Russell, Bill (1934—)

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Russell, Bill (1934—)

In thirteen seasons as a professional basketball player between 1956 and 1969, Bill Russell played on a record eleven National Basketball Association championship teams for the Boston Celtics, serving as both player and coach on the final two. While many believe that Michael Jordan was the best individual player in league history, an accolade that often went to Russell prior to Jordan's ascent in the late 1980s through the 1990s. Russell is still widely recognized for his incredible winning record.

Born in Monroe, Louisiana, in 1934, Russell moved with his family to the San Francisco area and played basketball, without great distinction, at McClymonds High School in Oakland, California. Despite his lack of success at the high school level, Russell was big enough and promising enough to earn a scholarship to the University of San Francisco. There, he developed both physically and skill-wise, and enjoyed an impressive career, during which he and future Celtic teammate K. C. Jones led the team to two National College Athletic Association championships in 1955 and 1956. Russell averaged more than twenty points and twenty rebounds a game during his college career, one of a very select group of players ever to have done so. He joined the Celtics after helping the United States to win a gold medal at the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia. Russell was initially drafted by the St. Louis Hawks, but Celtics coach Arnold "Red" Auerbach engineered a trade for Russell, as the high-scoring Celtics sorely lacked a player who could rebound and play defense.

Russell's defensive ability, coupled with the team's already high-powered offense, proved the key to an unprecedented string of NBA championships for Boston. In Russell's rookie season, the Celtics defeated the St. Louis Hawks for the league championship in 1956-57, due largely to Russell's nineteen points and thirty-two rebounds in the decisive final game. Although the Celtics lost to the Hawks the following season, with Russell suffering a debilitating ankle injury in the opening moments of the third game of the championship series, the Celtics began a string of eight straight championships from 1958-59 through 1965-66.

The six-foot-nine-inch Russell became the leading rebounder in Celtics' history and the second in NBA history after Wilt Chamberlain. Russell's biggest innovation, however, was related to his ability as a shot-blocker. He would patrol the area near the basket and wait for opposing players to drive for an attempted score. With impeccable timing, Russell would gently swat the ball away to a teammate, who would often take it to the other end of the court for an easy basket. Later, as an outspoken television announcer in the 1970s and 1980s, Russell would criticize players who blocked shots by violently knocking the ball out of bounds. This, according to Russell, was a form of showing off that offended his concept of team play. Unfortunately for Russell, the NBA did not begin keeping track of blocked shots until the 1973-74 season, so his exact number of blocked shots is unknown.

Russell's career-long rivalry with Chamberlain, one of the greatest scorers in NBA history, epitomizes his commitment to team play. While Chamberlain's scoring numbers were much higher (Rus-sell never averaged more than nineteen points a game during the regular season, while Chamberlain averaged at least fifty on several occasions), Russell was famed for his ability to help his teammates, particularly in crucial game situations. Russell won five NBA Most Valuable Player awards, given to the player who contributes the most to helping his team win. As Russell noted in his autobiography, Second Wind, "Star players have an enormous responsibility beyond their statistics—the responsibility to pick their team up and carry it.… I always thought that the most important measure of how good a game I'd played was how much better I'd made my teammates play."

During the 1966-67 season, Russell became the player-coach of the Celtics, the first African American head coach in league history. Although the Celtics lost to a powerful Philadelphia team in that season, Russell led the aging Celtics to consecutive championships in the 1967-68 and 1968-69 seasons. The 1969 championship was perhaps the team's most dramatic, as the Celtics, who had finished a mere fourth in their own division during the regular season, defeated a heavily favored Los Angeles Lakers team which included future Hall-of-Famers Chamberlain, Jerry West, and Elgin Baylor, winning a decisive game seven in Los Angeles.

Russell retired after the 1968-69 season and was elected to the NBA Hall of Fame in 1974. He undertook stints as the coach and general manager of the Seattle Super Sonics from 1973 to 1977 and as coach of the Sacramento Kings in 1987-88, neither of which approached his success as a player. Part of the problem was that the game had become more and more focused on individual stars since Russell's playing days, and players had a difficult time adjusting to the team style of play that Russell advocated. In addition, even Russell's admirers concede that he had little patience for detail and practice. As a player, notes former coach and close friend Auerbach in On and off the Court, Russell would put forth the minimum effort in practice, saving his energy for games. During his stint as player-coach of the Celtics, Russell would often sit on the bench and drink coffee and read a newspaper while the team practiced. Once the game started, however, Russell was always ready to play.

—Jason George

Further Reading:

Auerbach, Arnold "Red," with Joe Fitzgerald. On and off the Court. New York, MacMillan, 1985.

"Bill Russell."http://www.nba.com/history/russell.bio.html.February 1999.

Fitzgerald, Joe. That Championship Feeling: The Story of the Boston Celtics. New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1975.

Russell, Bill, and Taylor Branch. Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man. New York, Random House, 1979.

Ryan, Bob. The Boston Celtics: The History, Legends, and Images of America's Most Celebrated Team. Reading, Massachusetts, Addison-Wesley, 1989.