In the dictionary next to the definition of champion, there should be a picture of Bill Russell.
Before he even entered the NBA, Russell experienced his share of collegiate basketball glory while playing for San Francisco State.
Russell was the defensive core of a team that won 55 games in a row.
Russell was a shot blocking machine during his college career. After batting away 13 shots against the NCAA basketball powerhouse UCLA, legendary coach John Wooden said of Russell, “He is the greatest defensive man I've ever seen.”
And defense does indeed win championships in basketball, as SF State won back to back NCAA titles in 1955 and 1956.
Due to his stellar collegiate career, Bill Russell was an easy choice for captain of the US Olympic Men’s Basketball team in 1956.
His winning ways continued on the world’s biggest stage. The United States squad would go on to defeat the USSR, 89-55 to capture the gold medal.
Before the age of 22, Bill Russell experienced championship glory three times. And he was far from done.
The 6’9” center was a top prospect in the 1956 draft. The only question was which NBA franchise would choose this natural born winner.
Red Auerbach never believed in the word, “never.”
Rochester passed on Russell with the first pick due to his $25,000 signing bonus and their need for a shooting guard.
The defensive star from SF State fell right into the laps of the St. Louis Hawks with the number two pick overall.
Boston had St. Louis native son, Ed Macauley on their roster and the Hawks wanted the six time All-Star. Macauley had a sick son in Missouri so the trade would be perfect for both sides.
Auberach would get a defensive stopper in Russell and the Hawks would get the gifted veteran in Macauley.
After the Celtics threw in prospect Cliff Hagan, the trade was complete. Bill Russell was now a Boston Celtic.
Red got his man. Little did he know it would be one of the important and perhaps most lop sided trades in NBA history.
After his successful Olympic run, Russell was ready to embark on his NBA career.
Joining his teammates during the 1956-57 campaign, his first game was against the team that drafted him, the St. Louis Hawks. Russell shut down Hawks star, Bob Pettit and the “Hey, Bill” defense was born.
Anytime one his teammates needed defensive help, they would shout, “Hey, Bill.” Russell would respond to the request and cover his opponent with his defensive blanket.
This tactic proved very successful and helped the formerly offensively minded Celtics become a defensive team.
They finished with a 44-28 record and a berth in the post-season. After dispatching the Syracuse Nationals in three straight games, the Celtics reached their first NBA Finals in team history.
Russell would yet again face Bob Pettit and the St. Louis Hawks, but this time it was for the championship. The series would go seven games and game seven would go to double overtime.
The Celtics survived a Pettit last second shot attempt to win their first NBA title with a hard fought grinding win, 125-123.
After a disappointing loss to the Hawks the following season in the Finals, a now healthy Russell was ready to make his return during the ’58-’59 campaign. He averaged 16.7 points and 23 rebounds per game (blocks were not an official stat as of yet).
The Celtics would win their first championship against the then Minneapolis Lakers for the franchise’s second title in three years.
Wilt Chamberlain became Russell’s biggest rival during the ’59-’60 season. It was a battle of the league’s best offensive player versus the best defensive player. Some called it the “Big Collision.”
“The Battle of the Titans” would meet again in the NBA playoffs. Chamberlain had an offensive explosion, but Boston outlasted the Philadelphia 76ers in six games.The Celtics would meet the Hawks yet again for the championship prevailing in seven games.
Russell was dominate on the boards with 40 rebounds in Game Two (a NBA record) and 32 rebounds in the decisive Game Seven. He came to play when it mattered most.
The Celtics were now a bona fide dynasty with three titles in four years. However, no one could have fathomed what Russell and his teammates would accomplish.
As Russell went so did the Celtics, he would improve every year and the team would do the same in the standings.
Boston would defeat the relocated Los Angeles Lakers in the ’61, ’62, ’63, ’65, ’66 Finals. They also would beat the SF Warriors led by Wilt Chamberlain in ’64. It was no surprise that Russell was dominant during this championship span. He won the league’s MVP in ’61, ’62, ’63, and ’65.
Russell long time mentor and later long time friend, Red Auerbach retired prior to the ’66-’67. The search was now on for his successor. His replacement would always be in his championship shadow.
Well that’s of course unless you hire a nine time NBA champion center. Bill Russell became the first African American head coach in league history.
He told the press regarding his hiring, “"I wasn't offered the job because I am a Negro, and I was offered it because Red figured I could do it."
The Celtics championship streak ended that year at eight straight. Wilt Chamberlain and the Sixers were too much for Boston as they won the playoff series four games to one.
Bill Russell experienced his first real loss of his career (he was injured in the ’58 Finals) in 1967. While in the starting lineup, he had won 11 championships on the amateur and professional levels.
Russell went out like all winners do, on top.
He would win two championships versus the Lakers and his last could have been his sweetest.
After six tough and exhausting games, Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke lit a fire under the Celtics by adding "proceedings of Lakers victory ceremony" on the Game Seven leaflets.
Russell used this as a sign of disrespect and motivation for his team.
It worked. Boston would defeat Los Angeles yet again for their 11th NBA Championship.
Russell’s departure after the ’68-’69 season was quite controversial. He didn’t attend the teams’ championship rally and said he owed the public nothing.
He abruptly retired and cut all ties with the franchise. Red Auerbach was quite shocked about the developments.
Time heals all wounds as the Celtics retired Russell’s number in 1972.
He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1975.
Russell is considered one of the best players of his generation and the history of basketball.
He helped to revolutionize defensive play in the NBA and his five league MVP’s justifying his true impact on the game.
He even ran out of fingers and thumbs for his mind boggling 11 championship rings.
Russell was also the foundation of one of most successful dynasties in the history of sport.
And is synonymous with the word, champion.
Bill Russell print done by Neal Portnoy.
Joe Gill writes for Boston Sports Then and Now.
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