Bill Russell, the ultimate NBA champion, one of basketball’s greatest players, a consummate teammate and a voice for social justice who was the soul of the Boston Celtics dynasty of the 1950s and ’60s, died on Sunday. He was 88.
On the basketball court, William Felton Russell cared about one thing: winning. And he did whatever necessary to accomplish that, from scoring to rebounding to passing to defending.
Russell won better than anyone. He had 11 championships with the Celtics, including eight consecutive titles. There was not a Finals MVP until 1969. Today, the Finals MVP award is named after him.
“I played a team game and the only important statistic was who won the game,” Russell said in 2014 at the unveiling of his statue at Boston’s City Hall. “So, I would always thank my teammates for letting me help them be champions. There are some things I’m proud of. For instance, I never once led the Celtics in scoring. I heard guys on other teams say, you ought to lead your team in scoring. So I’d look at where their team was.
“When you’re playing a team game, the only important statistic is the final score. Some nights, I’d have four points, but if we won the game it wouldn’t matter.”
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His death was announced on his Twitter account, saying he “passed away peacefully today at age 88, with his wife, Jeannine, by his side.”
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“Bill Russell was the greatest champion in all of team sports,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “The countless accolades that he earned for his storied career with the Boston Celtics – including a record 11 championships and five MVP awards – only begin to tell the story of Bill’s immense impact on our league and broader society.”
Russell’s drive for success is what turned the Celtics into a dynasty from 1957-69. The team had been close for five seasons as point guard Bob Cousy was leading the league in assists and a fast-paced style of play. But it was the addition of Russell that turned them into champions.
At 6-feet-9, thin and agile, Russell made defense and rebounding his focus with the Celtics. When he blocked a shot or got a defensive rebound, he immediately sent a pass out to Cousy to start a break that led to easy buckets. Boston developed and perfected this style because of Russell’s dominance inside.
“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,” Russell wrote when he retired. “I tried to do that, we all tried to do that, on the Celtics. I think we succeeded.”
Russell changed the way teams thought about defending. He could leave his man and pick up a driving offensive player, or he could come across the lane to block shots. He was so good that his Celtics teammates became more aggressive on the outside because they knew they had him in the middle.
“When I started playing, (coach Red Auerbach) said he didn’t know what I was doing because he had never seen anything like that,” Russell told USA TODAY. “I went against everything. I started defense to offense. Everybody else was (the opposite), including him. He saw things I did and, after he understood them, made it part of his system. We were learning from each other.”
Russell averaged 15.1 points and 22.5 rebounds per game for his career. He was remembered for winning most of the head-to-head battles with fellow big man Wilt Chamberlain in the 1960s. While Chamberlain always put up better numbers, Russell’s team usually prevailed. Russell and the Celtics beat Chamberlain’s Philadelphia Warriors in the playoffs in 1960 and 1962, the San Francisco Warriors in the Finals in 1964, the Philadelphia 76ers in the playoffs in 1965, 1966 and 1968 and the Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals in 1969. Chamberlain’s only playoff win against Russell was in 1967 with the 76ers.
When Auerbach retired after the 1966 season, Russell became the first black man to coach an NBA team and to coach in one of the major sports leagues. He coached three seasons, had a record of 162-83 and won two championships.
Russell was one of the few athletes who spoke out against racism during the 1950s and 60s. He and his teammates didn’t play in an exhibition game in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1961 when they were refused service at a local diner. He participated in the March on Washington in August 1963, when Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial. He was a part of the Black Power movement and, alongside other prominent athletes of the time, supported Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be drafted in 1967.
He always had an icy relationship with the city of Boston, calling it a “flea market of racism” after vandals broke into his house in the late 1960s, and he refused to show up for a ceremony when his jersey was retired in 1972. There was a reconciliation in the early 2000s and the city erected a statue to him in 2013 at City Hall Plaza.
Russell is one of four NBA players who has won an NBA championship, an NCAA championship and an Olympic gold medal. He won two college championships at the University of San Francisco (1955 and ’56) and the gold medal in Melbourne, Australia, in 1956.
He was named the NBA’s most valuable player five times and was a 12-time All-Star.
“There are two types of superstars,” Don Nelson, Russell’s teammate on the Celtics once said. “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.”