As the cornerstone of the franchise’s dynasty of the Fifties and Nineteen Sixties, Mr. Russell gained enduring renown as essentially the most profitable participant within the historical past of group sports activities. When the Celtics named him head coach in 1966, he grew to become the primary Black man to carry that function in a significant skilled sport within the United States.
Mr. Russell, who died July 31 at 88, was indomitable on and off the court docket and one of the vital fascinating public figures to straddle sports activities and civil rights. He was intensely pushed and progressive as an athlete, notably when pitted in electrifying matchups in opposition to Wilt Chamberlain, the dominant scorer of the period. Their rivalry elevated the recognition of the National Basketball Association.
In his prime, the goateeed, broad-shouldered Mr. Russell was 220 kilos of lean muscle stretched over a 6-foot-9 body. Fast and agile, he had a superior vertical leap and used his 7-foot-4 wingspan to dam pictures together with his arm outstretched like a bowsprit. With his athletic shot-blocking and rebounding abilities, he revolutionized the way in which basketball was performed on protection.
Mr. Russell’s bodily presents have been complemented by an mental curiosity about different features of the sport, resembling shot trajectory, rebounding angles, human psychology and gamesmanship. He was recognized to needle opponents on the court docket, interact in trash discuss, analysis gamers’ habits and aggressively block pictures early in video games. He as soon as wrote that he knew he could not block all pictures however that a couple of resounding blocks have been greater than sufficient to throw an opposing participant off his recreation.
“The solely factor we all know for certain about superiority in sports activities within the United States of America within the twentieth century,” journalist Frank Deford wrote in Sports Illustrated in 1999, “is that Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics groups he led stand alone as the last word winners.”
Amid the celebration of his prowess as a participant, Mr. Russell additionally struggled with the festering issues of prejudice and segregation. Born within the Jim Crow South, he was typically described as non-public, introspective, prickly and principled, a person who searched for methods, as he as soon as wrote in a e book introduction, for his kids to develop up “as we couldn’t … equal … and understanding.”
As early as 1958, he accused the NBA of utilizing a quota system to restrict the variety of Black gamers on every group. He took half in civil rights marches with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. however questioned the nonviolent technique of the motion, arguing that African Americans had a proper to defend themselves.
When civil rights chief Medgar Evers was assassinated in Jackson, Miss., in 1963, Mr. Russell accepted a suggestion from Evers’ older brother, Charles, to run a youth basketball camp in Jackson, to convey White and Black kids collectively. He acquired loss of life threats however refused to again away from his views.
Mr. Russell’s steely outward persona and pointed method of talking didn’t endear him to some followers in Boston, which had a protracted historical past of racism. The Boston Red Sox baseball group didn’t combine till 1959, and protests in Boston over federal court-ordered faculty desegregation within the Nineteen Seventies have been among the many most violent within the nation.
Many followers perceived Mr. Russell to be aloof as a result of for years he refused to signal autographs, preferring a handshake and dialog. He described Boston as a “flea market of racism” in his 1979 e book, “Second Wind: Memoirs of an Opinionated Man.”
Despite his success with the Celtics — the group had by no means gained a championship earlier than his arrival — Mr. Russell didn’t obtain native enterprise endorsements and located himself shut out of unique neighborhoods when he was trying to purchase a home. In 1968, his suburban Boston dwelling was damaged into and ransacked. Racial epithets have been written on the partitions, and feces have been left on his mattress.
“It had all varieties, outdated and new, and of their most virulent kind,” he wrote in “Second Wind. “The metropolis had corrupt, metropolis hall-crony racists, brick-throwing, send-’em-back-to-Africa racists, and within the college areas phony radical-chic racists. … (*88*) than that, I favored town.”
He refused to log out on a public ceremony in 1972 to retire his Celtics jersey, and in 1975 he declined to attend his induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, upset that he could be the primary African American participant to be enshrined.
“We foolishly lionize athletes and make them heroes as a result of they’ll hit a ball or catch one,” Mr. Russell as soon as stated. “The solely athletes we must always hassle with attaching any specific significance to are these like [Muhammad] Ali, whom we are able to admire for themselves and never for his or her incidental athletic talents.”
In 2010, President Barack Obama awarded Mr. Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, for each his athletic achievements and his advocacy for human rights.
William Felton Russell was born in Monroe, La., on Feb. 12, 1934, and his father labored in a paper bag manufacturing unit. His childhood was full of searing reminiscences of prejudice, with each day indignities and outright threats directed at his mom and father.
When he was 9, his household moved to Oakland, Calif., within the hope of escaping the institutionalized segregation of the South. His father discovered work in a struggle manufacturing plant. Mr. Russell described the general public housing initiatives of Oakland as robust and harmful however paradise in contrast with Louisiana.
His mother and father separated, and his mom died a couple of years later. Throughout childhood, he and his older brother, Charlie Russell Jr., who grew to become a playwright, leaned on one another for assist.
Tall and uncoordinated as a youth, Mr. Russell tried organized basketball for the primary time in junior highschool however didn’t make the group. He later obtained a spot on his highschool’s junior varsity group solely due to a sympathetic coach. It was a flip of occasions that probably spared his life from the violent streets of the interior metropolis. “If I hadn’t had basketball,” he later stated, “all my energies and frustrations would certainly have been carried in another course.”
Mr. Russell acquired just one school scholarship provide, from the University of San Francisco, a small Jesuit faculty that had no historical past of athletic excellence. Mr. Russell led the USF Dons to consecutive NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956 and was acclaimed as a first-team all-American each years. One of his school teammates, KC Jones, joined him on the Celtics and had a Hall of Fame profession in his personal proper.
In addition to starring on the basketball court docket, Mr. Russell was one of many nation’s premier excessive jumpers within the Fifties.
Despite Mr. Russell’s success at the newbie degree, some NBA scouts remained uncertain of the worth of a defense-oriented middle. At the time, facilities have been coveted for placing up large numbers on the scoreboard, which Mr. Russell by no means did.
Celtics coach Red Auerbach did not harbor such doubts. He engineered a commerce to amass the draft rights to Mr. Russell in 1956, sensing how his fashion of play may assist the group’s roster of future Hall of Famers, together with Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman and Frank Ramsey.
After lacking virtually half his rookie season, whereas main the US Olympic basketball group to a gold medal, Mr. Russell shortly claimed a spot within the Celtics lineup and helped lead the group to its first NBA championship in 1957.
An ankle harm sidelined Mr. Russell in his second 12 months, when the Celtics misplaced within the NBA finals to the St. Louis Hawks. Boston then gained eight consecutive titles below Auerbach and two extra in 1967-1968 and 1968-1969, after Mr. Russell had taken over as player-coach, changing into the primary Black head coach in main skilled sports activities.
None of the championships got here simply. Mr. Russell was such an intense competitor that he threw up within the locker room earlier than every recreation. When he took the court docket, he awed crowds by shutting down opposing groups’ offenses virtually single-handedly.
Sometimes, whereas guarding an opponent with the ball, he would purposely enable that participant to drive round him for a seemingly straightforward layup, then get better in time to show and swat the ball away from behind.
(*88*) instances, Mr. Russell would block pictures a number of instances on the identical possession, as if he have been taking part in in a one-man recreation of volleyball. When he secured a defensive rebound, he typically made a rapid left-handed move to his teammates streaking down the wood parquet flooring at Boston Garden on a quick break.
After Chamberlain entered the NBA in 1959, the rivalry between the 2 — who have been shut pals — grew to become a spotlight of the league. Chamberlain could have posted higher particular person statistics, however Mr. Russell’s group got here away with many of the victories.
Chamberlain performed on just one NBA championship group (the 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers) throughout Mr. Russell’s 13 years with the Celtics.
“If he obtained 62 [points] and we gained that would not imply something,” Mr. Russell stated of Chamberlain in a 1997 tv interview with Bob Costas. “But if he obtained 62 and gained the sport, that bothered me.”
In his skilled profession, Mr. Russell scored 14,522 profession factors (15.1 factors a recreation) and grabbed 21,620 rebounds. His common of twenty-two.5 rebounds per recreation ranks second solely to Chamberlain’s 22.9 in NBA historical past.
Mr. Russell additionally set the usual for shot-blocking, despite the fact that the NBA did not file blocked pictures as an official statistic till 1973, after he had retired.
During his profession, Mr. Russell made 12 NBA All-Star Game appearances, earned 5 rebounding titles and was named the league’s most respected participant 5 instances. In 1980, the nation’s basketball writers voted him “the best participant within the historical past of the NBA.”
Mr. Russell retired from basketball in 1969, drove his automobile throughout the nation and settled in Mercer Island, Wash. After a interval of solitude, he labored as a community broadcast commentator for NBA video games and acted in a handful of movies and tv reveals earlier than returning to basketball as coach and normal supervisor of the Seattle SuperSonics from 1973 to 1977. He was coach of the Sacramento Kings in 1987 and vp of the group’s basketball operations till 1989.
His marriages to Rose Swisher, his school sweetheart, and Dorothy Anstett led to divorce. His third spouse, Marilyn Nault, died in 2009. Survivors embody three kids from his first marriage, Karen, William and Jacob.
In an indication that relations between Mr. Russell and Boston have been starting to enhance, Mr. Russell made a number of journeys again to Boston, together with for a 1999 ceremony when the Celtics re-retired his No. 6. At different gatherings, he appeared earlier than standing ovations together with his outdated teammates — amongst them Sam Jones, John Havlicek and Tom Heinsohn — to mark the anniversaries of their championships.
In 2013, a statue of Mr. Russell was unveiled at Boston’s City Hall Plaza. He agreed to the monument solely after metropolis officers pledged to determine a grant to fund a youth mentoring program. The statue reveals Mr. Russell, knees bent, with ball in his palms able to make a chest move, a picture of the consummate unselfish teammate. The stone is engraved with a citation from Mr. Russell: “The most necessary measure of how good a recreation I’d performed was how significantly better I’d made my teammates play.”