In Appreciation Of Bill Russell, Who Turns 80 Today

There was only one guy that was the GOAT when I was a kid. That was immortal Hall of Fame Celtics center, Bill Russell. Sure, Michael Jordan came along later when I’d mostly advanced out of adolescence, but I spent most of my earliest years listening to my Old Man wax poetic on the genius of Russell. The greatest winner in sports was a legend in my mind before I even realized how overlooked he’s become since retiring. A lot of people don’t remember — or don’t care — just how important he was, and is, to the game of basketball. But a lot of people do, too. Maybe this appreciation of Russell will make one more of the latter.

I’ve written before about Growing Up Russell, and that’s exactly what happened. I was inured to Russell nostalgia before I turned 10, since my pops would spew tidbits every chance he got about Russell’s 11 championships in 13 seasons and his psychological mastery of Wilt Chamberlain. I never grew tired of the refrain, either, especially as I got older. Chamberlain had the numbers, but Russ had the hardware, and I liked to think my father’s almost-daily Russell lessons helped me become a better person. Russell certainly was, and I can’t think of a better role model in all the world (if you’re reading this, thanks for that Pops).

There was one story my father told me — before I read it in Bill’s biography, one of many Russell books I’ve devoured over the years — that always stuck with me in ensuing decades and goes a long way towards explaining Russell’s often prickly persona with the media in his playing days.

Bill played in Boston for legendary coach Red Auerbach, but while Red had Russell’s back whenever he came up against the racism that dominated large swaths of 1950s and 60s America (and #tbt still does these days, though more covertly), he couldn’t protect Russell from the everyday lunatics in Boston that didn’t want a black man in their town. And certainly not a black man as regal and respected as Russell.

Late one night in the midst of his Hall-of-Fame career, Russell returned to his Boston home to find out that he and his family had been the victims of a break-in. The culprits stole and defamed many of Russell’s possessions and smeared fecal matter on the wall of his bedroom spouting a racist epithet we don’t need to recount here, but which basically told Russell to leave the city. He didn’t obviously, but the grisly mental image the story paints hasn’t left me even 20 years later.

If you’re wondering why Russell failed to show up when the Celtics decided to raise his No. 6 to the rafters in 1999, wonder no longer. But Bill also failed to show at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Springfield, Massachusetts, sagely remarking later to Bill Simmons that, “It had nothing to do with anger. I don’t need any validation. I played and I played, and that trip and that experience was enough to last me for a lifetime.”

But can you blame Russell if he was still pissed? You can’t because Russell is the bulwark upon which a fuselage of 20th century racial hatred and fear rested for his entire career. A career that turned out 11 freakin’ championships in 13 seasons despite off-the-court fears that were very real and very dangerous.

In case you needed me to remind you, the two seasons where Russell failed to win an NBA title came in 1958 and 1967. In ’58, Russell went down with an ankle injury against the Hawks in the Finals. The 1966-67 season featured Russell in his first year as player/coach after Auerbach’s retirement to the front office. That’s the only year Wilt got him. So not only did Russell win 11 titles in 13 years — including a stretch of eight in a row — but he might have even been a perfect 13-for-13.

If you’re thinking that Russell’s winning was a product of luck, since he was surrounded by some all-time greats in Boston (Bob Cousy, Tom Heihnson, John Havlicek, “Satch” Sanders, Sam Jones and many others) and one of the greatest coaches in NBA history in Auerbach, think again. Aside from his duties as player/coach during the back-to-back titles he won to end his career, Bill Russell also captured two consecutive NCAA Championships with the University of San Francisco. You read that right. The University of San Francisco has never won a title since Russell’s day, either. Just look at this footage someone unearthed on YouTube showing a scrawny college-aged Russell grabbing a rebound and going coast-to-coast before, quite literally, jumping over a guy to lay the ball in.

For his career, Russell won 5 MVP awards, an all-star game MVP (1962-63), countless 1st and 2nd All-NBA Teams (remember he played in the offensive shadow of Chamberlain for most of his career) and 12 All-Star games, including the historic 1964 All-Star game where the players threatened to strike unless the owners recognized the new Player’s Union. The ploy worked, too, even though Red was furious at the Celtics who participated. Any multi-millionaire NBA player these days has Russell and his teammates that weekend to thank. Add all that up and it’s a pretty sterling NBA resume. But the accolades pale in comparison to the most revealing stat of Russell’s career.

Keep reading to hear the most important stat of Russell’s career and what he’s meant to the community of basketball…

The most telling stat of Russell’s career comes down to championships. No player has nearly as many, and no player — that wasn’t a member of the Russell dynasty — is even in his stratosphere. Kyrie Irving might ask if you’ve “got buckets?” in his Uncle Drew ads — of which Russell has appeared — but Bill would just ask: “got rings?”

No one has as many as he does, including his equal in talent and size, Chamberlain. The swift 7-footer who played for Philly and LA during Russell’s time in Boston, required every ounce of Russell’s concentration and wile to stop. But stop Wilt, he did. Maybe that’s not clear when you look at the bedraggled, half-centuries old box scores from their battles, but when you look at who won and who lost at the end, Russell always came out ahead.

Bill and Wilt were friends, but they had a falling out following Russell’s last game in uniform: Game 7 of the 1969 Finals in Los Angeles against Chamberlain’s Lakers. Chamberlain famously sat the final minutes of the game with a mysterious leg injury, and Russell — thinking Chamberlain was denying him a chance to compete against the very best in his last pro game — held a years-long grudge after the final whistle shrilled to give the Celtics and Russell the icing on his career cake. Most players would be elated at side-stepping such an awesome challenge like Chamberlain at the end of their careers, but Russell took Chamberlain’s absence personally, like Wilt had robbed him of the chance to compete one last time, the ultimate sin to Russell. The two big men didn’t speak for years after that game.

They eventually patched things up later in life, but never forget that Russell is the personification of competitive heat. So much so, in fact, he was willing to end a friendship when he believed that person hadn’t raised his game enough to send him into retirement having beaten the best.

Maybe you’re a contrarian and you want to talk about how much Russell and Co. destroyed tiny white guys that played in the 1950s and 1960s. But Russell was a perfect 10-0 in Game 7’s. 10-0 in games he had to win, and while the Celtics won their share of Conference titles (there weren’t any divisions yet), his Celtics were woefully out-gunned and out-manned at the end of his career and he still kept winning. The Celtics were the No. 4 seed in Russell’s last year when they upset the heavily favored Lakers squad featuring all-timers like Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor.

If you’re like me, and you soak up Russell knowledge the way a parched person soaks up water after returning from the desert, you probably know Russell famously used to puke before every game. Who does that? Nobody, that’s who. People don’t care enough to puke before a game. There are so many games, they’d be thought of as bulimic. But Russell threw-up before nearly every game, and certainly every playoff game. He just wanted to win so badly, it had physical ramifications. But while some shirk from the moment and freeze, Bill just got better, like all-time great one’s do.

It’s possible Russell has gotten over some of the treatment he received in Boston and elsewhere in an older, more racially polarized America. It was a long time ago, but Russell can carry a grudge, just ask Wilt. He seems to have let bygones by bygones, though, even showing up for his statue unveiling in Boston’s City Hall Plaza at the behest of his buddy, David Stern. It was Stern that decided to call the NBA Finals MVP Award the Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP Award. We can’t think of a better designation for the greatest winner in, not just basketball, but sports history.

Happy Birthday, Bill Russell. You’re the biggest reason I love the game of basketball, and I know I’m not alone.

What’s your fondest Bill Russell story?

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