.

Russell would go on to coach two more teams after retiring from playing. He coached the Seattle SuperSonics from 1973 to 1977. Then, he coached the Sacramento Kings in the 1987-88 season.

Russell didn't have the same success coaching the SuperSonics and the Kings as he did the Celtics, but his mark had already been left on changing the NBA. That's what Russell did; he changed the game for the better.

Russell didn't stop there, though. He wanted change outside of the NBA, as well. He wanted to see people of color get the same rights as white people in America.

Russell wasn't somebody who just talked the talk; he backed it up with actions as well. Before a 1961 exhibition game in Lexington, Kentucky, Russell found out that three of his Black teammates were refused service at a local restaurant.

Russell led the charge of having the Celtics boycott the exhibition game and return to Boston. This led to backlash from fans and the media, but Russell didn't care. He wanted to get the point out that without himself and his Black teammates, the Celtics wouldn't be a team.

“We’ve got to show our disapproval of this treatment or else the status quo will prevail,” Russell said in an interview after returning to Boston. “We have the same rights and privileges as anyone else and deserve to be treated accordingly. I hope we never have to go through this abuse again. But if it happens, we won’t hesitate to take the same course of action.”

Russell was a big figure in the fight for civil rights in the 1960s. He marched with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He also spoke out against segregated public schools in Boston.

In 1967, athletes from different sports joined famed boxer Muhammad Ali in the 'Ali Summit', which was a political stand against segregation. One of the athletes that participated was Bill Russell.

Russell didn't just protest in the 1960s, he continued to speak out on issues that deeply affected his community. After the killing of George Floyd, Russell Tweeted this message out at then-President Donald Trump:

Bill Russell's attitude towards off the court issues led to other NBA stars to follow in his footsteps. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar directly followed in Russell's footsteps, as he was one of the athletes who attended the 'Ali Summit'. Even today, we see stars like LeBron James routinely speak out on social justice issues. 

The NBA as an organization has even followed in Russell's footsteps by speaking out on social change. This was something the league would have not done back when Russell was playing. 

Russell's impact on the game of basketball and on society has been greatly felt. Because of this, Russell has been honored.

In 2009, the NBA named the Finals MVP Award in his honor: Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award. In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award.

Russell's passing hurts all who love the game of basketball and for all the people still fighting for civil rights. We all should honor Russell by not giving up on the fight for our rights, because that's what the great Bill Russell would have wanted. 


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