Bill Russell, the cornerstone of the Boston Celtics dynasty who won eight straight titles and 11 overall during his career, died Sunday. The Hall of Famer turned 88.
Russell died “peacefully” with his wife Jeannine at his side. read a statement posted on social media. Arrangements for his memorial service will be announced shortly, the statement said.
“But for all that winning, Bill’s understanding of the fight has lit his life. From boycotting a 1961 exhibition game to exposing discrimination that was too long tolerated to running Mississippi’s first integrated basketball camp in the combustible wake of Medgar [Evers’] assassination to decades of activism eventually recognized by receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom… Bill called out injustice with an unforgiving frankness that he intended would upset the status quo, and with a powerful example that, though never his humble intention, will forever inspire teamwork, selflessness and thoughtful change,” the statement said.
“Bill’s wife Jeannine and his many friends and family thank you for keeping Bill in your prayers. You might relive one or two of the golden moments he gave us, or remember his signature laugh as he was delighted to explain the real story behind how those moments unfolded. And we hope that with Bill’s uncompromising, dignified, and always constructive commitment to principle, each of us can find a new way to act or speak. That would be a final and lasting win for our beloved number 6.”
An announcement… pic.twitter.com/KMJ7pG4R5Z
— TheBillRussell (@RealBillRussell) July 31, 2022
Over a 15-year period beginning with his junior year at the University of San Francisco, Russell had the most distinguished career of any player in team sport history. At USF, he was a two-time All-American, won two straight NCAA championships and led the team to 55 straight wins. And he won a gold medal at the 1956 Olympics.
During his 13 years in Boston, he carried the Celtics to the NBA Finals 12 times and won the championship 11 times.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver called Russell “the greatest champion of all team sports” in a statement Sunday.
“I treasured my friendship with Bill and was thrilled when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I’ve often called him basketball babe Ruth because he got through the years. Bill was the ultimate winner and consummate teammate, and his impact on the NBA will be felt forever,” said Silver.
A five-time MVP and 12-time All-Star, Russell was a formidable shot blocker who revolutionized NBA defense concepts. He finished his career with 21,620 rebounds — an average of 22.5 per game — and led the league in rebounds four times. He had 51 rebounds in one game and 49 in two others, and had 12 straight seasons with 1,000 or more rebounds. Russell averaged 15.1 points and 4.3 assists per game over his career.
Up until the exploits of Michael Jordan in the 1990s, Russell was considered by many to be the greatest player in NBA history.
Russell was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, by former President Barack Obama in 2011. And in 2017, the NBA honored him with the Lifetime Achievement Award.
William Felton Russell was born on February 12, 1934 in Monroe, Louisiana. His family moved to the Bay Area, where he attended McClymonds High School in Oakland. He was an awkward, low-key center on the McClymonds basketball team, but his size earned him a scholarship to San Francisco, where he thrived.
“I was an innovator,” Russell told The New York Times in 2011. A good defensive player ever leaves his feet.'”
Russell did it anyway, teaming with guard KC Jones to lead the Dons to 55 straight wins and national titles in 1955 and 1956. (Jones missed four games of the 1956 tournament because his eligibility expired.) Russell was named the NCAA tournament’s Most Outstanding Player in 1955. He then led the US basketball team to victory at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.
As the 1956 NBA draft drew near, Celtics coach and general manager Red Auerbach was keen to add Russell to his roster. Auerbach had built a scoring offensive machine around guards Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman and underpowered center Ed Macauley, but felt the Celtics lacked the defense and rebound to transform them into a championship-level club. Russell, Auerbach felt, was the missing piece of the puzzle.
After the St. Louis Hawks selected Russell in the draft, Auerbach executed a trade to land Russell for Ed Macauley.
Boston’s starting five consisting of Russell, Tommy Heinsohn, Cousy, Sharman and Jim Loscutoff was a high-octane unit. The Celtics had the best regular-season record in the NBA in 1956-57 and stormed through the playoffs to their first NBA title by defeating the Hawks.
In a rematch in the 1958 Finals, the Celtics and Hawks split the first two games at Boston Garden. But Russell suffered an ankle injury in Game 3 and was ineffective for the remainder of the series. The Hawks eventually won the series in six games.
Russell and the Celtics then had a stranglehold on the NBA Finals, winning 10 titles in 11 years and bringing pro basketball a prestige it didn’t have before.
Russell revolutionized the game. He was a 6-foot-9 center whose flash reflexes thrived on shot blocking and other defensive maneuvers that trigger a fast-break offense.
In 1966, after eight consecutive titles, Auerbach retired as coach and appointed Russell as his successor. It’s been hailed as a sociological advance, as Russell became the first black coach of a major league team in any sport, let alone such a stellar team. But neither Russell nor Auerbach saw the move that way. They felt it was just the best way to keep winning, and as player-manager Russell won two more titles over the next three years.
Her greatest adversary was age. After winning his 11th championship in 1969 at the age of 35, Russell retired, sparking a mini rebuild. During his 13 seasons, the NBA had grown from eight teams to 14. Russell’s Celtics teams have never gone through more than three playoff rounds to win a title.
“If Bill Russell came back today with the same gear and the same intelligence, the exact same person he was when he landed in the NBA in 1956, he would be the best rebounder in the league,” said Bob Ryan, a former Celtics beater. Writer for The Boston Globe, told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2019. “As an athlete, he was so ahead of his time. He would win three, four or five championships, but obviously not 11 in 13 years.”
In addition to multiple titles, Russell’s career was also shaped in part by his rivalry against Wilt Chamberlain.
In the 1959-60 season, the 7-foot-1 Chamberlain, who was averaging a record 37.6 points per game in his rookie year, made his debut with the Philadelphia Warriors. On November 7, 1959, Russell’s Celtics received Chamberlain’s Warriors, and pundits dubbed the matchup between the best offensive and defensive centers “The Big Collision” and “Battle of the Titans.” While Chamberlain topped Russell 30-22, the Celtics won 115-106 and the game was dubbed “basketball’s new beginning.”
The duel between Russell and Chamberlain became one of the greatest rivalries in basketball. One of the Celtics titles came against Chamberlain’s Warriors teams from San Francisco in 1964.
Although Chamberlain Russell over the course of her 142 head-to-head games (28.7 rebounds per game to 23.7, 28.7 points per game to 14.5) and her entire career (22.9 RPG to 22.5 , 30.1 PPG to 15.1) and surpassed Russell, Russell was usually credited as the better overall player, largely because his teams won 87 (61%) of those games.
In the eight playoff series between the two, Russell and the Celtics won seven. Russell has 11 championship rings; Chamberlain only has two.
“I was the bad guy because I was so much bigger and stronger than everyone else out there,” Chamberlain told the Boston Herald in 1995. He also played on the best team of all time.
“My team lost and his team won, so it would be natural that I would be jealous. Not true. I’m more than happy with the way things have turned out. He was by far the best overall and that only added to the best get out of me.”
After Russell retired from basketball and secured his place in its history, he moved into broader arenas, hosting radio and television talk shows and writing newspaper columns on general issues.
In 1973, Russell took over as coach and general manager of the Seattle SuperSonics, then a 6-year-old expansion franchise that never made the playoffs. The previous year, the Sonics had won 26 games and sold 350 season tickets. Under Russell, they won 36, 43, 43 and 40 and made the playoffs twice. When he resigned, they had a solid base of 5,000 season tickets and the material to reach the NBA Finals series in the next two years.
Russell was reportedly frustrated with players’ reluctance to embrace his team concept. Some felt the problem was Russell himself; He was said to be distant, moody and unable to accept anything other than Celtic tradition. Ironically, two years later, Lenny Wilkens led Seattle to a championship and preached the same team concept that Russell had tried unsuccessfully to instill.
A decade after leaving Seattle, Russell made another attempt at coaching, replacing Jerry Reynolds as coach of the Sacramento Kings early in the 1987-88 season. The team faltered to a 17-41 record and Russell left the team midseason.
Between coaching stints, Russell was most visible as a color commentator on televised basketball games. For a time, he was paired with the equally outspoken Rick Barry, and the duo provided brutally candid commentary on the game. Russell was never comfortable in that environment, however, explaining to the Sacramento Bee, “Most successful television is done in eight-second minds, and the things I know about basketball, motivation, and people go deeper than that.”
He also tried his hand at acting, appearing in a show at the Seattle Children’s Theater and an episode of Miami Vice, and wrote a provocative autobiography, Second Wind.
In 1974 Russell was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and in 1980 was voted the greatest player in NBA history by the Professional Basketball Writers Association of America. He was part of the 75th anniversary team announced by the NBA in October 2021.
In 2013, Boston honored Russell with a statue in City Hall Square.