Russell, Bill 1934–

views updated May 23 2018

Bill Russell 1934

Professional basketball player, coach, sports announcer

In a Brothers Shadow

A Superstar Blossomed

Anchor of the NBAs Greatest Team

First Black Coach in NBA

Challenged Shaq


If winning championships is the most important criterion of sports greatness, then Bill Russell is the greatest professional basketball player of all time. Russell, the Boston Celtic superstar of yesteryear, earned so many championship rings he would have to take a shoe off if he wanted to wear them all at once. Between 1957 and 1969 the Celticswith Russell at centerwon 11 National Basketball Association (NBA) titles, at one point compiling an astounding eight in a row. Throughout that period, Russell was the Celtics dominant force, an elegant defenseman who could grab rebounds and dictate the pace of the game, a scoring threat both in play and from the line, and a wily tactician who could unravel the best-laid plans of his opponents.

As his extraordinary playing career wound to a close in the late 1960s, Russell added another star to his crown by becoming the first black man to coach an NBA team. In his book Pro Basketballs Big Men, Dave Klein concludes that in professional basketball, the former Celtic hero is the standard against whom all others will be judged. Indeed, Russells career is a case study of adversity overcome, of potential tapped to perfection, and of determination to maintain an identity in racist times.

Although a top basketball superstar in an era of few, Russell refused to make his life a media event. His performances were restricted to the basketball court, where he reigned with the champion Celtics. Otherwise, he avoided the spotlight wherever possible, refused to sign autographs, and rarely socialized with his teammates or coaches. Only after his retirement as a player in 1969when he began a 14-year tenure as a television commentatordid Russell soften his steely personality somewhat. Even so he retained a readiness to criticize racist practices in the NBA and a deep respect for his own accomplishments on the basketball court. In his memoir Go Up for Glori;, Russell wrote: I should epitomize the American Dream, for I came, against long odds, from the farthest back to the very top of my profession. I came from an oppressed minorityfirst in rural poverty and then from a citys ghetto. I had to persevere to succeed, to climb out of the life that society had programmed for me.

In a Brothers Shadow

William Felton Russell was born in Monroe, Louisiana in 1934. Racism was rife in the small Southern town that he

At a Glance

Born William Felton Russell, on February 12, 1934, in Monroe, LA; son of Charles (a laborer and trucking company owner) and Katie Russell; married Rose Swisher, 1956 (divorced); children: Jacob, Kenyatta, William, Jr. Education: University of San Francisco, BA, 1956.

United States Olympic team, 1956 (won gold medal in mens basketball); Boston Celtics, player, 1956-69; coach, 1966-69; coach and general manager, Seattle SuperSon-ics, 1973-77; announcer for televised basketball games, NBC, 1969-80, and CBS, 1980-83; Sacramento Kings, coach, 1987-88, vice president for basketball operations, 1988-89. Author of Co up for Glory (autobiography), Macmillan, 1966, and Second Wind (with Taylor Branch), Random House, 1979.

Selected awards: Named first team Ail-American, 1955 and 1956; voted onto NBA All-Star team, 1957-69; named NBA Most Valuable Player five times between 1957 and 1969; inducted into NBA Hall of Fame, 1 974.

Addresses: Office c/o Boston Celtics, 151 Merrimac St., Boston, MA 02114.

and his family called home. His father worked in a paper bag factory, and Bill and his brother Charlie attended an all-black school in a converted barn. It was not the sort of life that Russells father, a proud man, envisioned for his children. When Bill was still a youngster, his father sought to move the family out of Louisiana. They finally settled in Oakland, California, where both Mr. and Mrs. Russell found work in a war plant.

Oakland was better than Louisiana for the Russell family, but not much. At first they shared a squalid eight-room house with eight other families. Later, after the elder Russell had built up a small trucking business, they moved to a housing project. Then tragedy struck. Russells mother died at the age of 32, and the brothers Bill and Charlie were left in their fathers care. Dad went to work in a foundry, and he did a good job of bringing us up, Russell told Dave Klein. He was always a man. He raised us by himself, as best he could, and he taught us to be men, no matter what. Encouraged by his father, Russell studied history to find black heroes he could admire and was especially drawn to the story of Haitian revolutionary Henri Christophe.

The younger of two brothers, Russell watched as his older sibling became a basketball prodigy. Charlie Russell was a star on the mostly-white Oakland Tech High School team. Bill, who was thin, awkward, and an indifferent student, was forced to enroll at the all-black McClymonds High. There he failed to make the junior varsity basketball team as a freshman and was relegated to the bench as a sophomore. In fact, the junior varsity coach at McClymonds kept Russell on the team as a 16th manand the team was only supposed to have 15 players. Russell had to share a uniform with another player. He was tempted to give up the game completely, but his coach encouraged him to practice both in school and at the local Boys Club. Gradually, as he grew taller and gained weight, he improved as a player.

Russell made the varsity team as a senior and played well enough to earn a basketball scholarship from the University of San Francisco, a small Jesuit college that did not even have its own gymnasium. I was really surprised, the athlete told Dave Klein. Not only didnt I think I was good enough, but I had been living across San Francisco Bay most of my life, and I didnt even know there was a university there. But it was the only scholarship I was offered, and I took it because I couldnt have gone to college any other way.

A Superstar Blossomed

In 1953 Russell entered the University of San Francisco, where he roomed with another scholarship studenthis future Celtic teammate K. C. Jones. Together, beginning in 1955, Russell and Jones transformed the University of San Francisco from a basketball unknown to an National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) powerhouse. After a loss to the University of California at Los Angeles in December of 1955, the San Francisco Dons won 55 straight games with Russell at center. It was a phenomenal streak, and it established the Dons as the number one-ranked college basketball team in the nation. A grateful administration at the school authorized the construction of a gymnasium with a basketball court.

Russell crowned his regular season collegiate wins with NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956. Both years he was selected to the All-American first team. After graduating in 1956, he served as a member of the United States Olympic basketball team and won a gold medal in the Summer Games. By the time he returned from the Olympics, he was a national hero from whom a great professional career was expected.

Anchor of the NBAs Greatest Team

Needless to say, Russell was no stranger to the NBA scouts and coaches. In a time when blacks were still an anomaly on professional basketball teams, he was on the wish list of almost every franchise and was expected to be chosen first or second in the 1956 NBA college draft. One of the coaches who wanted Russells services was the legendary Red Auerbach of the Celtics. Auerbach felt he could craft a championship team if he just had a big, aggressive player like Russell at center. Unfortunately, Auerbachs Celtics were already so good that the team did not have a high draft choice. In what became a celebrated deal, Auerbach traded two starters to the St. Louis Hawks for the second pick in the draft. Some have suggested that the St. Louis owner agreed to the deal because he did not want a black player on his team. Whatever the case, Russell became a Celtic with a record rookie year salary of $19,500.

Bostons new star lived up to expectations. Although never the teams leading scorer, Russell was able to win contests with his defense and his canny ability to alter the games flow in his teams favor. Defense became a potent Celtic weapon as Russell grabbed rebounds, blocked shots, and just simply intimidated his opponents in the league. A dynasty of historic proportions was created the year Russell joined the Celtics. Boston won the championship in 1957, and then, beginning in 1959, won eight more titles in a row. No other basketball team has ever experienced such a fabulous streakand Russell was the only Celtics player who lasted through the entire era.

The 1959, 1964, and 1969 championships featured matchups between Russell and the other top superstar of the period, Wilt Chamberlain. The Russell-Chamberlain rivalrywhich literally lasted a decadeis one of the most dramatic in all of sports. Statistically speaking, Chamberlain was the better player. He scored more and even grabbed more rebounds during his career. But Russell won more, especially in the playoffs, and he was not shy about letting it be known that winning championships was the only statistic that really counted.

The finest individual rivalry in the history of sports is not Magic [Johnson] versus [Larry] Bird, or Chrissie [Everett] versus Martina [Navratilova], or [Joe] DiMaggio versus [Ted] Williams, or Hogan versus Snead, wrote Mike Lupica in Esquire. It is Wilt versus Bill Russell. Between 1959 and 1969 they battled each other with strength and skill and pride underneath the baskets of the NBA. Wilt scored more points, had more rebounds; Russells teamsbetter teams in all but a handful of seasonswon more games. And more championships. The Celtics, coached by Red Auerbach and then Russell himself, were the embodiment of class in professional sports. Russell became the good guy. Wilt was the bad guy. Russell was the cerebral winner. Wilt was the selfish loser. They will be forever linked in the history of the sport.

First Black Coach in NBA

In 1966 Red Auerbach announced his retirement as coach of the Celtics. It was left to Auerbach to choose his successor, and he chose his star center, Bill Russell. Taking the position as a player-coach at the start of the 1966-67 season, Russell became the first black man ever to head an NBA team. His first year as coach proved personally disappointing as the Celtics lost in the playoffs to a Philadelphia 76ers team featuring Wilt Chamberlain at center. Critics sneered that the great Boston dynasty had come to an end, but Russell and his teammates were determined to prove otherwise. They did so in fairy tale fashion, unseating the defending champion 76ers in a preliminary playoff round in 1968, beating the Los Angeles Lakers for the championship that year, and riding into the 1969 playoffs as underdogs and defeating the Lakers again in the championship round. Russell has often said in retrospect that the 1969 championship is his most satisfying, as it was accomplished in a tense seven games and featured the final showdown between Russell and his longtime rival, Chamberlain.

Russell retired from the Celtics in 1969, having established himself as perhaps the decades most successful professional athlete. He went into retirement wearing only two of the 11 championship rings he had won, the 1957 ring and the 1969 ringhis bookends, as he called them. Bill was the finest defensive center ever to play professional basketball, concluded Dave Klein. He made defense an art, and became a superstar without being a scoring champion. The point, according to Russell, was not to score, but to win.

Russells decision to leave basketball surprised many observers, although it was common knowledge that the player was so intense he often became physically ill before important games and suffered from insomnia after galling losses. Russells absence from basketball was brief, however. He began the 1970s as a commentator for NBA games broadcast on NBC. At mid-decade, from 1973 until 1977, he served as coach and general manager for the Seattle SuperSonics. When he left that position, he returned to the broadcast booth, moving from NBC to CBS in 1980. Russells deep knowledge of basketball, his penchant for straight talk about controversial issues and players, and even his singular high-pitched cackle, gave him renewed popularity among a new generation of basketball fans. He retired from broadcasting in 1983.

Challenged Shaq

Although he played before the era of multi-million dollar contracts and product endorsement deals, Russell was a very wealthy man by the mid-1980s. His NBA salary, while not high by todays standards, was among the highest for his time, and he invested wisely. When he left CBS in 1983, he announced plans to play golf and live quietly with his family. That goal was put aside in 1987, when he joined the struggling Sacramento Kings as head coach. Russell signed a seven-year contract with the Kings for a position as coach and front office executive, at an estimated salary of nearly $1 million a year. He began his tenure as coach of the Kings with high expectations and lofty goals, but he was unable to reverse the fortunes of the hapless franchise. After only one season on the bench he moved into the front office as vice president for basketball operations. He left the organization in 1989.

Never one to court product endorsements, Russell did consent to appear in a 1993 television commercial for Reebok shoes that featured NBA newcomer Shaquille ONeal as a young player hoping to fill the shoes of the great stars of the past. In the commercial, Russell is one of an extremely select group of past NBA superstars who warily welcome ONeal into their exclusive club. It remains to be seen if ONealor any future NBA starcan earn as many championship victories as Russell did in his time.

Russell was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in 1974against his will. Why he did not want to be included in the Hall of Fame remains a mystery, but it is certain that Russell did endure his share of covert racism as a player and a coach. Asked in Sports Illustrated why he might harbor bitterness over his career, Russell noted that he had been the target of racially-inspired jealousy and criticism all along. Because Ive been uniquely successful and not very humble about it, people just got tired of my success, he said. They always do. So they decided, Well, hes not that good. Lets say this about him.

Russell may be righthis detractors might belittle his career for any number of reasons. In the end, however, only one point matters. Russell was a championship winner in two decades and an NBA coach in three. As he himself observed in his memoir Second Wind: Winning isnt about right and wrong, or the good guys and the bad guys, or the pathway to good life and character, or statistics. Winning is about who has the best team, and thats all.



Fitzgerald, Ray, Champions Remembered, Stephen Greene Press, 1982.

Heuman, William, Famous Pro Basketball Stars, Dodd, Mead, 1970.

Klein, Dave, Pro Basketballs Big Men, Random House, 1973.

Ryan, Bob, The Boston Celtics: The History, Legends &Images of Americas Most Celebrated Team, Addison-Wesley, 1990.

Shapiro, Miles, Bill Russell, Chelsea House, 1991.

Shaughnessy, Dan, Ever Green, St. Martins, 1990.


Esquire, May 1988, p. 56.

Jet, March 28, 1988, p. 46.

Sports Illustrated, November 16, 1987, pp. 36-9; April 18, 1988, pp. 85-8.

Mark Kram

Russell, Bill

views updated Jun 11 2018

Bill Russell


American basketball player

Bill Russell, the Boston Celtics' Hall of Fame center who almost single-handedly redefined the game of basketball, was, in the words of Basketball's Big Men by David Klein, "the standard against whom all others will be judged." A big man who specialized in defense rather than scoring, Russell was the ultimate winner. After winning two National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) titles at the University of San Francisco, and an Olympic gold medal in 1956, he led the Boston Celtics to eleven league championships in thirteen years, a string that is virtually unparalleled in professional sport, including eight consecutive National Basketball Association (NBA) titles between 1959 and 1966, and two in 1968 and 1969 while himself the Celtics coach. On an individual levela level Russell largely disdained in favor of team performancehe was named the NBA's Most Valuable Player five times. The first African American to coach in the NBAindeed he was the first to coach a major sport at the professional level in the United StatesBill Russell was also an impassioned and intelligent advocate of civil rights both on and off the basketball court for blacks and America's other minorities.

Growing Up

Bill Russell was born to Charles Russell and Katie King in Monroe, Louisiana in 1934. Racism was pervasive in Louisiana at the time, and a dangerous confrontation with a white man led Russell's fatherwho was known as Mr. Charlieto move his family to the North. After a brief stop in Detroit, Michigan, Russell, his parents and his older brother Charlie, settled in Oakland, California's black ghetto. Mr. Charlie set up his own trucking company, and Russell and his brother entered Oakland's public schools. When he was twelve, tragedy struck. Russell's mother passed away after a brief illness. Mr. Charlie gave up his company to be with his children while Russell retreated into the solace of books at the public library. A book about the life of Henri Christophe, a slave who led an insurrection and became emperor of Haiti, made an impression that remained with him throughout his life.

Russell first played basketball on Oakland's playgrounds. As a child and teen, he gave the impression of being a uniquely untalented athlete. His brother was making himself a star player at Oakland Tech, a mostly white high school; in grade school Bill, however, could not make the basketball team, the football team or even the cheerleading squad. When his studies faltered after the death of his mother, Bill was unable to gain admission to Oakland Tech, and had to enroll instead in a neighborhood school, McClymonds High. Although he washed out of the junior varsity basketball team a freshman, attending McClymonds was a stroke of good fortune for Bill Russell. Despite his apparent ineptitude, the junior varsity basketball coach, George Powles, saw something in Russell and kept him as the 16th man of a 15-man-squad. In his book Go Up For Glory Russell described the importance of that gesture. "I believe that man saved me from becoming a juvenile delinquent. If I hadn't had basketball, all my energies and frustrations would surely have been carried in some other direction." Powles also encouraged Russell to work on his game at the local Boys' Club. Even as a senior member of Mc-Clymonds team he wasn't turning heads. However, he turned in a very strong performance at a game being watched by a scout from the University of San Francisco (USF). The scout was so impressed that he offered Russell a scholarship instead of the player he had come to observe. It was the only scholarship offer Russell received and he accepted it gratefully.

After his graduation, Russell was asked to join the California High School All-Starshe was invited to join only because the team was desperate for graduates and he had finished high school in January. The team played exhibition games throughout the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. While on the tour, Russell became obsessed with basketball, discussing it whenever he could. When he wasn't talking the game, he was analyzing in his head other players' plays as well as his own which he'd made or failed to make. Envisioning each play on the inside of his eyeballs, he imagined what he should have done, or something new he wanted to try out. "If I had a play in my mind but muffed it on the court, I'd go over it repeatedly in my head, searching for details I'd missed," he wrote in Second Wind. "It was like working a phony jigsaw puzzle, one piece in the completed picture was slightly imperfect, and I had to find out which one it was." Without grasping what he was on to, Russell had discovered on his own the visualization techniques that would become standard practice in professional sports in and after the 1980s.

College Champion

Using his newfound technique, Russell's game improved by leaps and bounds. He was well on his way to becoming a dominant player when he entered USF in the fall of 1952. Russell joined the varsity team, the Dons, as a sophomore. He and his roommate, K.C. Joneswho would play with Russell on the great Celtics teams of the 1950s and 1960sdiscussed basketball incessantly. In Russell's junior year, the Dons caught fire, running off a string of 55 straight victories that extended well into his senior year, and included two NCAA championships.

Although Russell was a big playerhe was nearly seven feet in heighthe was not a high scorer. Instead he was developing into a defensive genius. Russell could out-think most of his opponents and he was a spectacular jumper who specialized in blocking opponent's shots and deflecting those of his teammates' into the basket. So dominant did Russell become under the basket that the NCAA doubled the width of the lane to 12 feet, and made it a violation to touch a ball once it had begun its descent toward the basket. Russell was named the Most Valuable Player of the NCAA tournament in 1955, and was named an All-American in both 1955 and 1956. He was also a world-class high-jumper in college who came within a hair of breaking the world record.

Russell had come a long way from the days when he wasn't even wanted as cheerleader. As a graduating senior he was one of the players most coveted by NBA and other teams. The Harlem Globetrotterswho he considered more a degrading vaudeville act than basketballoffered him a $32,000 contract. Although the Boston Celtics had a low pick in the college draft, coach Red Auerbach wanted Russell badly enough to trade two of the Celtics star players to St. Louis for their pick. Russell did not accept the Celtics $19,500 offer right away. He wanted to maintain his amateur status in order to compete in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. With Russell in the line-up, the U.S. team won the gold medal. Days after his return from Australia, in December 1956, Russell married his girlfriend, Rose Swisher. They would have three children together, William Jr., Karen Kenyatta, and Jacob, before divorcing in 1973.


1934Born to Charles and Katie Russell in Monroe, Louisiana
1952Tours with California High School All-Star Team
1952Enters University of San Francisco (USF) on basketball scholarship
1954-55USF Dons win string of 55 straight games
1955Named Most Valuable Player of NCAA tournament
1955-56Named All-American
1956Plays on gold medal-winning men's basketball team at Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia
1957Signs with Boston Celtics in mid-season
1958Speaks out against NBA's unwritten quota system for black players
1963Gives integrated basketball clinics for youth in Jackson, Mississippi
1966-69Coaches Boston Celtics
1969Joins ABC as color commentator on basketball broadcasts
1972Boston Celtics retire Russell's number against his will
1973-77Coaches Seattle SuperSonics
1974Elected to Basketball Hall of Fame
1987-88Coaches Sacramento Kings
1987-89Serves as president of basketball operations, Sacramento Kings

Awards and Accomplishments

1954-55Most Valuable Player, NCAA Championship Tournament
1956Gold Medal, Men's Basketball, Summer Olympics, Melbourne Australia
1958, 1961-63, 1965Most Valuable Player, National Basketball Association
1960-65Voted NBA's Most Valuable Player by U.S. Basketball Writers
1963All-NBA Team
1974Named to Basketball Hall of Fame

Celtics Star

In early 1957, Russell joined the Celtics. Despite its potentialbesides being coached by Auerbach, it included Bob Cousy and Tommy Heinsohnthe Celtics team Russell joined had never won an NBA championship. Few in Boston thought they would do so with Russell. Writers complained that the team had given up two proven players for a player who would never make it as a pro. But Russell's defensive play was the piece the Celtics needed to win the NBA title in his first full year with the team. As if to emphasize his importance, when a fractured ankle forced him out of the championship series the following year, the Celtics lost. Beginning in 1959, Boston reeled off eight straight NBA championships, a feat unmatched before or since. So crucial was Russell's role in these victories, his time with Boston has come to be known as the "Bill Russell Era."

What Russell brought to the Celtics, and to pro basketball in general, was a new emphasis on defense and teamwork. He showed that a player did not have to be a high scorer to dominate the game. In fact, Russell scoffed at individual statistics, such as the scoring title. The only important stat, he said, was winning. By that measure alone Bill Russell was the greatest. When he retired, he had not only his two NCAA titles and the Olympic gold, but eleven NBA championship rings, an unparalleled achievement.

When Red Auerbach decided to retire at the end of the 1965-66, he selected Russell as his replacement. It was a natural choicehe had been a thoughtful, analytical student of the game since his tour with the California All-Stars, and after years in the NBA he knew the other teams inside out. Russell's appointment also marked a landmark in American sports history. It was the first time a black had ever been named to lead a professional team in any major sport. In his three years as playercoach, the Celtics won two more championships.

Russell retired at the end of the 1969 season. To all appearances he was done with pro basketball, which he described as men playing a child's game. Before three years had passed, though, he returned as coach and general manager of the Seattle SuperSonics from 1973 until 1977. He took the Sonics to the playoffs in his second year at the helm, but the team was wracked by dissension that Russell was unable to quell and he resigned. He joined the Sacramento Kings organization, serving first as coach in the 1987-88 season, and then as president of basketball operations through 1989. He was a regular color commentator on basketball broadcasts on NBC and CBS in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Civil Rights Advocate

Despite his fierce dedication to basketball during his career as a player and coach, Bill Russell was keenly aware that there was a world beyond the court. Beginning in the late 1950s, he was an active participant in the struggle by American blacks for full civil rights. Early in his career Russell charged the NBA with maintaining a de facto quota system which limited the number of blacks on each team. In 1963, at the height of the civil rights struggle in the American South, he accepted, uneasily and at great personal risk to himself, a request to travel to Jackson, Mississippi, to organize and lead integrated basketball clinics. Russell was one of the few professional athletes in the United States, black or white, to speak out on civil rights in such a dramatic way in the 1960s. Around the same time, he was the target of racist attacks when he bought a home in white suburban Boston.

Bill Russell has taken stands that have been controversial among fans. For example, he refuses to sign autographs, preferring to shake hands and speak directly to fans and well-wishers. Russell resisted having his number retired by the Celtics in 1972, until Red Auerbach agreed to hold the ceremony without any fans present. In 1974 when he became the first black to be elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame, Russell at first refused to accept the honor. "Aside from racism or my own feelings about the cheers and boos in sports, I don't respect it [the Basketball Hall of Fame] as an institution," he wrote in Second Wind. "Its standards are not high enough. It's too political, too self-serving." He was inducted despite his objections.

Where Is He Now?

Since his retirement Bill Russell has lived on Mercer Island, Lake Washington, near Seattle. He is an avid golfer and makes occasional public appearances.

Despite the passing of years and the increasing number of fans who never saw him play, Bill Russell remains a basketball icon. In 1980 the Professional Basketball Writers Association named Bill Russell the "Greatest Player in the History of the NBA." In 1996 the NBA voted him one of the top 50 players of all-time. In 1999 cable broadcaster ESPN named him one of the fifty top athletes of the 20th century. Bill Russell was more than simply the greatest defensive player in the history of the basketball, he was an intelligent, thoughtful, deeply honest man, who spoke out when he saw injustice. His courage and dedication provide an example for young athletes everywhere.


(With Bob Ottum) "The Psych and My Other Tricks." Sports Illustrated, October 25, 1965: 3234.

(With William McSweeny) Go Up for Glory. New York: Berkely, 1966.

(With Tex Maule) "I Am Not Worried about Ali." Sports Illustrated, June 19, 1967: 1821.

Career Statistics

BOS: Boston Celtics.

(With Taylor Branch) Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man. New York: Ballantine Books, 1979.



Klein, Dave. Pro Basketball's Big Men.. New York: Random House, 1973.

Shapiro, Miles. Bill Russell. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1991.


MacQuarrie, Brian. "Russell Makes Peace With City That Brought Glory And Pain." Boston Globe, November 12, 2000.

Moss, Irv. "Russell Remembers Very Good Old Days." Denver Post, March 18, 2001.

Ryan, Bob. "Pride Of The Celtics."Boston Globe, May 26, 1999.

Sandomir, Richard. "Russell Redux: A Private Man Bursts Back Into the Public Eye." New York Times, June 16, 2000.

Tuttle, Dennis. "Solving An Enigma." Washington Post, April 16, 2000.

Sketch by Gerald E. Brennan

Bill Russell

views updated May 21 2018

Bill Russell

Boston Celtics center Bill Russell (born 1934) earned a place in the National Basketball Association's Hall of Fame as the greatest defensive player in the history of the league and one of the greatest players of all time.

Bill Russell was an unlikely superstar. Lanky and shy, he came into the National Basketball Association (NBA) as a center for the Boston Celtics and remained with that team for the duration of his playing career. At six-feet-ten-inches tall he was larger than most had ever seen. He was talented, not in scoring points like other basketball stars, but in stopping his opponents cold in their tracks. At the bidding of his coach he avoided shooting the basketball altogether, yet his affinity for teamwork and his ability to relay the ball to the point-makers on his team successfully earned for the Celtics 11 NBA championships. The glory of Russell's talent was, at times, marred by the intolerant social climate of his day. He was among only a few black players in the NBA during the "Russell Era," but he focused his efforts on elevating the dignity of humankind and donated his time and effort to right the wrongs of a racially biased culture.

William Felton Russell, the youngest son of Charles and Katie (King) Russell, was born in Monroe, Louisiana on February 2, 1934. His paternal grandfather, Jake Russell, was a first-generation free man, a woodsman and champion logroller, affectionately known as the "Old Man" by his offspring and heirs. As a youngster Bill Russell bonded closely with the Old Man.

Charles Russell moved the family to Oakland, California when Bill was eleven years old. Russell's parents worked at a military shipyard, and Jake Russell established his own trucking company. The Russells shared a house in north Oakland with eight families. When conditions improved the family moved to west Oakland, where Bill Russell enrolled at Cole Elementary School.

Russell held his mother in great regard, and it was a blow to him when she became ill and died in 1946. He and his brother accompanied their father on a train to Louisiana to bury Katie Russell. When they returned to Oakland, Bill became introverted and withdrew into books and reading. At Hoover Junior High School he was far from impressive as an athlete. He played basketball at McClymonds High School but was never a star; so rare were his appearances on the court that he shared a jersey with another player. Hesitant and unobtrusive, he suffered from low self-esteem in spite of his ever-towering size. His bent for basketball blossomed slowly because he lacked the skills to be a great ball handler; he worked instead to develop his talent as a defender. In 1952, he accelerated his high school curriculum and graduated, ahead of his class, in order to tour with an exhibition basketball team throughout the Pacific Northwest.

College Days

During the exhibition tour, a representative from the University of San Francisco (USF) named Hal DeJulio observed Russell and set out to recruit the unusually tall young man. Russell, in turn, welcomed the opportunity for a college scholarship. At DeJulio's suggestion, Russell took the college entrance exam and applied to USF. To bide his time during the application process, Russell took a job as an apprentice sheet-metal worker at the Naval yard in San Francisco. He continued to play basketball in his spare time and improved his skills and grew continually, for years, even after his peers leveled off. He was six feet five inches tall when he finished high school, and grew five inches more before reaching his full adult height. With DeJulio as a mentor, Russell secured a full scholarship to USF and supplemented the award with a student job for additional income. Russell by then was very tall and adept at jumping— his leaping reach extended four feet higher than the rim of the basket (14 feet above the ground), and the air-born accomplishment was exhilarating.

Russell played freshman ball and joined the USF Dons' varsity team as a sophomore in 1953. In his junior year (1954-55) the Dons won the National College Athletic Association (NCAA) championship. Russell received the title of Most Valuable Player (MVP) of the tournament. He averaged 21.4 points per game for the season with 21.5 rebounds per game. Russell and his college roommate, K. C. Jones, shared a common interest in basketball and would one day play together professionally for the Boston Celtics. They became fast friends and, through mutual encouragement, their approach to the game matured into a cognitive pursuit. Together they considered tactics to improve their play. During the summer of 1955, Russell traveled on a goodwill tour sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. In conjunction with his participation in a national program to promote physical fitness, Russell also attended a White House luncheon with the President of the United States.

Russell returned to USF for his senior year in the fall of 1955. He added track and field to his extracurricular schedule and made an impressive showing. After years of perfecting his leaps and bounds, he very nearly broke a world record in the high jump with a score of six feet nine and one-quarter inches. The Dons won the national championship again that year, and Russell was named as an All-American center, to play in the East-West college all-star game at Madison Square Gardens. That year the NCAA widened the foul (free-throw) lane from 6 to 12 feet, because of the ease with which Russell could dominate the court.

1956—A Very Good Year

Among the most eventful years of Russell's life, 1956 was a year to remember. During the course of that single year Russell earned a bachelor of arts degree, joined the elite society of Olympic gold medallists, married his girlfriend, and signed a contract with the National Basketball Association (NBA). Early in that year Russell reduced his academic load, in anticipation of the upcoming summer Olympics. He later refused an offer from Abe Saperstein, owner of the Harlem Globetrotters, to play professionally with the team. Russell feared it would jeopardize his eligibility for the U.S. Olympic basketball team. To Russell's gratification he was given a spot on the Olympic team and won a gold medal at the games in Melbourne, Australia.

During the 1956 NBA draft Russell, a second round pick, went to the Boston Celtics under unusual circumstances. As a highly ranked team, the Celtics could not pick early in the draft. Head coach, Red Auerbach, nonetheless wanted Russell to play with his team. Auerbach sacrificed two of his best players in return for an early draft option. Russell was drafted and remained with the Celtics from 1957 until his retirement in 1969.

As 1956 drew to a close, Russell completed his studies and received his college degree. He married the former Rose Swisher on December 9, 1956, just three days after his return from the Melbourne Olympics. The newlyweds honeymooned in Carmel, California, just prior to the start of Russell's first season with the Boston Celtics.

All-Star Career

During his dynamic career Russell left his mark as the greatest defensive player in the history of the NBA. He was a true team player; a highly effective re-bounder and a leviathan jumper. Prior to Russell, it was unheard of in the NBA for a player to position himself strictly for the purpose of blocking opposing scorers and without concern for sinking baskets. Russell in fact was a mediocre ball handler, and Auerbach instructed him to avoid shooting or carrying the ball. Yet the years that coincided with Russell's playing career bear the nickname the "Bill Russell Era." Critics maintained that Russell's presence on the team was a key factor in 11 NBA championships won by the Celtics from 1957 through 1969. Russell started with the Boston Celtics at a salary of $19,500; he wore jersey number 6. Celtics center Arnie Risen, whom Russell replaced, graciously assisted the rookie in mastering the finesse of professional basketball.

In 1957-59 Russell played in the NBA all-star game. His team won the NBA championship in 1957, 1959-66, and again in 1968 and 1969. Prior to Russell's rookie season the Celtics had never won a championship. Thereafter they lost only two championships during his entire 13-season career. When Auerbach retired, he selected Russell to replace him as coach; Russell was the first African American to coach a NBA team. He continued as a player and coach, until 1969 when he retired with 11 NBA championships to his credit as a player, including two as a coach.

Russell served as general manager and coach for the Seattle Super Sonics between 1973 and 1977. During the 1970s and 1980s he worked as a broadcast analyst for several television networks. He coached the Sacramento Kings in 1987-88 and continued as president of basketball operations for the Kings through 1989.

Honorable Mentions

Russell retired from the Celtics in 1969, having led the league in time played (40,726 minutes). He also led in career rebounds, with a total of 21,721. He received five Most Valuable Player awards: in 1958, 1961, 1962, 1963, and 1965. The NBA revised some rules in reaction to Russell's great prowess, including a limitation on in-the-air assists. Years later, as celebrations were underway to mark the end of the second millennium in 1999, cable sports network ESPN duly named Russell among the top 50 athletes of the previous 100 years in a retrospective of 20th century sports.

Fans and colleagues failed to understand Russell's reluctance to be inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in 1974. He was the first African American in history to be so honored, and an entire community hoped to share his pride in the moment. His hesitation might have stemmed from an incident that occurred in 1971 when the city of Boston held a public celebration in Russell's honor. During the festivities, thugs—apparently motivated by racism— rampaged and violated Russell's residence. After thoughtful consideration, Russell attended the Hall of Fame ceremony and accepted the compliment.


Russell left his mark in sports history as an innovator and a great man. He refused to sign autographs, yet he never avoided his fans. Instead he mingled with them, talked to them, and shook their hands—to Russell those gestures were more personal than signing a piece of paper. He wrote an autobiography, Go Up for Glory, and recorded a memoir for Random House, Second Wind, with Taylor Branch in 1979.

Russell was among a small group of professional athletes who took a public stand during the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s. He participated in the 1963 March on Washington and set up an integrated sports training camp in the southern United States. The NAACP cited other contributions by Russell that improved the quality of life for underprivileged students of the Boston public schools. Additionally Russell invested in a program to purchase rubber plantations in the African nation of Liberia, in an effort to create jobs and spur the economy of that nation.

Russell and his first wife had three children: William Jr., Karen Kenyatta, and Jacob. The couple separated in 1969 and divorced in 1973. He was briefly married to the former Miss USA, Didi Anstett. During his years with the Boston Celtics Russell lived in Reading, Massachusetts. After retirement, he maintained a residence on Mercer Island, Lake Washington, near Seattle.

Further Reading

The African-American Almanac, edited by Kenneth Estell, Gale, Detroit, 1994.

Contemporary Black Biography, edited by L. Mpho Mabunda, Gale, Detroit, 1995.

Notable Black American Men, edited by Jessie Carney Smith, Gale Research Inc., Detroit, 1999.

Shapiro, Miles, Bill Russell, Chelsea House Publishers, New York, 1991.

Sports Illustrated, May 10, 1999. □