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.
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.
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.
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 on Bill Russell
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.