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The Bill Russell Story: More Than A Champion

The Bill Russell Story: More Than A Champion

Fans of the NBA and analysis alike love to discuss who is the NBA's G.O.A.T. You usually hear the same names: Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Kobe Bryant.

There are sometimes other names added to the list, like Magic Johnson, or Larry Bird. Even Wilt Chamberlain gets a few votes.

Many people tend to leave the winningest player in NBA history off the list. Yes, I'm talking about Bill Russell.


Finding His Game

When you think of Bill Russell, you think of the 11-time champion, the winningest player in league history.

But did you know Russell struggled so much at basketball that he was cut from his junior high school basketball team?

It's true, Russell was cut. By the next year, his freshman year, Russell struggled in tryouts and was almost cut again.

The thing that saved Russell was his raw athletic ability. The high school basketball coach realized Russell's potential and told him to work on his fundamentals.

So, that's what Russell did. He worked on the fundamentals and his game really blossomed. Russell eventually led his high school team to two state championships.


College Career

Russell found some level of success in high school, but that didn't immediately follow to college.

Most top college recruiters ignored Russell. It appeared his basketball days were over until recruiter Hal DeJulio from the University of San Francisco watched him play in a high school game.

DeJulio wasn't impressed by Russell's lackluster scoring and, as he put it, “atrocious fundamentals”.

The reason DeJulio recruited Russell was that he sensed Russell's incredible instinct for the game. This was especially true of Russell's instinct in the clutch.

So, DeJulio offered Russell a scholarship, and he gladly accepted. This was Russell's chance to escape poverty and, what he hoped, to escape the racism he was dealing with.

Russell played three years of college basketball, leading the University of San Francisco to two championships.

It was more than the two titles for Russell in college. His play on the defensive end was so dominant that the NCAA had to change the rules.

At that time, centers would guard the opposing center and stick to them. Russell didn't play like that.

Russell used his quickness and speed to play help defense against opposing forwards, challenging their shots.

This made it nearly impossible to score against the University of San Francisco's defense.

So, the NCAA decided to widen the lane, which made Russell's help defense a little less effective.

Russell's defense included swatting the ball off the rim, which helped keep opposing teams from scoring. The NCAA changed the rule to not allow basket interference.

After a stellar college career, Russell was ready to take his talents to the NBA.


NBA Career

In the 1956-57 NBA Draft, Boston Celtics head coach, Red Auerbach, wanted Russell.

So, he made a deal with the St. Louis Hawks, who owned the second pick, to select Russell and make a trade with them, if Russell would fall to the second pick.

The Rochester Royals owned the first pick, but they already had a rebounding big man, so Auerbach was confident Russell would fall to the second pick.

That's what happened. Russell was selected second by the St. Louis Hawks, and they traded him to the Boston Celtics.

Before playing in the NBA, Russell played in the 1956 Summer Olympics.

Russell was almost kicked off the squad since he signed a contract with the Celtics and wasn't considered an amateur any longer.

At that time, only amateurs could play basketball in the Olympics. Russell fought the issue and won, so he played.

Russell led team USA to win the gold medal by an average margin of 53.5 points per game.

After the Olympics, Russell was ready to start his dominant run in the NBA.

Russell went on to play 13 years in the NBA, and his Celtics won the title in 11 of those years, including winning eight straight.

In that incredible stretch, Russell faced off against his arch-rival and fellow dominant big man, Wilt Chamberlain, seven times in the playoffs.

Of those seven playoff meetings, Russell's Celtics came out on top six times.

Celtics coach Red Auerbach retired before the 1966-67 season and when he went looking for a replacement, he ultimately decided to ask Russell if he wanted to be a player coach.

Russell accepted the offer, making him the first Black head coach in NBA history.

Bill Russell's dominance in the 1960s will never be replicated again. The fact he led the Celtics to 11 titles in 13 years and eight in a row is up there with Wilt Chamberlain's 100 point game, as the most unbreakable records in NBA history.

Every year that Russell's Celtics won the NBA championship:

1. 1957
2. 1959
3. 1960
4. 1961
5. 1962
6. 1963
7. 1964
8. 1965
9. 1966
10. 1968 (as player coach)
11. 1969 (as player coach)


Civil Rights Leader

There's no doubt Russell became the league's best player and most recognizable player during the 1960s.

Even with his massive on-court success, Russell couldn't escape racism and hate from people all around him.

There were times when Russell and his Black teammates were not allowed to stay in the same hotel rooms on the road as their white counterparts.

Before an exhibition game in Lexington, Kentucky, Russell, and his Black teammates were refused service at a local restaurant.

Russell and his Black teammates refused to play in the exhibition game. They ended up going back home and this decision brought him controversy.

The hate Russell and his fellow Black teammates experienced wasn't just on the road, he experienced hate from Boston fans as well.

The Boston fans would yell hateful and racist remarks during a game and afterward want Russell to sign something for them or their children.

Russell would refuse, and this led to Boston fans calling Russell a racist. Even the FBI kept a file on Russell, describing him as “an arrogant Negro who won't sign autographs for white children.”

Russell joined the likes of Muhammad Ali as athletes who demanded racial equality during the Civil Rights Movement.

After Russell retired, the bad taste of racism he suffered from Boston fans stuck to him like glue. He couldn't wash it off.

So, when the Celtics retired Russell's No. 6 jersey in 1972, Russell refused to attend the ceremony.

Russell told the Celtics he wanted his number retired in an empty aren't, without fans.

Russell also refused to attend his induction into the Hall of Fame in 1975. Yes, Russell couldn't get over the abuse he and his fellow Black teammates suffered from fans during his playing days, especially his “home” fans.

After all these years went by, Russell started to soften up a bit. In 1995, when the Celtics left the Boston Garden and entered into their new arena, then known as the FleetCenter, the Celtics wanted to re-retire Russell's number in front of a sold-out crowd.

Russell at first wasn't sure about the idea, but he eventually agreed to let the ceremony take place.

In 2019, Russell finally accepted his Hall of fame ring in a private ceremony with his family.

After retiring, Russell would never visit Boston, until the past few years, where he's made numerous visits.

Bill Russell is not only the greatest winner in NBA history, but he's one of the pioneers of equality, not just in the NBA, but in America.

For that, we thank you, Mr. Russell.

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