In the 6 seasons before drafting Bill Russell, the Boston Celtics lost in the Eastern Division Semifinals. His first year, they were the 1956-57 NBA Finals Champions.
That’s the way it would be, most years. If Russell was playing, the Celtics were winning. He may not have been their best offensive player. His regular season career average was 15.1 points per game and he never averaged 19 points in a season. But rebounds, that is where Russell would shine. He led the league in rebounds 5 times during the regular season and 7 times in the playoffs in his 13 year career.
Bill Russell was born on February 12, 1934 in Monroe, Louisiana. His parents, Charles and Katie brought 9-year old Bill Russell from the south to Oakland, California. He was a child of the Great Migration. Russell went on to play at the University of San Francisco before being drafted #2 to the Boston Celtics. He also had a cousin, Bob Hopkins of Grambling, selected #74 in the same 1956 draft.
The year was a tumultuous one. The Civil Rights Movement was in full effect, with the Montgomery Bus Boycott happening the month before his December 22nd debut. Initially the only Black player on the team, he gained the respect of his colleagues and coach. In his rookie year, he refused to join a huddle, finding the positions the Celtics were playing intolerable. When legendary coach Red Auerbach snapped at him, he was candid. Russell stood up for what he believed on the court and off the court. Unable to tolerate the racism of the day, he was in the front row of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech and was met with several high profile athletes to protest treatment of African Americans in the 1960s.
The 1960s is a decade the Celtics would dominate. The cast included Bob Cousy, the late Tom Heihnsohn, Sam Jones, and John Havlicek. The two seasons they lost included a couple of figurative mountains, which Russell would eventually defeat.
Arguably the best player in the NBA up to Russell, was the often forgotten big man, Bob Pettit. If not for Russell’s Celtics, the St. Louis Hawks forward would have won several championships, and replaced Russell as one of the most winning players in NBA history. Russell and the Celtics went 3-1 against Pettit and the Hawks during that era. The only loss came in 1958 with Russell missing the last 2 Finals games due to injury. The Hawks won in 6 games.
His other Finals loss came to his next, high-profile rival, Wilt Chamberlain. Wilt would usually outplay Russell, but his team couldn’t beat the Celtics. Chamberlain left the San Francisco Warriors and joined the Philadelphia 76ers during the 1964-65 season in order to win his first elusive championship, and he succeeded with the Philadelphia 76ers. But, it took a couple of years.
By the 1966-67 season, Russell succeeded Red Auerbach as coach of the Celtics. He was the first Black NBA coach and among the standout player-coaches. Russell and the Celtics lost to Wilt and the high-powered 76ers in the 1967 Finals. The following year, Russell and company defeated the 76ers, winning 2 more championships for Bill Russell as a player-coach, before his tenure ended in Boston. The players Russell’s Celtics prevented from winning multiple championships include Wilt Chamberlain, Bob Pettit and Jerry West, the very best do ever do it.
Russell wore 11 championship rings, leaving as one of the greatest winner in all of sports. He lived 88 full, pivotal years. It was fitting to see him honored by the NBA and celebrated by the people; for him to see the changes that happened in part, because of his actions.
In 1969 when Russell retired, the world looked starkly different than it had his rookie year in 1956. Though there was still work to be done, what was known as the Civil Rights Movement had ended.
Many saw his battles on the court, while he worked overtime off the court. His career began weeks after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on an Alabama bus, and ended a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. It was as if he was there for such a time. If you didn’t have a front row seat to his actions as an activist, know that the same work, his defense against opponents and rivals and winning championships, was an illustration of how #6 fought for social justice.
Bill Russell was a leader, a competitor and defender on and off the court; and basketball and the world is better, because of Bill.
- Basketball Reference https://www.basketball-reference.com/
- Celtic’s great Bill Russell was At Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have A Dream,’ speech and still fighting to fulfill it, June 17, 2020 https://www.masslive.com/celtics/2020/06/celtics-great-bill-russell-was-at-martin-luther-kings-i-have-a-dream-speech-and-still-fighting-to-fulfill-it.html
- The Ship’s (B)log, Isabel Wilkerson Discusses ‘The Warmth of Other Suns’, October 30, 2010 https://elliottbaybooks.wordpress.com/2010/10/30/isabel-wilkerson-discusses-the-warmth-of-other-suns/
- Russell’s stories are Red all over, Boston.com, May 6, 2009 http://archive.boston.com/sports/basketball/celtics/articles/2009/05/06/russells_stories_are_red_all_over/