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Monday, August 01, 2022

Remembering Bill Russell, The Greatest Champion in North American Team Sports History

Bill Russell, who led the Boston Celtics to an unprecedented and unsurpassed 11 NBA titles in his 13 season career, passed away yesterday at the age of 88. He led a remarkable life filled not only with accomplishments on the basketball court but also imbued with intelligence, courage, dignity, and tenacity away from the basketball court.

Russell led McClymonds High School to two California state basketball titles. During an era when the sport of basketball was only beginning to integrate, he was not heavily recruited, but he accepted a scholarship to the University of San Francisco and promptly led the Dons to a 55 game winning streak plus two NCAA championships. Russell is one of a select group of Division I players who have career averages of at least 20 ppg and at least 20 rpg. Although shotblocking statistics were not kept during that era, Russell was such a dominant defensive player that he would tell his teammate K.C. Jones to run to a particular spot where Russell would direct a blocked shot to start the fastbreak! Russell led the United States basketball team to a gold medal in the 1956 Olympic Games at Melbourne, Australia before returning to the United States and leading the Boston Celtics to the 1957 NBA championship as a rookie. 

The Celtics lost to the St. Louis Hawks in the 1958 NBA Finals--Russell was hobbled by an injured ankle during that series--and then won an NBA record eight straight championships from 1959-66. Wilt Chamberlain's Philadelphia 76ers ended that streak in 1967. Chamberlain and Russell had perhaps the greatest rivalry not only in NBA history but in sports history. Chamberlain was the most dominant individual player, setting scoring and rebounding records that will likely never be broken, including most points in a season (4029), most points in a game (100), most career rebounds (23,924), most rebounds in a season (2149), and most rebounds in a game (55). Chamberlain was the first player to score more than 30,000 career regular season points, the only center to lead the NBA in assists, and the only player who has ranked first in scoring, rebounding, and assists at least once each for an entire season. Russell was not dominant in any statistical category other than rebounding (where he only trails Chamberlain in the record books), but Russell's teams won 11 titles while Chamberlain's teams won two titles. 

Could Chamberlain have won more championships with better supporting casts? Would Russell have won fewer championships if he had played with Chamberlain's supporting casts? We will never know the answers to such hypothetical questions, but we know that Chamberlain was the most dominant offensive player ever while Russell was the most dominant defensive player ever.

During that era, the players voted for the regular season MVP award while media members voted for the All-NBA Teams. Russell won five MVP awards (1958, 1961-63, 1965) but received just three All-NBA First Team selections (1959, 1963, 1965), while Chamberlain won four MVP awards (1960, 1966-68) while receiving seven All-NBA First Team selections (1960-62, 1964, 1966-68). For some reason, the players ranked Russell higher, while the media members preferred Chamberlain.

The Celtics bounced back to win the 1968 title. In 1969, the aging Celtics finished fourth in the seven team Eastern Division in 1969, but they nevertheless reached the NBA Finals, where they faced a powerful L.A. Lakers squad featuring Chamberlain, Jerry West, and Elgin Baylor. My favorite Bill Russell story is about his last game: game seven of the 1969 NBA Finals. His Celtics faced the Lakers in Los Angeles. The Lakers published an elaborate description of how they would celebrate after winning the title, down to the details about which players would be interviewed after the game and about how 20,000 balloons would be released from the rafters while a band played "Happy Days Are Here Again." Russell saw those plans, and told his team simply that there were many things that could happen that day but one thing that could not happen was L.A. winning, so he looked forward to watching those balloons being taken down one by one. The Celtics won, 108-106, and Russell rode off into the sunset with 11 championship rings for 10 fingers.

The NBA Finals MVP award was first given out in 1969--West became the first and only player from the losing team to receive the honor--but in 2009 the NBA named the NBA Finals MVP award after Russell. Russell likely would have won more Finals MVPs than anyone else had the award existed throughout his career. Russell transformed a high scoring Boston team that could not win the big one into the greatest dynasty in North American sports history.

The way that championship ring counting is currently discussed is odd, because media members pretend that Michael Jordan--who won six NBA titles as a player--holds a record that was chased by Kobe Bryant (who finished with five NBA titles), LeBron James (four titles) and others. These media members ignore the six NBA titles won by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and they neglect to mention that Bill Russell won as many championships as Jordan and Bryant combined! The players closest to Russell on that list are former teammates, such as Sam Jones (10), K.C. Jones (eight), Tommy Heinsohn (eight), Satch Sanders (eight) and John Havlicek (eight, including two after Russell retired).

Russell served as player-coach during his final three seasons, winning back to back titles. He was the first Black coach in any of the four major American pro sports leagues. He had less successful stints coaching in Seattle and briefly in Sacramento. Russell joined John Wooden, Bill Sharman, Lenny Wilkens, and his teammate Tommy Heinsohn as the only people inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and as a coach

A lot has been said about the relative athletic ability of NBA players in the 1950s and 1960s, much of it ignorant babbling by people who do not have the faintest idea of what it means to be a great athlete or a great basketball player. Russell represented USF in track and field events, and in 1956 he was ranked as the seventh best high jumper in the world. Russell ran the 440 in 49.6 seconds. Remember, Russell posted those numbers as a 6-9 athlete whose primary sport was basketball, not track and field; someone who had world class jumping ability and speed under those conditions in the 1950s would surely have also been an elite athlete in the modern era with today's superior training conditions. If there is a plumber then or now who could keep up with Russell, I'd pay to see him.

Inevitably, Russell will be most remembered for his considerable on court accomplishments, but his life away from basketball should not be forgotten. Russell was a champion for social justice when that was not just a slogan but it meant actually taking a stand, taking risks, and possibly even putting your life in danger. Russell was front and center in Washington, D.C. in 1963 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Russell marched in Mississippi after civil rights leader Medgar Evers was assassinated. Russell refused to play in games when he and other Black players were not provided accommodations equal to the accommodations provided to White players. Russell's house was vandalized by racists who defecated on his bed and smashed his trophies. He was not a man who spoke platitudes while safely ensconced far away from the battles; Russell was on the front lines in the fight for racial equality. Russell was one of the leaders of the 1967 Muhammad Ali Summit in Cleveland, along with Jim Brown, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor). Russell received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.

My basketball hero is Julius Erving, and I know that Bill Russell is Erving's basketball hero. Both of them felt unfulfilled about the time that they spent as TV basketball commentators because they understood that the deeper meaning of the sport cannot be conveyed in brief soundbites sandwiched between commercials. As Erving put it in his autobiography, "It is remarkable to me how we can fill hours, days even, of television talking about basketball, and yet I always feel that we are failing to communicate the truth of the game. Even here, in this book, I worry that I am not up to the task of explaining the essence of basketball as it is played at the highest levels. I feel that it is like trying to explain music through words or to describe a painting through text. You can give a feeling of the work, or compare it to something else, but you can't re-create the actual feeling of being on the court, or making that move, imposing your will, of the precise moment that you realize you can reach the front of the rim." I suspect that Russell agreed with those sentiments, and I always enjoyed listening to Russell's insights about basketball.

I never interviewed Russell, but I met him at an NBA Cares event. I shook his hand, and told him how much I respect what he accomplished. I hope that I made clear and that he understood I was not talking only about basketball.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:53 AM



At Thursday, August 18, 2022 7:39:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...

Hello David,

Related to the memory of Bill Russell and NBA history, I thought you might find this interesting: I found some rare color telecast footage from the 1966 NBA playoffs available on YouTube, featuring the Russell Celtics versus the Robertson Royals.


The dribbling and ballhandling are a bit more stilted compared to the modern game due to the more strictly enforced palming/carrying rules but watching this I feel there's not much here that I can say would be out of place today. On showcase is Russell's famous rebounding and blocking dominance but also his pick-setting, passing, and ability to bring the ball up the court like a guard. John Havlicek, Sam Jones, and Oscar Robertson also all demonstrate long range shooting from what would probably be the three-point area. Fascinating glimpse back in time. RIP Bill Russell.

At Friday, August 19, 2022 12:48:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


It is always cool to see footage from previous eras.

You can see Havlicek, Sam Jones, Robertson, Lucas, and others doing moves that would fit in just fine today, such as one dribble pull up jumpers, turnaround jumpers in the post, etc. The dribbling and ballhandling are not fancy, but they are effective. The notion that today's players are vastly superior in terms of basketball skills does not hold much credibility. Today's players have better nutrition, better training opportunities, and better off-court amenities (including private airplanes, plush hotels, etc.), but the 1960s players were very skilled in terms of shooting, dribbling, and rebounding. The defensive rules and strategies were different, but Bill Russell's intelligence, agility, and leaping ability would make him a premier rebounder and shotblocker in any era.


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