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Bill Russell, who became the ultimate champion with Celtics, dies at 88

Bill Russell, whose leadership both on the basketball court and in the civil rights movement helped defined an American generation, died Sunday. He was 88.

Russell won 11 championships in 13 seasons as the center for the Boston Celtics, cementing his status as the original greatest player of all time, as voted upon by the Professional Basketball Writers Association in 1980. NBA commissioner Adam Silver called Russell the “greatest champion in all of team sports,” in a statement Sunday.

 

Russell’s partnership with Red Auerbach became the shining example of the bond between player and coach, as well as the potential for trust and partnership across racial lines at the height of the 1960s civil rights movement. Russell became the first Black star basketball player and the first Black coach in American professional sports when Auerbach named Russell as his replacement in 1966. He was the fifth person to be inducted to the Hall of Fame both as a player, in 1975, and a coach, in 2021.

“Bill Russell was the greatest champion in all of team sports.  The countless accolades that he earned for his storied career with the Boston Celtics — including a record 11 championships and five MVP awards — only begin to tell the story of Bill’s immense impact on our league and broader society,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement.

“Bill stood for something much bigger than sports:  the values of equality, respect and inclusion that he stamped into the DNA of our league. At the height of his athletic career, Bill advocated vigorously for civil rights and social justice, a legacy he passed down to generations of NBA players who followed in his footsteps. Through the taunts, threats and unthinkable adversity, Bill rose above it all and remained true to his belief that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity.

“For nearly 35 years since Bill completed his trailblazing career as the league’s first Black head coach, we were fortunate to see him at every major NBA event, including the NBA Finals, where he presented the Bill Russell Trophy to the Finals MVP.

“I cherished my friendship with Bill and was thrilled when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  I often called him basketball’s Babe Ruth for how he transcended time.  Bill was the ultimate winner and consummate teammate, and his influence on the NBA will be felt forever.  We send our deepest condolences to his wife, Jeannine, his family and his many friends.”

William Felton Russell was born on Feb. 12, 1934, in Monroe, La. When Russell was 12 years old, his mother, Katie, passed away from kidney failure in Louisiana, and his father, Charlie Sr., brought Russell and his brother Charlie Jr. — who grew to be a successful playwright — to Detroit and then Oakland. Charlie Sr. raised them as a widower against the protests of his sisters-in-law, which was considered somewhat verboten in the 1940s. His father sold his business and got a new job at a foundry that paid less in a week than his old business paid in a day, just so he could come home at night to raise the children.

Before the Celtics acquired a rookie Rusell in a draft-night trade in 1956, he was a great track and field athlete who tried to learn basketball at McClymonds High School in Oakland. With otherworldly athleticism, gigantic hands and a massive wingspan, Russell was held back by misguided coaches of the day telling him defenders should stay flat-footed and not jump. He only received one offer for college, joining the nearby University of San Francisco to play with future Celtics teammate K.C. Jones.

There Russell introduced the modern style of basketball defense, pioneering the shot block and rotating off his own man to reject any player who attacked the rim. After holding Holy Cross star and future Celtics teammate Tommy Heinsohn scoreless in a half, Sports Illustrated wrote that if Russell ever learned to hit a basket, they would have to change the rules. Sure enough, the NCAA did so by widening the lane in his junior year and preventing future players from pulling the ball off the rim.

“What I was doing was in retrospect bringing the vertical game to a game that had been horizontal,” Russell told Taylor Branch in 2013.

But even after winning consecutive national championships in 1955 and 1956, he was still passed over for Northern California player of the year. Russell cited this as the turning point for him to focus on becoming the best player in the world for the sake of elevating his team instead of winning individual accolades, which often defined his friendly rivalry with Wilt Chamberlain.

“That let me know that if I were to accept these as the final judges of my career, I would die a bitter old man,” Russell told Academy of Achievement in 2008.

Russell left USF in 1956 not only as a two-time national champion but as the seventh-ranked high jumper in the world. He would go on to join the USA basketball team at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, where he helped lead the team to the gold medal over the USSR. In the same year, Russell turned down an offer from the Harlem Globetrotters because owner Abe Saperstein would only negotiate with Russell’s college coach Phil Woolpert. He instead opted for the NBA, joining a Celtics team that also had Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Frank Ramsey and Heinsohn, who would all end up in the Hall of Fame.

Russell’s most lasting basketball legacy was changing the way defense was played. He was always lauded for blocking shots carefully to tip them to his teammates and start a fast break, rather than channeling his volleyball spiking skills acquired during lunch break tournaments while working at the San Francisco Naval Yard after high school. He and Chamberlain made for such a compelling rivalry because while Chamberlain was dominating individually in a way that has never quite been matched, Russell was winning by mastering everything that did not show up in the box score. In a town that has long appreciated winning, Russell led Boston to unparalleled success by making “winning plays” in every facet of the game.

Russell and Chamberlain put up numbers that have not been touched since their great battles. Chamberlain entered the league in 1959 and immediately led the NBA in scoring and rebounding, winning Rookie of the Year and MVP. He took the rebounding crown from Russell after the Celtics center held it for his first three seasons. But Russell and the Celtics won the title again, their second in a row in a streak that would reach eight before finally falling to Chamberlain and the 76ers in 1967.

They clashed for a decade in which Russell beat Chamberlain in the playoffs in seven out of their eight matchups. Their rivalry served as a commentary on success and the pursuit of greatness, as the players were searching for different things in life. While Russell wanted to be the ultimate champion and the greatest player, Chamberlain wanted to build an enjoyable lifestyle.

“I think Bill knew I felt that way, and I think he both envied and resented my attitude,” Chamberlain said in his autobiography “Wilt.” “On the one hand, I think he wished he could learn to take things easier too; on the other hand, I think he may have felt that with my natural ability and willingness to work hard, my teams could have won an NBA Championship every year if I was as totally committed to victory as he was.”

They traded jabs in interviews for 20 years after retirement before Russell apologized, quickly mending their close relationship and leading to frequent public appearances and interviews together. Russell later spoke at Chamberlain’s 1999 funeral, saying they were not rivals but competitors and would “be friends through eternity.”

(Photo: Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

Chamberlain was widely beloved by the media and fans alike because of his affable personality partnered with his flashy game and lifestyle. Russell was much more insular, loath to do interviews and notorious for his no autographs policy he started in the middle of his career and upheld the rest of his life. Russell insisted that he was misunderstood and believed in a handshake and smile rather than an autograph.

“It is far more important to understand than to be understood,” Russell said.

Later in Russell’s career, Chamberlain signed the first-ever $100,000 a year contract. Auerbach then asked Russell to name his price on a new deal, so Russell asked for $100,001 and then called up his father and told him it was time to retire from his job at an Oakland shipyard. His father refused, telling Russell, “I’ve given these people 35 of the best years of my life. Now, I’m going to give them a few of the bad ones.”

Russell once recounted the day Celtics owner Walter Brown brought him into his office later in his career and showed Russell the Celtics’ financial books, explaining that they knew Russell was underpaid and it was only because they were operating at a loss. Auerbach later gave Russell an eight-year deal at age 35 that stipulated Russell did not need to play to earn the contract, allowing him to informally retire and continue to get paid the money Brown had promised.

“I could bring my doctor in and say I want to play this year, but my doctor says he doesn’t think I can do it. Then they would have to pay me for that year,” Russell said. “I only played one year under that contract and then I left. They said, ‘Why didn’t you take the money?’ I said, ‘I could not take money that I did not earn.’ I got that from my father.”

Russell didn’t take the money in the end. The idea of spending longer in Boston — which in his 1979 memoir “Second Winds” he described as “a flea market of racism” — than he had to was a part of that motivation to walk away. Russell was a prime witness to racial strife that roiled in the city during his playing years. Even as he was leading the Celtics to championships every year, Russell was relentlessly harassed at home. Russell wrote: “I didn’t play for Boston. I played for the Celtics and Red Auerbach.”

In 1964, Russell, Satch Sanders, K.C. Jones, Sam Jones and Willie Naulls formed the first all-Black starting lineup in NBA history. The Celtics, in contrast to the cross-town Red Sox who were the last team to integrate in baseball, consistently led the NBA in crossing racial barriers. It took place in a city that became one of the faces of racism in the nation, even well after the peak of the civil rights movement.

Russell faced the worst of it, most notably when his suburban home was burglarized and the perpetrators defecated throughout the house, smashed his trophies and spray-painted slurs on the walls. Vandals would tip over Russell’s garbage cans, according to a 1987 New York Times essay by his daughter, Karen Russell. “The police told him that raccoons were responsible,” Karen Russell wrote, “so he asked where he could apply for a gun permit. The raccoons never came back.”

Decades later after Congress passed the Freedom of Information Act, Russell procured his FBI file and found that he was described repeatedly as “an arrogant Negro who won’t sign autographs for white children,” according to his daughter.

All the while, he remained outspoken on the civil rights movement, becoming one of the pre-eminent voices in the world of sport and pop culture. He became the first NBA player to visit Africa when he traveled to Libya, Ethiopia and Liberia in 1959, even purchasing a rubber plantation that would ironically contribute to a period of financial struggle well after retirement. Then in 1961 in Lexington, Ky., he staged the first-ever boycott in an NBA game by African-American players after a restaurant refused to serve him and his Black teammates before a game. Following the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Jackson, Miss., in 1963, Russell went to Jackson to hold their first-ever integrated basketball camps.

He most famously sat next to Muhammad Ali at his famed “Cleveland Summit” in 1967 alongside Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, as they supported Ali’s conscientious objection to being drafted for the Vietnam War. Russell sat in the front row at the March on Washington in 1963 and was even asked by Martin Luther King, Jr. that morning to stand on stage for his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Russell declined, telling King he felt he had not been active enough in the build-up to the moment to deserve to speak.

“The thing that most affected me was that he approached injustice with passion, but he expressed himself rationally rather than with anger,” Abdul-Jabbar said of Russell in a 2019 email to The Undefeated. “Anger never persuaded anyone to your side, but logic did.”

It’s in large part why after his retirement in 1969, he immediately moved to Los Angeles and hardly ever returned to Boston. Rusell spent the last four decades of his life living in Mercer Island, Wash. His jersey retirement in 1972 took place behind closed doors and he was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1975, but Russell skipped both ceremonies. It took years of convincing by the city of Boston to get him to accept a statue in his honor, which was finally unveiled in 2013 next to Boston City Hall at a ceremony in which most of the biggest legends in the game were in attendance.

He remained involved with the NBA after retirement, coaching the Seattle SuperSonics from 1973-77, serving as a color commentator for the NBA on CBS and TBS thereafter before making a one-season return to coaching with the Sacramento Kings in 1987. The league did not introduce the NBA Finals MVP award until Russell’s final season in 1969, which went to the Lakers’ Jerry West despite Russell beating him. Fifty years later, the trophy was named after Russell, who often returned to the finals to hand the trophy to the winner on the podium after championship-clinching games.

“Who better to name this prestigious award for than one of the greatest players of all time and the ultimate champion,” NBA commissioner David Stern said when announcing the trophy renaming in 2009.

Russell’s legacy was most resoundingly encapsulated by President Barack Obama when he presented Russell with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian recognition, in 2011.

“Bill Russell, the man, is somebody who stood up for the rights and dignity of all men,” Obama said. “He marched with King. He stood by Ali. When a restaurant refused to serve the Black Celtics, he refused to play in the game. He endured insults and vandalism, but he kept focusing on making the teammates who he loved better players.”

But his most unforgettable trait was his signature laugh, an infectious banshee shriek that was always on the edge of bursting from his lungs whenever he would tell one of his endless cache of great stories. Russell said his mother told him never to hold back, whether it was a sneeze, a laugh or anything else in life.

For a tall kid from Oakland with one college scholarship offer, few others in American history ever made as much from their opportunities as Bill Russell.

“You walk into a room and it is,” Russell told Branch. “Whether it’s good or bad is your perception. After you make a judgment, the next question is what are you going to do about it? If you lose control, you will end your life being a bitter and annoyed old man. But if you take control of your life as much as possible, because you understand, then you have a chance to be happy.”

(Photo: Dick Raphael / NBAE via Getty Images)

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