The Man Behind the Rings: The Story of Bill Russell, Pt.1
Also seen at Celtics 17
A big shout-out to my buddy Leroy Watson, for helping me out loads with this article. Couldn't have done it without him.
Bill Russell has had an unreal impact on the game of basketball. He's one of the most outstanding players to ever touch the court. But, contrary to most beliefs, that's a realization mainly in the minds of players that were put up against him.
Russell has a long list of fascinating tales, some that even bewilder the most studious of fans. Russell is up there with the likes of athletes such as Muhammad Ali and Ted Williams—the exciting adventures, exhilarating memories, and nonstop drama.
He was the best, in my opinion, when it comes to intangibles. Russell gave it his all and received some of the best awards you can get in basketball in return.
Bill Russell was born in West Monroe, Louisiana. He, his mother, and father all lived there until Bill reached the age of eight. Russell, as an infant, had been riddled with sicknesses and was forced to fight through a number of ailments.
The Black community in West Monroe was separated from the rest of the town, and the Russell clan was forced to endure times of calamity because of racism.
For example, Russell's father was once waiting for service at a gas station, only to find out that he'd been put on hold by the management until all the white customers had been taken care of.
He, surprisingly, is more overlooked than most believe. His stories of perseverance and resolution often go unnoticed and settle in with the dust that is the neglected tales of so many basketball legends.
When Russell's father had finally got fed up with the staff, he felt he should try to leave and find another gas station which would serve him more suitably.
However, the gas station he was currently being waited on forced him to remain there and wait for his turn. He was actually held at gun point, and the man holding the firearm threatened to kill him if he decided to leave.
Russell's family, along with many other Blacks that resided in West Monroe, moved to Oakland, CA, where Russell spent the rest of his childhood living in project homes.
In 1946, the Russell family had a tragedy on their hands. Russell's mother, the beloved Katie Russell, caught a severe case of the flu, which eventually led to her passing.
Russell then became a dedicated student in honor of her death, being aware that his education was near and dear to her heart. But, despite the efforts, Bill's grades were falling, likely a result of the sadness and pain that was caused by his mother's death.
Russell also spent a great deal of time on the basketball court with his brother Charlie Russell. This may also explain why his grades suffered, as he was trying to balance two important things at once.
Players and fans of today's game basically know his name and that he won a lot of titles.
However, as his game started to develop and he began to grow used to his body, Russell became a smooth, flowing player. He had good hands, and was a decent dribbler for his position.
Russell was not a highly recruited player, at all. His still somewhat clutz play wasn't appealing to most scouts. It wasn't until USF's Hal DeJulio attended one of Russell's high school games that he was finally noticed.
DeJulio's first impression on Russell wasn't a good one, as the center's offensive game wasn't nearly polished, and he reportedly had "atrocious fundamentals." Luckily, DeJulio saw tremendous potential because of Russell's feel and instinct for the game, especially in crunch-time.
He was also a sensational jumper. He held the record for his high school's high jump, until singer Johnny Mathis broke the school's record. Although he was never recognized for his skills early on, Russell had always been an amazing athletic specimen.
Russell proved to be a hard worker, vastly improving his game in his time at USF. As a member of the USF basketball program, Russell forced himself to endure intense, rigorous, and most of all, perpetual workouts.
And that was when Russell began to mold into the HoFer he was to become during his Celtics years. When Russell had a work out schedule placed in front of him, he didn't reject it. When he finally realized what it would take to become the player he wanted to be, he didn't shove it away. Russell began pushing himself, and accepted the test gratefully.
Russell had been eyed as one of the first players to utilize the blocked-shot aspect of the game, using it as one of his main mechanisms of defense. With his long arms and tall, powerful legs, he was able to rise above those with the ball and pound it straight back to the ground. Unless you were as tall, agile, or talented as the big man, it was unlikely that you were going to score in the post.
Russell developed into such a defensive savage because he had the sense and confidence of a winner. He wasn't presumptuous or cocky, but from the way Russell played in the clutch, he had this aura that glowed "winner." He refused to lose. He had his eyes set on his team coming out victorious. He didn't care if he was the superstar or the scrappy garbage man who averaged five valuable points a game down low on put-backs.
Racism was still very much a part of sports in the span of years Russell played for the Dons. Bill and his Black teammates were a common bulls-eye for racial slurs and insults.
In Oakland, Russell attended McClymonds High School. In junior high, Russell was cut from the school’s basketball team. Fortunately, he just barely made the cut as a sophomore for his Junior Varsity team.
Once, the USF team was in Oklahoma City for a 1954 All-College tournament. All hotels in the city refused to let Russell and any other Black teammates set foot in their hotels.
To fight back against the cruel actions of the OKC hotels, the whole team ended up staying in a dormant college dorm.
However, if this was a way to stay out of trouble, Russell's father welcomed it. “I had to leave them alone a lot,” Russell’s father Charles said. “But they never got into trouble. They were always at the playgrounds instead of running the streets.”
Russell later reflected on the experience, saying that it helped him become solid as a rock when targeted in racial situations. "I never permitted myself to be a victim," he said.
In the closing days of Russell's college career, Russell had the choice of joining the Harlem Globetrotters' exhibition squad or declaring eligible for the 1956 NBA Draft. Globetrotters' owner Abe Saperstein approached Coach Woolpert about the opportunity, but prevented Russell from ever hearing the conversation.
After assistant coach Harry Hanna became aware of the steaming Russell, he tried to amuse him with jokes while they both sat out of the meeting. However, Russell was still raging (and probably wasn't even listening to the corny jokes), and finally concluded that "if Saperstein was too smart to speak with (me), then (I) was too smart to play for Saperstein."
Those were exactly the type of experiences that made Russell as tough on the court as he was on the sidewalk in a city. Russell didn't exactly keep quiet, but he also realized that it's better to shut up the pessimists on the court rather than face-to-face. It was his way of saying, "I am who I am. You can't stop me."
Entering the NBA
At the end of his college career, Russell's averages consisted of 20.7 ppg and 20.3 rpg. Russell was now headed on to his NBA career. But first, he had to be drafted.
Heading into his NBA career, Russell seemed to have a tough attitude to assess. While he wasn't necessarily rowdy, he had a way of questioning decisions and being a pest about it. He was hardheaded, something that sometimes prevented him from seeing the other side of things until it was too late.
That was also what made Russell such a great leader. His “voice” was in his play on the court, showing by example and expecting the same from his teammates. He was the 1950s-60s precursor of Kevin Garnett, especially in the locker room (not so much on the court, where Russell was intense but quieter).
Russell became one of the many greats that the Celtics acquired in the 1956 Draft, others being Holy Cross star Tommy Heinsohn and guard K.C. Jones. Boston grabbed him via trade which sent the famous and coveted center Ed Macauley to the St. Louis Hawks, a team the Celtics would later face in multiple NBA Finals battles.
After returning from his showing on the U.S. Olympic basketball team as captain, Russell began his 13-year career with the Boston Celtics.
In just his rookie season, Russell had established himself as a formidable rebounder. He averaged a league-leading 19.6 rebounds per game to go along with 14.7 points per game.
Russell became the defensive force needed in the Celtics lineup. With lightning quick feet and hustle, Russell had spawned a completely new style of defense, now called “Help D.”
He played like he always did when in his early years—clumsily, awkwardly, as if there wasn't a flow. Russell seemed to break the game up too much. Start, and stop, and start, and stop.
Russell began his journey as both a winner and superstar in that season. He jumped into the NBA game with many goals and objectives, and didn't waste any time getting his name in the papers.
Russell immediately became a terrorizing defender, to be later known league-wide. He also put up fine scoring numbers, likely the result of ridiculous rebounding numbers, which enabled him to score a bulk of his points on put-backs and tip-ins.
In the subsequent season, Russell's game reached another bar in the ladder. He was voted the MVP of the 1957-58 season.
This is when Russell made the leap from exciting rookie to proven All-Star. Although he wasn't a member of the All-NBA first team, he was elected MVP in just his second season, which means he was not only vital to his team on the court, but off it as well. I'm guessing this is the moment when Russell started to take the "leader path" in his career.
The Celtics yet again had a strong season, reaching the Finals but this time losing to the same St. Louis Hawks team in six games.
The following season, Russell continued his growth as a player, averaging 16.7 points and a monstrous 23 rebounds. The Celtics again succeeded in getting to the Finals, and swept the Minneapolis Lakers 4-0, which gave Russell two titles in three years.
Russell and the Celtics took another step closer to a dynasty. Russell met his match in terms of uncontested dominance in Wilt Chamberlain, but still had a strong season.
In that same rookie year, the Celtics had reeled in their first ever NBA title, prevailing against the St. Louis Hawks in seven nail-biting games.
While Chamberlain was undoubtedly more offensively talented player, no one could play defense like Russell. Chamberlain's Philly Warriors team ran into a roadblock in Russell's Celtics in the 1959-60 year when making a stop at the Eastern Conference Finals.
Luckily for both Boston and Russell, it was their final stop, as the C's disabled the Warriors in six games, winning the series 4-2.
The beginning of the Russell-Wilt rivalry didn't get off to a good foot for Chamberlain, and it would stay that way for a good while. Even though Chamberlain was, on paper, much more talented, he doesn’t match up close to Russell as a mentor and team director.
Chamberlain averaged fewer points when playing against Russell (28.7 ppg against Russell, compared to his 30.1 career average against all other centers), but more rebounds (28.7 rpg, averse to his career average of 22.9). However, there is a good explanation.
The Celtics were one of the first teams to use the fast break efficiently and consistently, as opposing teams would commit turnovers allowing Boston to get easy baskets. Russell also gave the Celtics an instant change from defense to offense, blocking shots to himself and rifling pinpoint outlets to his sprinting teammates. This was brand new to the NBA.
The dominance Russell held over Wilt victory-wise could mean one of two things: one being that Russell not only contained Wilt—to an extent; it's hard to fully shut down one of the greatest of all-time—but the rest of Wilt's team as well.
Legendary Knicks coach Red Holzman once said "One-on-one, [Wilt] would've murdered Russell and everyone. But playing five-on-five, Wilt was consigned to a specific role because of his ability to score so easily, whereas the Celtics fit Russell into their team concept better."
The Celtics kept cruising: to a 57-22 regular season record, and winning their fourth championship in just five years. In the 1961-62 season, Russell averaged 18.9 points and 23.6 rebounds, and Russell's Celtics became the first ever team to win 60 games in a single season, and won their fifth consecutive title.
When in that year's Finals, they faced a tough Laker team, who boasted stars such as Elgin Baylor and Jerry West. However, Russell held hold down Boston's ship to win in seven games.
In the year Bob Cousy retired and John Havlicek joined the C's (1962-63), Russell put up prodigious average of 16.8 ppg and 23.6 rpg. Russell also accomplished yet another feat in his career, earning his fourth regular season MVP award. The Celtics defeated the Lakers in six games to win the NBA championship yet again.
In the 1963-64 season, Russell had averages of 15 points and an astounding 24.7 rebounds. It was his best rebounding campaign ever. That season, the C's came out on top to polish off the new team in San Francisco, the Warriors, led by the Big Dipper, Chamberlain, to nab another banner.
This was an amazing rebounding season for Russell, and made a huge difference. Wilt averaged 17.4 rpg, 7.3 less than what Russell racked up. While Russell was the lesser scorer, the additional rebounds sapped Wilt’s second chance points and added to Russell’s.
In the ensuing season, Russell's Celtics won 62 games. Russell averaged 14.1 ppg and 24.1 rpg, capturing the league's rebounding title for a second time in two years. The Celtics and Russell again shut down the team Chamberlain played for, this time the Philadelphia 76ers, and went on to win their seventh title in the "Havlicek stole the ball! It's all over! Johnny Havlicek stole the ball!" season.
In 1965-66, Russell's play started to decline, averaging 12.9 ppg and 22.8 rpg. But, the Celtics still managed to win a ring that year against the Los Angeles Lakers in seven games. It was their eight consecutive championship, a record that still stands to this day.
Here was the window of opportunity for Wilt to avenge himself against Russell. If he wanted to win, the time was now, as you can see in Russell's numbers in the next few paragraphs. Bill was gradually slowing down.
In the 1966-67 season, legendary coach Arnold "Red" Auerbach announced his retirement. Russell then accepted the position as a player-coach after Red's first three candidates rejected the offering.
He was the first black coach ever in NBA history.
Wouldn't it be only logical for Wilt's team to direct more of the pressure down low under the basket so 1) Wilt could score countless times on second chances, and 2) Russell would likely be worn down near the end of the game?
In perhaps one of the more emotional moments in Russell's career, he swallowed the hard loss by entering Wilt's domain (Philly's locker room) to shake hands and simply remark, "Great."
Afterward, Russell led his grandfather into Boston's locker room. As the two looked around the clubhouse, they saw the black Sam Jones and white John Havlicek rinsing off in a shower. Russell looked down to see him sobbing tears of joy.
Russell finally asked for an explanation, after first being speechless. The grandfather said he was beyond proud of Bill, because he was the coach of a team where both blacks and whites could get along, and most importantly win, in peace.
Russell averaged 13.3 ppg and 21 rpg that year, but the C's were finally overcome by Chamberlain's Sixers, losing in just five games in the Eastern Conference Finals.
How did Russell regain his dominance over the NBA? And what can we learn upon closer inspection of his mind and attitudes towards life?
Stay tuned for the answers to those questions and more in part two...
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