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Bill Russell

Biography: Bill Russell
Cornerstone of the Boston Celtics' Dynasty

Bill Russell Date of birth: February 12, 1934

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William Felton Russell was born in Monroe, Louisiana, a small agricultural community where his parents were subjected to the constant indignities that were the lot of African Americans in the Deep South at the time. His parents, Charles and Katie Russell, decided they would not raise their children in this environment. They migrated to Oakland, California, where Mr. Russell found work in the shipyards during World War II. Life in Oakland was difficult and the Russells often lived in public housing projects, but their father's refusal to submit to discrimination was a source of pride to Bill Russell and his older brother, Charlie. Their parents encouraged them to work hard and excel. Charlie L. Russell would become a noted playwright, while Bill Russell earned lasting glory on the basketball court.

The game did not come easily to Bill Russell. Although he eventually grew to be more than six feet ten inches tall, he struggled at first to find his footing on the hardwood. He was dropped from his junior high school team, and barely made the junior varsity when he entered McClymonds High School in Oakland. A left-hander, he created a unique, innovative style of defensive play, jumping to block shots in a way that had never been seen before.

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In high school, his team won three state championships, but his unorthodox playing style was not well understood by college scouts. The only school to offer him a basketball scholarship was the University of San Francisco (USF). African American players were still a rarity in college basketball, and the USF team, with Russell as captain, was the first to feature three African Americans in a starting line-up. Crowds on the road, and even at home in San Francisco, were sometimes vocally hostile toward Russell and his teammates. When Russell and the other black players were denied hotel accommodations in Oklahoma City during the 1954 All-College tournament, the white players on the team chose to stay with them in a vacant college dormitory.

Russell refused to let these experiences demoralize him and continually exceeded expectations on the basketball court. While at USF, he also competed in track and field, distinguishing himself in the 400 meters and the high jump. Russell applied these skills to the game of basketball, leading San Francisco to two consecutive national championships in 1955 and 1956. His prodigious defensive playing transformed the college game and made a deep impression on UCLA coach John Wooden, among others. After the 1955 season, the National Collegiate Athletic Association instituted a number of rule changes, known as "Russell's Rules," to adapt to his powerful influence on the game. It was clear that as soon as he graduated, he would be joining the professional National Basketball Association.

Bill Russell Biography Photo
As a college player, Russell had caught the eye of Red Auerbach, the legendary coach of the NBA's Boston Celtics. Auerbach engineered an elaborate series of trades with other teams to secure Russell's contract. While Russell's college coach, Phil Woolpert, had sometimes been skeptical of Russell's novel defensive style, but Auerbach realized that Russell's powerful defense was just what he needed to turn the Celtics from a good team into a great one.

Before Russell could join the Celtics, he had one more tournament to play as an amateur. He led the United States national basketball team in the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia. Russell was so eager to compete in the Olympics, he later told friends, that if he hadn't been on the basketball squad he would have competed in the high jump. Melbourne was another victory for Russell, with the U.S. team defeating the Soviet Union 89 to 55 in the final game.

Bill Russell joined the Celtics with the 1956-57 season already in progress, and soon led the league in average rebounds per game. With Russell on board, the Celtics easily made it to the NBA finals, facing off against the St. Louis Hawks. After six games, the tournament was deadlocked. In the decisive seventh game, Russell made one of the most famous plays in basketball history, the so-called "Coleman Play," bounding with lightning speed from baseline to midcourt to block a shot by Hawks guard Jack Coleman. Russell's teammate, Bob Cousy, remembered it as "the greatest physical act I've ever seen on a basketball floor." The Celtics won the game 125 to 123, securing their first NBA Championship.

Expectations were high for Russell's second season in the NBA. Once again, he led the league in rebounds, and he led the Celtics to the NBA finals for a rematch with the Hawks. In the third game of the series, Russell injured his ankle, removing him from the game, and the Hawks prevailed. It was the only season in which Russell played for coach Red Auerbach that the Celtics failed to take the national championship. Nevertheless, Russell was named the league's Most Valuable Player.

Bill Russell Biography Photo
By the following autumn, Russell was fully recovered and playing better than ever. For the next seven seasons he never averaged fewer than 23 rebounds per game. The Celtics also broke a league record by winning 52 games in the 1958-59 season. The Celtics easily regained the national title in a decisive rout of the Minneapolis Lakers. Russell's uncanny ability to anticipate each player's moves --and even the direction the ball would tip from the rim of the hoop -- completely intimidated his opponents.

The 1959-60 season was the first in the most famous rivalry in the history of professional basketball. The Philadelphia Warriors had acquired the seven-foot-plus Wilt Chamberlain, a player who towered over even Bill Russell and boasted offensive skills as formidable as Russell's defense. Chamberlain personally outscored Russell by 81 points in the Eastern Division finals, but Russell's incomparable sense of strategy and teamwork led to a four-to-two series win for the Celtics. The Celtics faced their old rivals the St. Louis Hawks again in the year's finals, where Russell's Celtics prevailed in a close-fought seven-game contest. Russell's awesome rebounding ability came to the fore in this series; only Chamberlain would ever better his performance in that category.

The following season was another romp for Russell and the Celtics. As if on schedule, they defeated the Syracuse Nationals in the Eastern Division and beat the Hawks four games to one in the 1961 NBA finals. Russell received his second Most Valuable Player award. The next season saw Russell reach his peak in scoring. The Celtics broke their own record, winning 60 games, and Russell was voted Most Valuable Player for a third time. In the finals, the Celtics again defeated the Lakers, who had moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. Russell demonstrated a unique capacity to thrive under maximum pressure, scoring 30 points in the decisive seventh game to secure the Celtics another championship.

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In 1962-63 Russell was named Most Valuable Player in the NBA for the fourth time, and also won Most Valuable Player honors in the All-Star game. The Celtics faced the Los Angeles Lakers in the finals, and fought each other to a draw in the first six games. In a double-overtime seventh game, Russell scored 30 points and made 40 rebounds to retain the championship for the Celtics.

As a highly visible public figure in the years when the country was emerging from a century of legally sanctioned discrimination, Russell threw his prestige behind the emergent Civil Rights Movement, participating with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the historic 1963 March on Washington. Russell's years of living in Boston were not easy ones. At the height of the Celtics' success there were many empty seats in the Boston Garden, while less successful teams in other cities played to full arenas. When Russell bought a fine home for his family in a historically white neighborhood, he received threats and insults. On one occasion, vandals broke into his home and splattered the walls with filth and graffiti. Unbowed, Russell focused his energies on his game, and enjoyed excellent relations with his teammates and other NBA players.

Bill Russell Biography Photo
By 1964, Russell's on-court nemesis -- and off-court friend -- Wilt Chamberlain had moved to San Francisco with the Philadelphia Warriors and faced Russell's Celtics in the 1964 NBA finals. The Celtics scored a sixth consecutive victory, establishing a winning streak unmatched by any professional sports team in U.S. history. Russell had his best season ever for rebounds; his 24.7 per game average even exceeded Chamberlain's that season.

The following season found Russell and the Celtics breaking records again, with 62 victories in one season. Russell led the league in rebounds and was voted Most Valuable Player for the fifth time. He found himself facing Chamberlain again in the Eastern Division finals, as Chamberlain had returned to Philadelphia to play for the 76ers. Russell suppressed Chamberlain's devastating offense, and enabled his team to prevail in a seven-game playoff series. By comparison, the NBA finals were relatively easy that year, with the Celtics besting the L.A. Lakers in four games out of five. In the 1965-66 season Russell prevailed more easily over Chamberlain and the 76ers in four games out of five, but faced stiffer competition from the Lakers in the finals, dispatching them after a closely fought seven-game series.

Bill Russell Biography Photo
The Celtics had set the record of eight consecutive national championships. No other team in any sport has ever come close to this record. Russell's awesome rebounding performance had finally begun to slip however, and the team faced an even greater challenge with the retirement of their coach, Red Auerbach. Russell had never played for another coach in professional basketball, and Auerbach so respected Russell's importance to the team that he promised to name no successor without Russell's approval.

Unable to agree on any other choice, Auerbach suggested that Russell assume the role of coach himself, while continuing to play on the team. As Auerbach had never employed an assistant, Russell resolved that he too would serve without an assistant. The move was a bold one, not only because Russell had agreed to serve simultaneously as player and coach, but because no African American had ever coached a major league sports team in the United States.

Russell realized that serving as coach of the Boston team would be an opportunity to show what he could accomplish in a leadership position. The transition to coach was not an easy one. In the 1966-67 season, the Philadelphia 76ers, led by Wilt Chamberlain, finally broke the Celtics' winning streak, defeating Russell's team in the Eastern Division playoffs.

Bill Russell Biography Photo
In 1967, Russell's fellow athlete, heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali requested a deferment from the military draft, asserting that service in the Vietnam War would conflict with his Muslim religious beliefs. When the Selective Service denied his request, Ali refused to serve and was stripped of his championship title. While many athletes and celebrities rushed to disassociate themselves from the controversial boxer, Russell vocally defended Ali's devotion to his beliefs. His defense of Ali did not endear Russell to the largely white Celtics following in Boston, but he remained steadfast in defense of his own principles.

Though his powers as a player were finally waning, Russell threw himself into the task of coaching his team, and resolved to prevail in the 1967-68 season. Once again, the Celtics faced the 76ers in the Eastern Division playoffs, and the 76ers took three out of the first four games. Russell inspired his team to win two more games, tying the series. Again he led his team into a decisive seventh match, and once more, Russell rose to the occasion, successfully holding Chamberlain at bay. In the final moments of the game, he regained control of the ball, passing it to a teammate for the winning basket. Having clinched the division title, Russell led his team to a tenth championship, once again besting the L.A. Lakers in four out of six games. The sporting world stood in justified awe of the aging champion, and Sports Illustrated named him "Sportsman of the Year."

Bill Russell Biography Photo
Bill Russell Biography Photo

The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the spring of 1968 was a traumatic event in America's national life. Many African Americans felt alienated from their country after the violent death of a leader who had always preached non-violence. Russell aligned himself with those who asserted the rights of African Americans to defend themselves against racist violence, and he was scourged in some quarters for these views, but he remained dedicated to both his career as an athlete and his convictions as a man.

Bill Russell Biography Photo
Bill Russell played his last season in 1968-69. The rest of the Celtics line-up had aged along with him, and the whole team appeared played out through much of the regular season. Fourth-ranked as they entered the playoffs, Russell's fighting sprit ignited the whole team as one by one they bested more promising teams and headed for the finals again. This time, the Celtics faced the most formidable opposition of all, the strongest team in the Western Division, the Los Angeles Lakers, augmented by the addition of the most dangerous offensive player in the league, Wilt Chamberlain. The Celtics matched the Lakers game for game until the tournament was tied at three to three. In the dramatic seventh game, an injured Chamberlain left the floor and Bill Russell's Celtics won their eleventh national championship. Although he was 35 years old, Russell played like a far younger man in this, his final game as a professional player.

Russell retired from the Celtics after the 1969 finals. He had succeeded in everything he had ever hoped to achieve in Boston, but had never felt welcome there. On retirement, he left the city behind. In his absence, the Celtics failed to reach the playoffs for the first time in 20 years. In 1972, Russell's jersey, Number 6, was officially retired by the Celtics. Just three years later, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He declined to attend either ceremony, apparently still stung by his experiences in Boston.

From 1973 to 1977, Russell served as coach of the Seattle Supersonics, taking the team to the playoffs for the first time. Although he never found the success in Seattle he had enjoyed in Boston, the team's eventual success under coach Lenny Wilkens showed the soundness of Russell's defense-oriented strategy. Russell also lent his expertise to broadcast coverage of the NBA as a color commentator, and coached the Sacramento Kings from 1987 to 1988.

Bill Russell Biography Photo
He has written a number of bestselling books, collaborating with the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch on an outspoken memoir, Second Wind (1979). More recently, he collected his thoughts on basketball, life and leadership in the book Russell Rules (2002). In recent years, he has become very much the elder statesman of the game, brokering a truce between feuding superstars Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. In 2006, the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame was founded, and honored Bill Russell in its inaugural class. He was one of only five to be so honored, along with UCLA coach John Wooden.

Of all his accomplishments, Bill Russell may be proudest of his achievements as the father of three children, including the noted attorney and television commentator Karen Russell. The years have healed many of the wounds of Russell's difficult tenure in Boston; his achievement as a trailblazer for was recognized with the NBA's first Civil Rights Award. In 2006, Bill Russell participated in the groundbreaking ceremony for the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, D.C., an overdue tribute to his old friend and comrade.

Bill Russell Biography Photo
As race relations in the city of Boston have improved, Russell's hard feelings towards the city have softened. In 1995 the Celtics celebrated the opening of their new home, the Fleet Center, with a ceremony "re-retiring" Bill Russell's jersey. Surprising many, Russell attended the ceremony, along with Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The sellout crowd gave Russell a prolonged standing ovation, an overdue moment of reconciliation between the old champion and the city of his greatest triumphs. Russell has since returned to Boston many times; in 2008 the city presented him with him one of its We Are Boston Leadership Awards and Russell gratefully acknowledged that the city had truly changed for the better. Russell shared a highly positive view of his years with the Celtics in a 2009 memoir of the late Red Auerbach, Red and Me: My Coach, My Lifelong Friend.

On numerous occasions over the years, Bill Russell has been called on by both the National Basketball Association and the U.S. State Department to represent his profession and his country abroad. As early as 1959, he was the first NBA player to visit Africa. Twenty years later, he made his first trip to China. He has now led basketball clinics in more than 50 countries on six continents, deploying his lifetime of experience to build bridges across the barriers that divide humanity. In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Bill Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

This page last revised on Feb 23, 2011 18:29 EDT