William Felton ‘Bill’ Russell. The man who changed the way the game is played in more ways than one and set the benchmark for winning championships in the league. Having entered the NBA in 1956, Russell, listed between 6-foot-9 and 6-feet-10, cast his towering frame on the game over 13 long seasons with the Boston Celtics where he also created the league’s greatest dynasty.
What: Russell is the NBA’s greatest winner. On that there can be no dispute. He won11 titles, nine as player (1957, 1959-1966) and two as player-coach (1968-69). Enough said. If the Boston Celtics boast of being the NBA’s winningest team, with 17 NBA rings, they owe a lot of that to Russell. Another measure of Russell’s humongous shadow on the Celtics was that of the 13 seasons he played for them between 1956-57 and 1968-69, only twice did the Celtics not win the NBA championship.
Jersey number: 6
Teams: As player - Boston Celtics (1956-1969). As coach – Boston Celtics (1966-1969), Seattle SuperSonics (1973-1977) and Sacramento Kings (1987-1988).
A revolutionary: Russell was in many ways the antithesis to Wilt Chamberlain, who simply put, was a scoring machine. Russell epitomized defense, with his rebounding and shot-blocking ability capable of shutting any opposition player down. The biggest example of Russell’s defensive caliber was when he limited Chamberlain to only two shot attempts in the second half of Game 7 of the 1968 Eastern Division Finals, thereby paving the way for a Celtics series win. For the record, unlike most great centers, including Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O’Neal, Russell averaged more rebounds-per-game (22.5) than points-per-game (15.1) over his playing career.
Playing Philosophy: “When I was about six, my dad sat me down and told me, ‘Son, I don’t know what you’ll be when you grow up. But here’s what I want you to think about. When you take a job, if they pay you two dollars a day, give them three dollars worth of work. The reason is, if they’re paying you two and you’re giving them three, you’re more valuable to them than they are to you. And if you do that all the time, you can look any man in the eye and tell him to go straight to hell. Because you worked, he paid.’ That was my ethic the day I showed up to work for Red Auerbach and the Celtics.” -- Red and Me: My Coach, My Lifelong Friend, Bill Russell with Alan Steinberg, Harper 2009.
During his first full season with the Boston Celtics (1957-1958), Russell averaged 22.7 RPG, becoming the first player in NBA history to average more than 20 rebounds per game for an entire season. Russell managed this accomplishment nine more times over the course of his career, between 1958 through to 1967.
In the playoffs, however, Russell averaged more than 20 RPG in each of his 13 postseason trips. He averaged 24.9 RPG in his playoff career.
Russell won the NBA’s regular season MVP award five times (1958, 1961-1963 and 1965). However, when Russell won the award in 1958, 1961 and 1962, he, inexplicably, didn’t make it to the All-NBA First team in those three years.
When Russell became the head coach of the Boston Celtics before the start of the 1966-67 season, he became the first black head coach in major U.S. professional sports.
Since 2009, the NBA has named the Finals MVP trophy the Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award in honor of Russell.
Legacy: It is possibly because of Russell’s huge impact on the defensive end of the game, that the saying, “offense wins you games, but defense championships,” took shape. Russell, singlehandedly, changed the traditional notion of the center viewed purely as a scoring machine, and, instead, helped raise their value in terms of rebounding and shot-blocking abilities as well. If players like Dennis Rodman, who played in the late 1980s and 1990s, and Kendrick Perkins today, found a place in the league despite their poor scoring ability, it could be owed to Russell’s legacy.
Hall of Fame induction: 1975
What they said about him:
“If we played Boston four on four, without Russell, we probably would have won every series. The guy killed us. He's the one who prevented us from achieving true greatness.” -- L.A. Lakers forward "Hot Rod" Hundley
“Russell single-handedly revolutionized this game simply because he made defense so important.”
-- Red Auerbach, 1964
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