Bill Russell, who transformed pro basketball, dies at 88
By Richard Goldstein
Even before the opening tipoff at Boston Celtics games, Bill Russell evoked domination. Other players ran onto the court for their introductions, but he walked on, slightly stooped.
“I’d look at everybody disdainfully, like a sleepy dragon who can’t be bothered to scare off another would-be hero,” he recalled. “I wanted my look to say, ‘Hey, the king’s here tonight.’”
Russell’s awesome rebounding triggered a Celtic fast break that overwhelmed the rest of the NBA. His quickness and his uncanny ability to block shots transformed the center position, once a spot for slow and hulking types, and changed the face of pro basketball.
Russell, who propelled the Celtics to 11 NBA championships, the final two when he became the first Black head coach in a major American sports league, died Sunday. He was 88.
His death was announced by his family, who did not say where he died.
When Russell was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975, Red Auerbach, who orchestrated his arrival as a Celtic and coached him on nine championship teams, called him “the single most devastating force in the history of the game.”
He was not alone in that view: In a 1980 poll of basketball writers, Russell was voted nothing less than the greatest player in NBA history.
In the decades that followed Russell’s retirement in 1969, when flashy moves delighted fans and team play was often an afterthought, his stature was burnished even more, remembered for his ability to enhance the talents of his teammates even as he dominated the action and to do it without bravado.
Russell was remembered as well for his visibility on civil rights issues.
He took part in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and was seated in the front row of the crowd to hear Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. He went to Mississippi after civil rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered and worked with Evers’ brother, Charles, to open an integrated basketball camp in Jackson.
President Barack Obama awarded Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, at the White House in 2011, honoring him as “someone who stood up for the rights and dignity of all men.”
A much-decorated man
Russell was the ultimate winner. He led the University of San Francisco to NCAA Tournament championships in 1955 and 1956. He won a gold medal with the U.S. Olympic basketball team in 1956. He led the Celtics to eight consecutive NBA titles from 1959 to 1966.
He was the NBA’s MVP five times and an All-Star 12 times.
A reedy, towering figure at 6 feet, 10 inches and 220 pounds, Russell was cagey under the basket, able to anticipate an opponent’s shots and gain position for a rebound. And if the ball caromed off the hoop, his tremendous leaping ability almost guaranteed that he’d grab it. He finished his career as the No. 2 rebounder in NBA history, behind his rival Wilt Chamberlain, who had 3 inches on him.
Russell pulled down 21,620 rebounds, an astonishing average of 22.5 per game, with a single-game high of 51 against the Syracuse Nationals (the forerunners of the Philadelphia 76ers) in 1960.
He didn’t have much of a shooting touch, but he scored 14,522 points — many on high-percentage, short left-handed hook shots — for an average of 15.1 per game.
Beyond the court, Russell could appear aloof. He was bruised by the humiliations his family had faced when he was young in segregated Louisiana and by widespread racism in Boston. When he joined the Celtics in 1956, he was their only Black player. Early in the 1960s, his home in Reading, Massachusetts, was vandalized.
Russell’s primary allegiance was always to his teammates, not to the city of Boston or to the fans. Guarding his privacy and shunning displays of adulation, he refused to sign autographs for fans or as keepsakes for his teammates. When the Celtics retired his No. 6 in March 1972, the event, at his insistence, was a private ceremony in Boston Garden. He ignored his election to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame — situated squarely in Celtics country, in Springfield, Massachusetts — and refused to attend the induction.
“In each case, my intention was to separate myself from the star’s idea about fans and fans’ ideas about stars,” Russell said in “Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man (1979),” written with Taylor Branch. “I have very little faith in cheers, what they mean and how long they will last, compared with the faith I have in my own love for the game.”
Racial scars, a mother lost
William Felton Russell was born Feb. 12, 1934, in Monroe, Louisiana, where his father, Charles, worked in a paper bag factory. He remembered a warm home life but a childhood seared by racism. He recalled that a police officer once threatened to arrest his mother, Katie, because she was wearing a stylish outfit like those favored by white women. A gas-station attendant sought to humble his father, while Bill was with him, by refusing to provide service, an episode that ended with Charles Russell chasing the man while brandishing a tire iron.
When Bill Russell was 9, the family moved to Oakland, California. His mother died when he was 12, leaving his father, who had opened a trucking business and then worked in a foundry, to bring up Russell and his brother, Charles Jr., teaching them, as Bill Russell remembered, to work hard and covet self-worth and self-reliance.
At McClymonds High School in Oakland, Russell became a starter on the basketball team as a senior, already emphasizing defense and rebounding. A former basketball player for the University of San Francisco, Hal DeJulio, who scouted for his alma mater, recognized Russell’s potential and recommended him to the coach, Phil Woolpert.
Russell was given a scholarship and became an All-American, teaming up with guard K.C. Jones, a future Celtic teammate, in leading San Francisco to NCAA championships in his last two seasons. He averaged more than 20 points and 20 rebounds a game for his three varsity seasons.
“No one had ever played basketball the way I played it or as well,” Russell told Sport magazine in 1963, recalling his college career. “They had never seen anyone block shots before. Now I’ll be conceited: I like to think I originated a whole new style of play.”
In the mid-1950s, the Celtics had a talented team featuring Bob Cousy, the league’s greatest small man. But lacking a dominant center, they had never won a championship.
Russell led the U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal in the 1956 Melbourne Games in Australia, then joined the Celtics in December.
Playing in 48 games as a rookie, he averaged 19.6 rebounds.
That Celtic team won the franchise’s first NBA title, defeating the St. Louis Hawks in the finals.
Russell captured his first MVP award in his second season, but this time the Hawks beat the Celtics for the championship. The next year, the Celtics won the title again, beginning their run of eight straight championships.
In Russell’s fourth season, 1959-60, the 7-foot-1, 275-pound Chamberlain entered the NBA with the Philadelphia Warriors. Chamberlain led the league in scoring as a rookie with 37.6 points per game and eclipsed Russell in rebounding, averaging 27 per game to Russell’s 24, but the Celtics were champions once more.
Russell was agile, Chamberlain the epitome of strength and power. Russell was usually outscored and out-rebounded by Chamberlain in their matchups, but the Celtics won most of those games.
“If I had played for the Celtics instead of Russell, I doubt they would have been as great,” Chamberlain was quoted as saying in 1996.
As Chamberlain put it, “Bill Russell and the Celtics were the perfect fit.”
Russell was not the first Black head coach in professional sports, but he had the greatest effect as the first to be chosen, in 1966, to lead a team in one of America’s major sports leagues.
The Celtics’ streak of eight consecutive titles was snapped in Russell’s first year as coach, but it took one of the NBA’s greatest teams to do it. The 1966-67 Celtics had a 60-21 regular-season record, but they lost in the Eastern Conference playoff finals to the Philadelphia 76ers.
A changed view of Boston
The Celtics won NBA titles in Russell’s last two seasons, when he was their player-coach. He capped his career with a triumph in the 1969 NBA Finals.
Russell could not easily shake his memories of Boston during his playing days, when the fate of the city’s de facto segregated schools became a national story.
“To me, Boston itself was a flea market of racism,” Russell wrote in “Second Wind.”
But as time passed the city changed, and so did his perception of it.
Russell helped promote Boston with a radio spot in the weeks leading up to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, which was held there. “I think there are a lot of things that are happening to make it an open city, where everybody’s included and there’s nobody that’s deemed unworthy,” he said.
Boston honored Russell in 2013 with a bronze statue in City Hall Plaza.
Russell married for the fourth time, to Jeannine Fiorito, in 2016. His first marriage, to Rose Swisher, ended in divorce, as did his second marriage, to Dorothy Anstett. His third wife, Marilyn Nault, died in 2009 at 59.
Russell had three children from his first marriage — William Jr., Jacob and Karen Kenyatta Russell. William Jr., known as Buddha, died in 2016 at 58. Russell’s brother, a playwright and screenwriter under the name Charlie L. Russell, died in 2013 at 81. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.