Russell, William Felton ("Bill")
RUSSELL, William Felton ("Bill")
(b. 12 February 1934 in Monroe, Louisiana), basketball player whose two NCAA titles, Olympic gold medal, and eleven National Basketball Association (NBA) championships qualify him as one of the greatest winners in American team sports history.
Russell is one of two sons of Charles Russell, a factory worker, and Katie Russell, a homemaker. The three most important influences on young Russell—his father "Mister Charlie," his mother Katie, and his grandfather, whom he knew as "the Old Man"—embodied strength and independence. In different ways each preserved an essential dignity despite living among the racial codes of Jim Crow Louisiana. When Russell was nine, his father left his factory job and moved his family to Oakland, California, for the opportunities in industry spurred by American involvement in World War II. Three years later Katie died unexpectedly. Shy and gangly, Russell retreated into books. He was a better student than athlete, and his basketball career at McClymonds High was thoroughly unremarkable. He barely made the team as a sophomore, and as a senior he did not even merit an honorable mention for all-league honors in a league with only six teams.
Fortune kissed him, however, in January 1952. He graduated from high school in the middle of the traditional scholastic year and joined the California All-Stars, a barnstorming squad of recent graduates. During their one-month tour through the Pacific Northwest, Russell's game blossomed. His team challenged basketball orthodoxy, which dictated that players should not leave their feet on offense or defense. The All-Stars took jump shots and leaped to block shots. This style, seen mostly on urban playgrounds, suited Russell's height, speed, and jumping ability. He also began approaching basketball as a scholarly endeavor, studying his teammates' moves. He developed so rapidly that he won a scholarship to the University of San Francisco for the next fall.
When Russell enrolled in 1952 the University of San Francisco was a small Jesuit school without its own basketball gymnasium. Under the tutelage of his freshman coach Ross Guidice and his teammate K. C. Jones, Russell learned not only basketball fundamentals but also strategies for defensive positioning and offensive ball movement. Russell excelled defensively, blocking shots and grabbing rebounds, and he attracted national attention his sophomore year. During his junior year he and Jones led "the homeless Dons" to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship, losing only one game. In Russell's senior year, 1955–1956, they went undefeated and again won the national title. Over these two seasons the team's record was 57–1.
The Boston Celtics selected Russell with the first pick in the National Basketball Association (NBA) draft in 1956. Before he joined them, Russell played in the Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia. He led the United States to an undefeated record and the gold medal. Upon his return, he married Rose Swisier, with whom he would have three children. Russell then joined the Celtics two months into the season. Led by the master coach Red Auerbach, the Celtics featured such steady players as Frank Ramsey, Bill Sharman, Tom Heinsohn, and the extraordinary point guard Bob Cousy. Russell was the missing piece. His defense and rebounding proved crucial, especially in the playoffs. They beat the St. Louis Hawks in a deciding game seven in double overtime. In thirteen months Russell had won an NCAA championship, an Olympic gold medal, and an NBA title.
Winning defined the Celtics during Russell's tenure. In 1958 they reached the NBA finals again only to lose in six games to St. Louis after Russell sprained his ankle in game three and could not return. The next year the Celtics began a streak of eight consecutive NBA championships. Auerbach built a dynasty of self-motivated players who understood their roles. During Russell's thirteen-year career the Celtics made only one trade, and most of the key components, including Russell, Ramsey, Heinsohn, Sam Jones, K. C. Jones, and John Havlicek, played their entire careers for the franchise. The Celtics were also noteworthy for their interracial cooperation. The team rarely discussed race, but they exemplified the integrationist spirit of the early civil rights movement through their mutual professional and personal respect.
By the early 1960s Russell had presided over the African-American revolution in professional basketball, a change based on speed, athleticism, and spectacular performance. Although he had a fine array of offensive moves, Russell's hallmark was defense. Auerbach said in 1963, "Russell has had the biggest impact on the game of anyone in the last 10 years because he has instituted a new defensive weapon—that of the blocked shot.… He is by far the greatest center ever to play the game." The six-foot, ten-inch center had astounding leaping ability, a studied penchant for positioning, and the faculty to block shots toward his teammates, who would then key the Celtics' trademark fast break. He was also a master of psychology, using intimidation to plant doubt in opposing shooters. Especially after Cousy's 1963 retirement, the Celtics oriented themselves around a Russell-led defense.
Russell maintained his intellectual passion throughout his career, and reporters frequently called upon him to make sense of the civil rights era. Many in the media liked to pigeonhole blacks with ideological labels, but Russell resisted simplistic characterizations. As he espoused the results of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s nonviolent protest, he challenged whites to understand the motivations of the Nation of Islam. He also traveled to Africa on a U.S. State Department trip and bought a rubber plantation in Liberia. It is a measure of Russell's status that, during the height of the delicate liberal consensus in the early 1960s, a Sports Illustrated reporter wrote that Russell "does not want the white man's sympathy or, indeed, his friendship. What he wants is recognition and acceptance as an individual, a black individual."
Because he refused to act conventionally or to speak in clichés, Russell also became a magnet for controversy. "I owe the public nothing," he told the Saturday Evening Post. He thought the practice of signing autographs was asinine, and in time he refused to sign them. He avoided false modesty or smiles. He spoke openly on taboo subjects, publicly complaining when he thought he deserved an award or believed the NBA had an unofficial quota for white players. His race magnified the animosity toward him. At a time when most black athletes mouthed colorblind platitudes, Russell conducted a basketball clinic in Mississippi shortly after the 1964 murder of Medgar Evers, defended Muhammad Ali's 1967 decision to avoid service in the Vietnam War, named his daughter after the Kenyan leader Jomo Kenyatta, wore a menacing goatee mustache, and dressed in lace-front shirts and long black capes.
In 1966 Russell broke an important barrier, becoming the first African American to coach a major professional sport. As a player-coach he replaced Auerbach, who moved on to the front office. Some feared that Russell's first season as coach signaled the demise of the Celtics dynasty. During that first season the Celtics lost the Eastern Conference finals in five games to the Philadelphia 76ers and Russell's great rival Wilt Chamberlain. Over the years reporters had made much of the contrast between Chamberlain's statistical superiority and Russell's championships. On this occasion, however, Chamberlain bested Russell and ultimately captured the NBA crown.
But Russell's dynasty continued. In the 1968 conference finals, the Celtics overcame a 3–1 deficit and downed Chamberlain's 76ers. The Celtics then won another title. In 1968–1969, after a fourth-place regular season finish, the Celtics pulled together for one final rally. They marched through the playoffs and in the finals met the heavily favored Los Angeles Lakers starring Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, and their new weapon, Chamberlain. This was a different Russell-Chamberlain rivalry. The Celtics leader was tired, aging, and privately certain he would retire, while Chamberlain no longer shouldered the entire scoring burden as in his Philadelphia days. They played to a game seven in Los Angeles. Solidifying their legacies, Chamberlain took himself out of the game with less than six minutes left due to an injury, and his coach refused to put him back in. Russell led the Celtics to another championship.
Russell retired with five Most Valuable Player (MVP) awards and eleven titles in thirteen seasons. He moved to Los Angeles for a short-lived career as a movie actor and talk show host before returning to basketball as a television announcer. In 1973 he became coach and general manager of the Seattle Supersonics and oversaw a revamping of a franchise that won the NBA championship two years after his departure. His second return to coaching, with the Sacramento Kings during the 1987–1988 season, was largely a failure. He had separated from Rose in 1969, and after a brief marriage to a former Miss USA, he married longtime friend Marilyn Nault in 1995. Without apologizing for his iconoclasm, he became more comfortable in his role as a basketball legend.
Russell's legacy is twofold. First, he deserves to be known as American team sports' consummate winner. His record lies not in individual statistics or awards but in championship rings. An appropriate measure of his achievement is that fourteen times Russell's season came down to one winner-take-all game, and fourteen times Russell's team prevailed. Second, Russell's leadership offers added significance because he was black. His was an un-apologetic intellectual voice that challenged racial assumptions during a time of rapid social change. "Let them inscribe on my tombstone that I was not just an athlete, or a rich man, or a Negro," he wrote in 1966. "Let it be said simply: Russell. A man."
Russell wrote two autobiographies. Go Up for Glory (1966) with William McSweeney is a fine and unconventional memoir, and Second Wind (1979) with Taylor Branch is among the best works in its genre. Russell published a treatise on leadership with David Falkner, Russell Rules (2001). He also co-wrote articles, including with Bob Ottum, "The Psyche … and My Other Tricks," Sports Illustrated (25 Oct. 1965); and with Tex Maule, "I Am Not Worried About Ali," Sports Illustrated (19 June 1967). The best profiles of Russell are Gilbert Rogin, "We Are Grown Men Playing a Child's Game," Sports Illustrated (18 Nov. 1963); Edward Linn, "I Owe the Public Nothing," Saturday Evening Post (18 Jan. 1964); and Frank Deford, "The Ring Leader," Sports Illustrated (10 May 1999).