*Bill Russell was a man of epic proportions. However, the measurements by which his individual attributes are tallied fail to capture the totality of this humanist, activist and sportsman.
Born in West Monroe, Louisiana on February 12, 1934, to Charles and Katie Russell, Bill’s family lived in a highly segregated social environment, much like most Americans of African descent at the time.
The racist incidents suffered by his mother and father when he was a child are well-documented. During the Second World War vast numbers of Black folk migrated to major cities in the north, the Midwest and the west coast–which is where the Russell family eventually settled in Oakland, California. Young Bill was 8 years old at the time.
He would suffer a great loss early in life when his mother died suddenly when he was 12. He would later state that his father, a man he described as a “stern, had man,” as his first childhood hero, followed by pioneering Minneapolis Lakers center George Mikan-the inventor of the hook shot.
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He Wasn’t a “Natural” at Basketball
Bill Russell’s angular dimensions, long limbs and quick reaction ability are the stuff of Hall of Fame basketball lore today. But a lack of understanding of the game and poor fundamentals caused him to be cut from his junior high school team and, if not for high school coach George Powles seeing his potential, and a handy growth spurt, he may not have played high school basketball at all.
Even after accepting a scholarship to play for the University of San Francisco men’s basketball team, Bill still had to prove himself. A recruiter once described his fundamentals as “atrocious.”
With work ethic such as his, it wasn’t long before Bill Russell’s shot-blocking ability and man-to-man defense helped make The Don’s two-time NCAA men’s basketball champions in 1955 and 1956. (The Dons haven’t made the Sweet 16 since 1979 and in 2022 advanced to the tournament for the first time in 24 years.) Russell would earn NCAA Tournament Outstanding Player honors and was a two-time consensus first team All-American.
He was so utterly dominant on the defensive end that the NCAA would widen the lane during his junior year and a rule was instituted to prohibit basket interference-the act of touching the ball while it is still on the rim.
Also, while at USF, Russell and teammate K.C. Jones brought the alley-opp off the blacktop and into college basketball.
Bill Russell was drafted by the Boston Celtics in the first round with the second overall pick of the 1956 draft. He would average 14.7 points and 19.6 rebounds per game as a rookie.
His NBA resume is impeccable.
- An 11-time NBA champion as a player (including eight straight from 1959 to 1966.
- Two-time NBA champion as a coach.
- 4-time rebounding champ
- 5-time League MVP
- 12-time All-Star
- One of only two players to grab over 50 rebounds in a game in NBA history. (Wilt Chamberlain is the other.)
- The first black coach in the NBA and the first black coach to win a championship
The First Athlete Activist
Though the world would learn to love Bill Russell as the championship-winning athlete, many would bristle at his activism. On many occasions, Russell would recount racial abuse that occurred to him and his family.
From the institutional and interpersonal racism visited upon his parents when he was a child to the racial jeers of white students visited upon he and fellow black players while at USF, to issues with segregated hotels while traveling for away games with the Celtics, Russell’s acclaim as an athlete did little soothe the sting of bigotry.
In 1961, Russell joined players Sam Jones and Satch Sanders were refused service at a coffee shop. They then told Bill Russell, and the three decided to leave Kentucky in protest.
Said Bill upon arrival “Negroes are in a fight for their rights – a fight for survival in a changing world… I am with these Negroes.”
In 1967, Bill Russell attended the Cleveland Summit, organized by Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali, and attended by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, John Wooten, Walter Beach, Jim Shorter, Willie Davis and Carl Stokes.
Often described as surly and standoffish toward fans and media, Bill Russell was described as militant by the standards of his day. He was even derisively referred to as Felton X by some.
“I dislike most white people because they are people … I like most blacks because I am black.” Russell was quoted in “The Rivalry: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and the Golden Age of Basketball” as saying: “I consider this a deficiency in myself—maybe. If I looked at it objectively, detached myself, it would be a deficiency.”
He would later state that he had been misquoted. However, that did little to change public perception.
Russell described the Boston press as corrupt and racist after retiring. Additionally, the FBI maintained a file on Brother Bill, describing him as “an arrogant Negro who won’t sign autographs for white children”
Russell’s image softened considerably as he aged. In 2011, Bill Russell was bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.
From fiery and athletic competitor and outspoken Black man to kindly elder statesman and wise old sage, the trajectory of Bill Russell’s life is one that we all can admire, reflect on and aspire toward.
He was perhaps the Greatest Winner in the history of team sports.
Bill Russell died July 31, 2022 on Mercer Island, Washington.