Legends profile: Bill Russell
Bill Russell was the cornerstone of the Boston Celtics’ dynasty of the 1960s, an uncanny shotblocker who revolutionized NBA defensive concepts. A five-time NBA Most Valuable Player and a 12-time All-Star, the angular center amassed 21,620 career rebounds, an average of 22.5 per game and led the league in rebounding four times. He had 51 boards in one game, 49 in two others and a dozen consecutive seasons of 1,000 or more rebounds.
His many individual accolades were well deserved, but they were only products of Russell’s philosophy of team play. His greatest accomplishment was bringing the storied Celtics 11 championships in his 13 seasons. Until the ascent of Michael Jordan in the 1980s, Russell was acclaimed by many as the greatest player in the history of the NBA.
William Felton Russell was born on February 12, 1934, in Monroe, Louisiana. His family moved cross-country to the San Francisco Bay Area, where Bill attended McClymonds High School in Oakland. He was an awkward, unremarkable center on McClymonds’s basketball team, but his size earned him a scholarship to play at the University of San Francisco, where he blossomed.
Russell grew to be a shade over 6-foot-9, and he teamed with guard K. C. Jones to lead the Dons to 56 consecutive victories and NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956 (although Jones missed four games of the 1956 tournament because his eligibility had expired). Russell was named the NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player in 1955.
Russell averaged 20.7 points and 20.3 rebounds in his three-year varsity career. By his senior season he had matured into a dominant force who could control a game at the defensive end. With the 1956 NBA Draft approaching, Boston Celtics coach and general manager Red Auerbach was eager to add Russell to his lineup. Auerbach had built a high-scoring offensive machine around guards Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman and undersized center Ed Macauley, but he hadn’t been able to muster the defense and rebounding needed to transform the Celtics into a championship-caliber club. Russell, Auerbach felt, was the missing piece to the puzzle.
However, because of their second-place finish the year before, the Celtics would be picking too late in the draft to get Russell. And because Auerbach wanted to use a territorial selection to nab Holy Cross star Tom Heinsohn, Boston would forfeit its first-round pick altogether. So Auerbach began to think trade, and he set his sights on the St. Louis Hawks, who owned the second overall pick in the draft.
The first pick belonged to the Rochester Royals, but that team already had a promising young rebounder in Maurice Stokes, and Auerbach knew that Royals owner Les Harrison was not going to pay Russell the $25,000 signing bonus he was asking for. Rochester selected guard Sihugo Green, who played nine seasons in the league with five different teams (including, ironically, the Celtics in 1965-66).
St. Louis owner Ben Kerner was willing to talk trade, and the key was Macauley. The 6-foot-8 center was a six-time All-Star at that point and a local hero in St. Louis, where he had grown up and then starred for St. Louis University. Auerbach could afford to give up Macauley if he was getting Russell, but it was not until Boston agreed to add rookie Cliff Hagan to the mix that Kerner consented to the trade. The deal brought the Hawks a championship in 1958, but it brought the Celtics a dynasty.
In that same draft, Boston added Heinsohn, who would be NBA Rookie of the Year for 1956-57, and Jones, Russell’s college teammate, who would also become a stalwart of the Boston juggernaut.
Russell didn’t join the Celtics until December because he was a member of the 1956 U.S. Olympic basketball team, which won a gold medal at the Melbourne Games in November. The Celtics had bolted to a 13-3 start, and when Russell arrived he adapted quickly. Playing in 48 games, he pulled down 19.6 rpg, the best average in the league, while scoring 14.7 ppg.
Boston’s starting five of Russell, Heinsohn, Cousy, Sharman, and Jim Loscutoff was a high-octane unit. They posted the best regular-season record in the NBA in 1956-57, waltzed through the playoffs, and were heavily favored in the Finals against Bob Pettit’s St. Louis Hawks. The teams traded victories until the series came down to a dramatic Game 7 in Boston. Heinsohn scored 37 points for Boston, but the Celtics couldn’t pull away. Last-second scores by the Hawks sent the game into overtime and then into a second extra period. The Celtics finally prevailed, 125-123, for their first NBA championship.
In only part of a season Russell had added a new element to the Celtics and to professional basketball. For the previous few years, the Celtics had been an unstoppable offensive machine led by 20-point scorers Cousy and Sharman, both future Hall of Famers. But Boston had lacked the rebounding and defense to win it all. Now Russell brought a new level of defensive artistry, intimidating opponents with blocked shots and proving that it didn’t take a scorer to dominate a game.
Energized by their championship, the Celtics won 14 straight games to start the 1957-58 season, and they kept rolling. In his first full season in the NBA, Russell took command and led the league with 22.7 rpg. Early in the season, against the Philadelphia Warriors, he set an NBA record for rebounds in a half by grabbing 32 and wound up with 49 for the contest. Although he was tough and durable, the slender Russell was not a muscleman or a big banger. His rebounding prowess derived from positioning, anticipating where the shot would come off of the rim and moving quickly to the ball. His game was as much analytical and mental as it was physical.
Boston posted the league’s best regular-season record that year, finishing atop the Eastern Division at 49-23. The Celtics then returned to the NBA Finals for a rematch with the Hawks, who had won the West with a 41-31 mark. The teams split the first two games at Boston Garden, but when Russell went down with an ankle injury in Game 3, the Celtics’ fortunes plummeted. With Russell ineffective the rest of the way, St. Louis won that game and two of the next three to take the series.
Russell was voted the NBA Most Valuable Player for 1957-58. Oddly enough, he was only named to the All-NBA Second Team. In fact, during the five years that Russell was voted league MVP, only twice did he make the All-NBA First Team. The argument was that, while other centers were better than Russell — that is, they had more conventional skills — no player meant more to his team.
Russell repeated as the NBA rebounding leader in 1958-59, grabbing 23.0 per game, the first of seven consecutive campaigns in which he averaged at least 23 boards. Russell was also known for extending his effort at critical moments, both within a game and within a season. Consequently, he typically improved his rebounding numbers during the playoffs, and in the 1959 postseason he pulled down 27.7 boards per game.
The Celtics reached the NBA Finals for a third straight season and regained the crown with a four-game sweep of the Minneapolis Lakers. Russell set a Finals record with 29.5 rpg in the series, and he helped launch the greatest championship run in the history of professional sports. Boston’s 1959 title began an unprecedented and unequaled string of eight consecutive NBA championships.
Interestingly, although Russell was not considered a skilled offensive player, he was a selective shooter and in his early years ranked regularly among the NBA’s top five in field-goal percentage. In 1958-59, for example, his .457 mark was second in the league.
Russell’s greatest adversary, Wilt Chamberlain, entered the NBA and joined the Philadelphia Warriors for the 1959-60 season, setting up a decade-long rivalry. The debate over who was the greater player would last even longer. Chamberlain put up incredible numbers during the period in which the two went head to head, but Russell helped the Celtics hang nine NBA championship flags in the Garden in his first 10 seasons.
As Celtics player Don Nelson told the Boston Herald, “There are two types of superstars. One makes himself look good at the expense of the other guys on the floor. But there’s another type who makes the players around him look better than they are, and that’s the type Russell was.”
Chamberlain led the league in scoring (37.6 ppg) in his first season, and he took the rebounding crown from Russell, 27.0 to 24.0 rpg. The Celtics’ center had one monstrous game, however, when he pulled down 51 rebounds against the Syracuse Nationals in the 1959-1960 season. It ranks as the second-best rebounding effort in NBA history, behind Chamberlain’s 55 against the Celtics during the next season.
What became clear, both during the 1959-60 season and over the next several years, was that basketball was a team game. As Russell later wrote: “To me, one of the most beautiful things to see is a group of men coordinating their efforts toward a common goal, alternately subordinating and asserting themselves to achieve real teamwork in action. I tried to do that, we all tried to do that, on the Celtics. I think we succeeded.”
Chamberlain was great, but the Celtics were better. They improved their regular-season record to 59-16 in 1959-60, at one point running off 17 straight victories. They eliminated Chamberlain and the Warriors in the division finals, then met St. Louis again in the 1960 NBA Finals. Russell stepped up his play in the title series, setting an NBA Finals record with 40 rebounds in Game 2 (surpassed by Chamberlain with 41in 1967) . The Hawks extended the series to seven games, but Russell dominated Game 7, contributing 22 points and 35 rebounds as the Celtics won, 122-103, and notched their second consecutive championship.
While Russell was changing the way the NBA viewed defense, the league still appeared to be in an era of runaway offense, with Chamberlain leading the way. Even the defense-oriented Celtics averaged 124.5 points. Russell’s impact on the game can’t really be tracked through NBA statistics. Blocked shots were not an official statistic until 1973-74, and the league only recorded total rebounds, without distinguishing between offensive and defensive boards until that same season.
Russell was revolutionizing the game in ways that were clearly understood, even if they weren’t measured. His ability to leave his man and slide over to cover an opponent driving to the hoop was startling. He was unmatched at swooping across the lane like a big bird to block and alter shots. The rest of the Celtics defenders began to funnel their men toward Russell and become more daring with their perimeter defense, knowing that he was looming behind.
All of this played mind games with opposing shooters near the basket and had a disrupting effect as they began to sense Russell’s imposing presence. Furthermore, other centers started to model their own defensive play after Russell’s, and while they might not have been as skillful at it, it changed the way the game was played. Interestingly, Russell’s style of play also rejuvenated Boston’s offense. Many of the Celtics’ points now came when Russell plucked a defensive rebound and fired an outlet pass to Cousy, who would start Boston’s vaunted and deadly fast break.
The dynasty was beginning to establish itself under Auerbach, and “Boston Celtics” and “NBA champions” became practically synonymous as the decade progressed. The team was multitalented, with many great players, but the enduring image was that of Russell, his head thrust forward from the slight hunch of his shoulders, his eyes scanning the court, his long left arm snaking out to deflect a shot. Boston won the title again in 1960-61, and Russell was named NBA Most Valuable Player, the first of his three consecutive MVP Awards.
The next season, 1961-62, saw Russell register an 18.9 scoring average, his career high. Chamberlain’s individual accomplishments were mind-boggling: he won the scoring title by averaging 50.4 points, while the team-oriented Celtics didn’t place anybody in the top 10. The NBA players, voting for MVP, chose Russell over Chamberlain.
The Celtics added another future Hall of Famer, John Havlicek, in the 1962 NBA Draft and lost Cousy to retirement at the end of the 1962-63 season. In what had become an annual routine, Boston won its fifth consecutive NBA title in 1963, and Russell claimed his third consecutive MVP Award.
The legendary center later called the 1963-64 Celtics team the best of his era. Although it was merely competent on offense, he felt it was the best defensive unit ever. Russell once again led the league in rebounding, with 24.7 rpg, his all-time high. The Celtics, rolling inexorably, topped the San Francisco Warriors in the Finals in five games, taking their sixth consecutive title, something no team in any sport at the major league level had accomplished before.
It was an era of such sustained achievement, for Russell and for the team, that even spectacular accomplishments seemed almost routine. Russell repeated as NBA rebounding leader in 1964-65, collecting 24.1 rpg, including a 49-rebound game against the Detroit Pistons that season. He also ranked fifth in the league in assists with 5.3 per game.
The season’s most dramatic moments came in Game 7 of the Eastern Division finals, when the Celtics led 110-109 with five seconds remaining against Chamberlain and the Philadelphia 76ers. Russell’s inbounds pass hit a wire supporting the basket, giving the Sixers the ball with no time elapsed on the clock. Philadelphia’s Hal Greer inbounded to Chet Walker, but Havlicek stole the ball to seal the victory.
That moment as called by famed Celtics broadcaster Johnny Most is an NBA treasure. In his gravelly voice Most screamed, “Havlicek steals it. Over to Sam Jones. Havlicek stole the ball! It’s all over! Johnny Havlicek stole the ball!”
The NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers was almost anticlimactic, as the Celtics claimed the championship in five games. For his play that season, Russell won his fifth and final NBA Most Valuable Player Award.
Following another NBA championship in 1965-66, Auerbach retired, and Russell took over as player-coach the following season, becoming the first African-American coach in the league. He led Boston to a 60-21 regular-season record, but the Celtics finally had their string of championships snapped when they lost to a powerful Philadelphia 76ers team in the Eastern Division Finals. The Sixers, who went 68-13 in the regular season and is considered one of the league’s best ever, trounced the Celtics in five games to advance to the NBA Finals.
After that one-year hiatus, Boston returned to form in 1967-68, recapturing the championship under Russell’s direction. In the Eastern Division finals, the club came back from a two-game deficit to force a seventh game with Chamberlain and the 76ers. The Celtics were leading 97-95 with 34 seconds left when Russell took over. He sank a foul shot, blocked a shot by Walker, grabbed a rebound off a Greer miss, and fed the ball to Jones, who made the final basket in a 100-96 triumph. Boston then beat Los Angeles in six games in the NBA Finals.
The 1968-69 season was even more gratifying. The aging Celtics barely made it into the playoffs with a 48-34 record, then caught fire in the postseason. In Russell’s third year as player-coach, Boston repeated as NBA champions by defeating the Lakers, who had acquired Chamberlain, in a seven-game battle for the title. The great Celtics leader promptly retired, having guided the team to 11 championships in 13 years. Russell had amassed 21,620 career rebounds, second in NBA history only to Chamberlain’s 23,924.
In 1973, Russell resurfaced as head coach and general manager of the Seattle SuperSonics. He took a team that had won only 26 games the year before and put it on a winning track, notching 36 victories the next season and then compiling a 43-39 record to earn a playoff berth in 1974-75. But Russell became frustrated at the players’ reluctance to embrace his team concept. Some suggested that the problem was Russell himself; he was said to be aloof, moody and unable to accept anything but the Celtics’ tradition. In any event, his enthusiasm for the task waned after his fourth season in 1976-77, and he departed.
Ironically, Lenny Wilkens guided Seattle to a championship two years later, preaching the same team concept that Russell had tried unsuccessfully to instill in his players. A decade after he left Seattle, Russell gave coaching another try, replacing Jerry Reynolds as coach of the Sacramento Kings early in the 1987-88 season. The team staggered to a 17-41 record, and Russell departed in 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 blunt Rick Barry; the duo provided brutally frank commentary on the game. Russell was never comfortable in that setting, though, explaining to the Sacramento Bee, “The most successful television is done in eight-second thoughts, and the things I know about basketball, motivation and people go deeper than that.” He also dabbled with acting, performing in a Seattle Children’s Theatre show and an episode of Miami Vice and he wrote a provocative autobiography, Second Wind.
Russell’s lack of consistent success in other endeavors hasn’t diminished his place in basketball history, and he has had no shortage of post-career honors over the years. In 1970, he was named to the NBA 25th Anniversary All-Time Team. In 1974, Russell was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. In 1980, he was named to the NBA 35th Anniversary All-Time Team. That same year, he was voted Greatest Player in the History of the NBA by the Professional Basketball Writers Association of America.
Although the arrival of Michael Jordan later in the decade may have reopened the debate over who was truly the game’s best player, what remains irrefutable is that Russell radically changed people’s thinking about how basketball games are won.