NBA 75th Anniversary Season

Archive 75: Bill Russell

With 11 NBA championships and 5 MVP awards, Bill Russell established himself as one of the towering figures in the history of American pro sports.

Bill Russell lord of rings

It has never been easy to quantify Bill Russell’s impact on the game. With limited box scores from the 1950s and 60s, the statistics will never tell the full story. His scoring and rebounding numbers are impressive for that era, but they are all we have. We have no clue on blocks or other defensive stats, leaving us with only anecdotal evidence that is at times hard to fathom. The estimates don’t seem real. To speak of Russell in statistical terms, then and now, has never done him justice.

The style of the game upon his arrival in 1956 was simplistic and primitive: Score more points than the other team and you will leave as the victor. Then Russell flipped the script with a focus on defense instead of offense — determined to stop any scorer who dared to challenge him. He swam upstream in every way — there’s never been his equal as a player, a winner, and a fighter for civil rights in the 75-year history of the NBA.

Those dissatisfied there isn’t a single individual stat to best capture his domination should understand the only number that mattered to him resides in plain sight: 11. The number of championships he won during his 13-year career. As for his individual greatness, there was one man before all others who understood it first, who appreciated it most. That man was Red Auerbach.

Together, for the next decade, the two would create history.

How many players consider the eyesight of their opponent? How many decipher what their opponent can see and then react accordingly? Who builds their game around not size nor athleticism, but psychology and intimidation? If this doesn’t make sense, then listen to Bill Russell prove he’s a certifiable basketball genius as he explains his unique, one-of-a-kind approach to defense.

What’s fascinating about Russell is his understanding of the secondary game — the game that resides beyond the scoreboard — was immense. It was the contest played between the ears: The mental game. He believed in cause-and-effect basketball; blocking an opponent’s shot would not only alter that attempt but the subsequent ones, too. It could render that opponent useless for a half, the rest of the game — even the remainder of a playoff series. Russell knew it, understood its power, and used it as his principal motivation.

Bill Russell

Here, Russell describes the psychological impact his mere presence on the floor created.

Picasso teaching modern art. Einstein teaching the theory of relativity. Russell teaching rebounding and blocked shots. With Auerbach’s help, here Russell breaks down the basics of the two elements of basketball he mastered.

So far, we have heard Russell explain the way he played — now, we get to see it. Game 6 of the 1963 NBA Finals — Celtics at Lakers. The spoiler is this: Russell plays all 48 minutes, scores 12 points, grabs 24 rebounds and dishes nine assists. But remember, the numbers don’t fully capture him. He plays fantastic, of course, and Boston claims its fifth consecutive title. But the fun isn’t in just watching Russell fill up a box score — it’s in observing his understated brilliance every moment on the court. When Russell blocks a shot — and this video has seven of them — he does so with control. With his back to the basket and ball in hand, his instinct is to not seek and destroy. Instead, he looks first for his teammates as they move around him, serving as the epicenter of the Celtics’ universe. When the Lakers have the ball, they see him lurking. They can make a play, sure, but it comes with the risk Russell will disrupt it before it begins.

Russell’s mission as a player was simple: win every game of every year. And while that approach produced results that will never be equalled in any professional sport, what’s even more remarkable is that Russell knew it was possible. He believed he could dictate the outcome of any contest by sheer force of his will. More often than not, he did exactly that.

Russell with Red Aurebach and Bob Cousy

It might seem easy to guess the accomplishments that mean most to him — perhaps his first title, perhaps his last — but there are moments that may surprise us. Take the 1963 NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles. Russell was named Most Valuable Player and the East won. But it was the presence of his father, and a comment he made the day prior, that sparked Russell’s MVP performance. In a game featuring the best players in the world, Bill Russell made the decision to be superior.

When Russell spoke, people listened. By any demographic — athlete, celebrity, politician — he resided in a class occupied by few. He was measured, dignified, and offered perspective. Whether it be as a player or coach, whether the topic was his team or society, he was a deep thinker. The breadth of Russell’s knowledge is on full display in this compilation of interviews with him during the 1960s.

Russell’s words never carried greater weight than when discussing civil rights in America. His career took place during a tumultuous period in the country, and Russell’s approach to remedying the inequality sprouted from a simple lesson his mother taught him as a young boy: Always stand up for yourself. He spoke with the power of first-hand experience, with depth of opinion, with genuine thoughtfulness. A fierce believer in the rights and dignities for all, Russell was not merely a champion of the sport he played, but of civil rights, too. It’s a legacy that stands tall amongst a lifetime of achievements and it culminated in his accepting of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.

Russell rose to his best when the battle was brought to him. And nobody brought it with greater force than Wilt Chamberlain. Arguably the greatest player rivalry in NBA history can be described simply like this: The greatest offensive player against the greatest defensive player. Does sport get more theatrical than that? That these immortals played the same position, in the same era, with such frequency — a staggering 142 times from 1959-69 — says something about the existence of destiny.

While their approaches to the game differed greatly, it only made their duels more captivating. Chamberlain’s overwhelming physicality and unfathomable records; Russell’s subtle movements and determination to raise the level of his teammates. These were battles, literally, for the ages.

In 1997, with the league celebrating its 50th anniversary, Russell and Chamberlain once again were side-by-side. As usual, the results were riveting.

During the 1961-62 season, Chamberlain averaged 50 points per game and Oscar Robertson averaged what was later termed a triple-double. Yet the playing fraternity, at the time enlisted as voters of the league Most Valuable Player award, overwhelmingly placed Russell at the top of the heap by a margin that was not particularly close. And it proved justified, too: Russell ultimately led Boston to another championship, and in the deciding Game 7 against the Lakers he played perhaps his greatest game – 30 points and 40 rebounds. Please take a moment to digest those digits.

What did the greatest basketball player in the world look like in 1962? As introduced by Johnny Most, here’s Russell showing off some of his rebounding and dunking skills.

The position of underdog was unfamiliar to Russell and his Celtics. Despite winning 10 titles in his first 12 seasons, Boston found itself in that position in 1969, Russell’s third season as a player-coach. After claiming the fourth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Division, it didn’t appear another title run was possible. Yet the Celtics, on guile and experience, somehow navigated their way to another championship series. Awaiting them, the Los Angeles Lakers, led by Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, and, dramatically, the newly-acquired Chamberlain. On the surface, it seemed unfair; finally, a chance for the Lakers to reverse a decade of torment. Boston throughout the series seemed a step behind, quickly falling down 0-2, needing a miracle from Sam Jones to avoid a 3-1 hole, and finally forcing Game 7 in Los Angeles. If the Celtics were to lose, if this indeed was the end for Russell, at least it would all end with dignity.

Bill Russell’s last game was played May 5, 1969. Fittingly, the outcome of the game would determine the season’s champion, a scenario Russell had played his greatest games under. When asked to describe his idea of a winner, Russell once said, “To be able to function in the games that are important. There’s a certain amount of tension in big games, and everybody feels it. For some players it makes them better, for some players that’s debilitating. I was lucky that the things I did — tension was helpful.”

After 13 seasons, he had not overstayed his welcome, nor left too soon. He played just long enough to leave on top, on his terms, when still capable of providing one last example of the Celtic mystique. The last act from the greatest winner in professional sports history was to raise the level of those around him. As a unit, Boston was once again crowned champions. For Russell, he expected no other outcome.

More on Bill Russell

+ 75th Anniversary Team player page

+ 75 Stories: Bill Russell