Bill Russell: A legacy of greatness

Published August 2, 2022, 12:00 PMLei Macaranas

Bill Russell will always be included when discussing the greatest NBA players–not only for his illustrious career that included 11 championships, but also for his revolutionary role as a Black player and coach.

With 11 championships, five NBA MVP awards, 12 All-Star seasons, and two NCAA championships, Russell is arguably the most decorated athlete in sports. Skipping the legendary Celtics center and first black NBA coach from discussions about the league's all-time greats would certainly be a mistake. 

At the beginning of his 13-year career, the 6-foot-10 Russell immediately dominated in the paint, averaging 14.7 points per game and racking up a league-high 19.6 rebounds per game in his rookie year in 1956. He arrived in Boston at the perfect time when the team had a stellar shooting lineup but lacked the defensive presence needed to win tight games. Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, and Ed Macauley are all Hall of Famers that made up the Celtics’ lineup, so they only needed one final piece—an elite defender who could get turnovers that they could convert to easy baskets.

Being the last piece to the Celtics' puzzle paid off well as Russell was trusted to be the go-to man for defensive takedowns. He was always called out for quick double-teams while his athleticism allowed him to run it back for the perfect shot block in case there was an open shooter. His stellar performance in guarding notable players like Wilt Chamberlain and Bob Pettit was the glue for the unstoppable plays called out by then head coach Red Auerbach. 

The Celtics dynasty was established by Russell and his packed team, who gave the franchise ten successive appearances in the Finals, including eight straight championships from 1959 to 1966.

First black coach

When Auerbach departed in 1966 to work as a general manager for the Celtics organization, Russell's enormous skill set and leadership abilities gained the respect to be taken into consideration as a replacement. His last two championships were delivered with him standing as the first ever Black head coach in NBA history. 

Boston’s championship streak eventually came to an end at eight when Russell’s first season as player-coach culminated in a defeat to the Chamberlain-led Philadelphia 76ers in the Easter Conference Finals. However, Russell and his teammates were able to make an immediate comeback in the following year, marking his first championship as a player-coach. In his final year, Russell acquired his 11th title by dismantling the Los Angeles Lakers with Jerry West in the main playmaker position. 

Fight against racism 

Russell succeeding in basketball was not really a surprise to the league because of his solid footing on offense and defense. The captivating thing about Russell’s legacy is how he was able to push through and serve as a player and coach despite the racial discrimination he faced.

During the games, there were times when spectators threw things at him and yelled racial slurs as he ran up the court. Some locals even broke into his family's home while he was living in Boston, damaged it, and vandalized it. 

Russell’s experiences were very difficult as an athlete but he used his platform to shed light on the country’s discrimination and prejudice against people like him. He was active in the Cleveland Summit, a gathering organized by African-American athletes to support boxer Muhammad Ali, who was stripped of his title because he refused military service. Russell even gained a reputation for being distant with fans and journalists because he was very much used to the hostile environment caused by racism. 

When he concluded his career, Russell was staunch in his description of the Boston press being corrupt and racist, which resulted in his refusal to attend his own jersey retirement in 1972. He always courageously voiced out whenever he witnessed any form of injustice in his organization.

Laying down the foundation

The legacy of Russell is truly one for the history books. His career achievements led to him entering the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and having the NBA Finals MVP award named after him. We must not forget that his prestige in basketball did not only stem from his athletic accolades but also from his unwavering determination to speak up against injustice and inequality on and off the court.

Russell is forever cemented in basketball history as a man who was ahead of his time–helping the league realize they have an avenue that can be used to fight a battle bigger than basketball.