Bill Russell named SportsCentury athlete No. 18

Russell was proud, fierce warrior
By Ron Flatter
Special to

They were pro basketball's most dominant team. Never mind "three-peats." The Boston Celtics of the 1950's and '60s pulled off an "eight-peat."

The Celtics had Cousy and Sharman and Havlicek. They had the Joneses -- K.C. and Sam. But only one star was there for all 11 titles from 1957 to 1969.

Bill Russell -- the prototypical defensive center -- was a champion from his rookie season until his last game in his last championship series. Before he arrived, the Celtics had never won a National Basketball Association title.

Five times the 6-foot-9 1/2 Russell was voted MVP. Four times he was the league's leading rebounder. He played in every All-Star Game after his rookie year. His 21,620 rebounds (22.5 per game) are second all-time to Wilt Chamberlain's 23,924 (22.9 average).

Relying on his left-handed hook, Russell averaged 15.1 points per game in 963 regular-season games. He probably would have led the league in blocked shots several years, but that stat wasn't kept then.

He was complex, introspective, enigmatic, principled, aloof. His refusal to sign autographs was legendary.

"You owe the public the same thing it owes you," he said. "Nothing."

When Russell was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1975, he did not attend for "personal reasons." Speculation has been that he was unhappy that no other African-American players had been elected previously.

He also shunned the retiring of his No. 6 at Boston Garden in 1972. Still, the public respected that he was a champion, the very quality that remains the first thing his proponents mention in arguments over who was better, Russell or Chamberlain.

The rivalry between the two centers defined basketball in the '60s. Chamberlain won the scoring titles; Russell simply won.

Russell was the consummate team player, the one who authoritatively blocked shots to teammates or fired the precision outlet pass. He was the last ingredient the Celtics needed to perfect what became their trademark -- fast-break basketball.

He never finished higher than 15th in the league in point production. But Russell was not about scoring; he was about winning.

"Shooting," he said, "is of relatively little importance in a player's overall game."

He was born on Feb. 12, 1934, in Monroe, La. His family moved to Oakland during World War II, when the 9-year-old Russell started playing basketball.

Russell didn't become a starter at McClymonds High School until he was a senior. After graduating in 1952, he tried out for the University of San Francisco team. Though coach Phil Woolpert was not overwhelmed, he still gave Russell a scholarship.

Woolpert would become impressed. Russell led the Dons to 55 consecutive victories and back-to-back national championships. In 1955, he was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four after grabbing 25 rebounds to key San Francisco's 77-63 victory over La Salle in the final. In 1956, his second straight All-American season, Russell scored 26 points in the Dons' 83-71 title victory over Iowa.

To acquire Russell, the Celtics' Red Auerbach traded Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan to the St. Louis Hawks, who had selected Russell with the No. 2 pick in the draft. Then Boston had to wait until Russell was finished leading the United States to a gold medal in the 1956 Olympics, which ran until December in Melbourne. Once he returned home, Russell signed a one-year, $19,500 contract with Boston.

Russell established his rebounding prowess right away, averaging 19.6 per game, and helped the Celtics win their first NBA title.

That championship might have been the first of 10 in a row for Boston if Russell, the 1957-58 MVP, had not sprained his ankle in Game 3 of the 1958 Finals. When the Hawks won the title in six games, it marked the last time someone other than Boston would win the championship until 1967.

The rivalry with Chamberlain began Nov. 7, 1959, at Boston Garden. Chamberlain outscored Russell 30-22, Russell outrebounded Chamberlain 35-28, and the Celtics beat the Philadelphia Warriors 115-106.

Against Russell, Chamberlain won the battles, becoming the first to win MVP and Rookie of the Year honors the same season. But Russell and the Celtics won the first of eight consecutive championship wars.

Russell set an NBA record with 51 rebounds against the Syracuse Nationals on Feb. 5, 1960, a record Chamberlain broke with 55 against Boston nine months later. Russell won his second MVP award in 1960-61. And, of course, there were more championships.

The road to the 1961-62 title began in rocky style during the exhibition season when the Celtics' African-American players were denied admission to an Indiana bar and Kentucky hotel coffee shop. So Russell, K.C. Jones, Sam Jones and Satch Sanders -- all African-Americans -- boycotted a game in Lexington.

Although Russell never considered himself a role model for African-Americans, he didn't back away from speaking about racial issues. "The basic problem in Negro America," he said in the early '60s, "is the destruction of race pride. One could say we have been victims of psychological warfare, in a sense, in that this is a white country, and all the emphasis is on being white."


Over the next two regular seasons, Chamberlain overshadowed Russell, scoring 100 points one night and leading the league in scoring and rebounding both years. But Russell kept winning titles, and he was voted his third and fourth MVP awards in 1962 and 1963.

The Celtics literally had a changing of the guard in the early '60s. Sharman retired in 1961 and Cousy in 1963, K.C. Jones and Sam Jones moved in, and John Havlicek became the team's leading scorer in only his second season (1963-64). Russell was the glue. Together, they overcame Chamberlain's San Francisco Warriors in the Finals.

In 1964-65, Russell won his fifth MVP award and another title. A year later, en route to a seven-game victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1966 Finals, Auerbach announced he was handing the team to Russell, who would serve as player-coach.

Russell became the first African-American head coach in the post-Depression era of any major American sport. But in his first season at the helm, the Celtics' eight-year title streak ended with a five-game loss in the Eastern finals to Chamberlain and the 76ers, who went on to win the championship.

Boston rebounded in 1967-68, beating the Lakers in the Finals, but Russell's on-court productivity slipped somewhat (career-low 18.6 rebounding average and 12.5 points). In 1968-69, Russell was third in the league in rebounding (19.3) at age 35, but averaged a career-low 9.9 points. But Boston, which finished fourth in the East, pulled off three upsets in the playoffs for Russell's last hurrah.

Two months after that 11th championship, Russell retired as both player and coach. At career's end, Russell was outscored by Chamberlain by an average of 29-15 and outrebounded 29-24. But he beat Wilt's teams 86 times and lost 57. When they were playing simultaneously, Russell won nine championships to Chamberlain's one.

Russell took two more coaching jobs. He led the Seattle SuperSonics to their first-ever playoff berths, leaving in 1977 with a four-year record of 162-166. Other than his work as a TV commentator, Russell was out of the game 10 years when he resurfaced with the Sacramento Kings. A disastrous 17-41 record led to his exit from the bench. He went to the front office and was fired in late 1990.

The lasting memory of Russell, though, is what he did performing for the Celtics.

"I played because I enjoyed it," he said, "but there's more to it than that. I played because I was dedicated to being the best. I was part of a team, and I dedicated myself to making that team the best."