Bill Russell, the cornerstone of the Boston Celtics dynasty who won eight consecutive titles and 11 overall in his career, died on Sunday. The Hall of Famer was 88 years old.
Russell died “peacefully” with his wife, Jeannine, by his side, a statement posted on social media read. Arrangements for his memorial service will be announced soon, according to the statement.
“But despite all the victories, Bill’s understanding of wrestling is what has lit up his life. From boycotting a 1961 exhibition game to expose discrimination too long tolerated, to leading the first basketball camp- embedded Mississippi ball in the combustible wake of Medgar [Evers’] assassination, to decades of activism finally recognized by his receipt of the Presidential Medal of Freedom…Bill spoke out against injustice with a ruthless frankness that he believed would disrupt the status quo, and with a powerful example that, though never his humble intention, will forever inspire teamwork, selflessness and thoughtful change,” the statement read.
“Bill’s wife, Jeannine, and his many friends and family thank you for keeping Bill in your prayers. Perhaps you will relive one or two of the golden moments he gave us, or you will remember of his signature laugh as he reveled in explaining the real story behind how those moments unfolded. And we hope that each of us can find a new way to act or speak with the uncompromising commitment, worthy and always constructive of Bill towards principles. This would be a final and lasting victory for our beloved #6.”
An announcement… pic.twitter.com/KMJ7pG4R5Z
— TheBillRussell (@RealBillRussell) July 31, 2022
Over a span of 15 years, beginning with his freshman year at the University of San Francisco, Russell had the most notable career of any player in team sports history. At USF, he was a two-time All-American, won back-to-back 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, winning the championship 11 times.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver called Russell “the greatest champion of all team sports” in a statement on Sunday.
“I treasured my friendship with Bill and was thrilled when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I often called him Babe Ruth of basketball for how he transcended time. Bill was the ultimate winner and an accomplished teammate, and his influence on the NBA will be felt forever,” Silver said.
A five-time MVP and 12-time All-Star, Russell was a quirky shot blocker who revolutionized defensive concepts in the NBA. He finished with 21,620 career rebounds – an average of 22.5 per game – and led the league in rebounding 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 also averaged 15.1 points and 4.3 assists per game during his career.
Until the exploits of Michael Jordan in the 1990s, Russell was considered by many to be the greatest player in NBA history.
Russell received the Medal of Freedom from former President Barack Obama in 2011, the nation’s highest civilian honor. And in 2017, the NBA presented him with its 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 and unremarkable center on the McClymonds basketball team, but his size won him a scholarship to San Francisco, where he flourished.
“I was an innovator,” Russell told The New York Times in 2011. “I started blocking shots even though I had never seen shots blocked before. The first time I did this in one game, my coach called time out and said, ‘No good defensive player ever leaves his feet.'”
Russell did it anyway, and he teamed with guard KC Jones to lead the Dons to 55 straight wins and national titles in 1955 and 1956. (Jones missed four games in the 1956 tournament because his eligibility had expired .) Russell was named the NCAA Tournament Most Valuable Player in 1955. He then led the USA basketball team to victory at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.
As the 1956 NBA Draft approached, Celtics coach and general manager Red Auerbach was eager to add Russell to his roster. Auerbach had built a high-scoring offensive machine around guards Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman and undersized center Ed Macauley, but thought the Celtics lacked the defense and rebound needed to turn them into a championship-caliber club. Russell, Auerbach thought, was the missing piece of the puzzle.
After the St. Louis Hawks selected Russell in the draft, Auerbach engineered a trade to land Russell for Ed Macauley.
Boston’s starting five of Russell, Tommy Heinsohn, Cousy, Sharman and Jim Loscutoff was a high-octane unit. The Celtics posted the best regular season record in the NBA in 1956-57 and waltzed through the playoffs for their first NBA title, beating 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 the rest of the series. The Hawks ultimately won the series in six games.
Russell and the Celtics went on to dominate the NBA Finals, winning 10 titles in 11 years and giving professional basketball a level of prestige it had never enjoyed before.
In the process, Russell revolutionized the game. He was a 6-foot-9 center whose lightning reflexes helped block shots and other defensive maneuvers that spark a fast-paced offense in full development.
In 1966, after eight consecutive titles, Auerbach retired as coach and named Russell as his successor. This was hailed as a sociological breakthrough, as Russell was the first black coach of a major league team in any sport, let alone such a distinguished team. But neither Russell nor Auerbach saw the move that way. They thought it was simply the best way to keep winning, and as a player-coach Russell won two more titles over the next three years.
Their biggest adversary was age. After winning his 11th championship in 1969 at age 35, Russell retired, sparking a mini-rebuild. During his 13 seasons, the NBA went from eight teams to 14. Russell’s Celtics teams have never had to survive more than three playoff rounds to win a title.
“If Bill Russell came back today with the same equipment and the same brains, the exact same person he was when he landed in the NBA in 1956, he would be the league’s best rebounder,” said Bob Ryan, a Celtics veteran. Beat Writer for The Boston Globe, told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2019. “As an athlete, he was so far ahead of his time. He would win three, four, or five championships, but not 11 in 13 years, obviously. “
In addition to multiple titles, Russell’s career has also been partly defined by his rivalry against Wilt Chamberlain.
In the 1959-60 season, the 7-foot-1 Chamberlain, who averaged a game-high 37.6 points per game in his freshman year, made his debut for the Philadelphia Warriors. On November 7, 1959, the Russell Celtics hosted the Chamberlain Warriors, and pundits called the matchup between top offensive and defensive centers “The Big Collision” and “Battle of the Titans.” As Chamberlain beat Russell 30-22, the Celtics won 115-106, and the game was called “basketball’s new beginning”.
The matchup between Russell and Chamberlain has become one of basketball’s biggest rivalries. One of the Celtics’ titles came against Chamberlain’s Warriors teams in San Francisco in 1964.
Although Chamberlain has passed and beaten Russell in their 142 career head-to-head games (28.7 rebounds per game at 23.7, 28.7 ppg at 14.5) and their entire career (22.9 RPG to 22.5, 30.1 PPG to 15.1), Russell has generally been given the nod as the best player overall, mostly because his teams have won 87 (61%) of those matches.
In the eight playoffs between the two, Russell and the Celtics have 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 anybody else,” Chamberlain told the Boston Herald in 1995. “People tend not to support Goliath, and Bill to back then was a jolly guy and he really had a lot of laughs, plus he played on the best team ever.
“My team was losing and his was winning, so it would be natural for me to be jealous. That’s not true. I’m more than happy with the way things went. He was overall by far the best, and that only brought out the best in me.”
After Russell retired from basketball, his place in its history assured, he moved on to wider spheres, hosting radio and television talk shows and writing newspaper articles on general topics. .
In 1973, Russell took over the Seattle SuperSonics, then a 6-year expansion franchise that had never made the playoffs, as coach and general manager. The previous year, the Sonics had won 26 games and sold 350 season tickets. Under Russell, they won 36, 43, 43 and 40 games, making the playoffs twice. When he quit, they had a solid base of 5,000 season tickets and a team that reached the NBA Finals the next two years.
Russell was reportedly frustrated with the players’ reluctance to embrace his team concept. Some have suggested that the problem was Russell himself; he was said to be aloof, brooding, and unable to accept anything other than Celtics tradition. Ironically, Lenny Wilkens guided Seattle to a championship two years later, preaching the same team concept that Russell had unsuccessfully tried to instill.
A decade after leaving Seattle, Russell gave another try in practice, replacing Jerry Reynolds as coach of the Sacramento Kings at the start of the 1987-88 season. The team went to a 17-41 record and Russell left mid-season.
Between coaching stints, Russell was most visible as a color commentator on televised basketball games. For a time he was paired with the equally blunt Rick Barry, and the duo provided some brutally candid commentary on the game. Russell was never comfortable in that setting, however, telling the Sacramento Bee, “The most successful television is done in eight seconds, and the things I know about basketball and motivation and people go further than that.”
He also dabbled in acting, starring in a Seattle Children’s Theater show and an episode of “Miami Vice,” and he wrote a provocative autobiography, “Second Wind.”
Russell became the first black player to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975, and in 1980 he was voted the best 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 at City Hall Plaza.