Bill Russell: Presidential Medal of Freedom and His Top 15 Accomplishments

Thad Novak@@ThadNovakCorrespondent IFebruary 16, 2011

Bill Russell: Presidential Medal of Freedom and His Top 15 Accomplishments

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    WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 15:  Former Boston Celtics captain Bill Russell (R) shares a moment with U.S. President Barack Obama during the 2010 Medal of Freedom presentation ceremony at the East Room of the White House February 15, 2011 in Washington, DC.
    Alex Wong/Getty Images

    Bill Russell, perhaps the greatest team player in professional sports history, was honored yesterday with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

    The rare basketball player who could dominate a game without taking a shot, Russell led the Boston Celtics to 11 NBA championships in his 13 seasons.

    Read on for the top highlights in Russell’s unparalleled basketball career. 

15. Finals MVP Trophy Renamed

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    ORLANDO, FL - JUNE 14:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers receives the Bill Russell MVP trophy from Bill Russell after the Lakers defeated the Orlando Magic 99-86 in Game Five of the 2009 NBA Finals on June 14, 2009 at Amway Arena in Orlando, Flor
    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Russell never won a Finals MVP award himself, for the simple reason that the award wasn’t invented until his final season (when Jerry West took it in a loss to Russell’s Celtics).

    Russell, who holds the Finals record with 29.5 rebounds per game in 1959, was one of the league’s greatest playoff performers.

    The league honored him at the All-Star Game two years ago by adding his name to the trophy, which he presented to Kobe Bryant the following June.

14. First NBA Player To Average 20 Rebounds Per Game

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    BOSTON - JUNE 17:  NBA legend Bill Russell smiles before Game Six of the 2008 NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics on June 17, 2008 at TD Banknorth Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and
    Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    Russell reached this plateau in 1957-58, his second year in the league. He also won his first MVP award that year while leading the Celtics to the NBA’s best record.

    Just another year at the office, as it turned out.

    Russell continued to average 20 or more boards per game for the next nine seasons in a row.

13. Celtics Acquire Russell In Biggest-Ever (At The Time) NBA Trade

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    PHOENIX - FEBRUARY 14:  NBA legend Bill Russell sits courtside at NBA All-Star Saturday Night, part of 2009 NBA All-Star Weekend at US Airways Center on February 14, 2009 in Phoenix, Arizona.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by
    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    Red Auerbach was so determined to acquire Bill Russell that he made the most sensational trade in the young history of the NBA to obtain a player who hadn’t yet played a single game.

    In the 1956 draft, the Hawks selected Russell No. 2 overall. In exchange for Russell’s rights, the Celtics sent the Hawks Ed Macauley and the rights to Cliff Hagan. Hagan, who hadn’t yet played in the NBA due to military service, would go on to the Hall of Fame. Macauley had just completed his sixth consecutive All-Star season in a Celtics uniform.

    The pair would lead the Hawks to their first two NBA Finals appearances in the next two seasons, including the team’s first title in 1958. 

    And Boston got the better end of the trade.

12. Greatest Rival Of Wilt Chamberlain

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    7 Feb 1997:  Former Los Angeles Laker Wilt Chamberlain addresses the media at a press conference before the NBA All-Star Game at the Renaissance Hotel in Cleveland, Ohio. Mandatory Credit: Brian Bahr  /Allsport
    Brian Bahr/Getty Images

    Probably the greatest player rivalry in team-sports history, the matchups between Russell and Chamberlain (all 142 of them) became the stuff of legend. Despite Chamberlain's advantages of four inches in height and 40 pounds in weight, Russell and the Celtics eliminated Wilt’s teams from the playoffs seven times.

    Russell has often said that he would not have become the player he was without Chamberlain pushing him.

    We can only imagine what Chamberlain might have accomplished if his brilliant individual success hadn’t run up against Russell, who time and again boxed Wilt out from an NBA title.

11. 4-Time NBA Rebounding Champion

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    Russell secured his four titles despite playing in an era when multiple players typically finished the year above 15 rebounds per game (no NBA player has reached that mark since Ben Wallace in 2003).

    Russell’s personal best was 24.7.

    At just under 6’10”, he controlled the game as a rebounder in a way few players of any size have ever done.

10. 1956 Olympic Gold Medalist

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    SAN ANTONIO - JUNE 12: NBA legend Bill Russell is introduced to the crowd before Game two of the 2005 NBA Finals between the Detroit Pistons and the San Antonio Spurs at SBC Center on June 12, 2005 in San Antonio, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly ackn
    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    In all fairness, basketball was almost exclusively America’s game in 1956, and the level of international competition was a far cry from what modern fans are used to.

    On the other hand, Russell didn’t have the overwhelming team around him that American fans expect today.

    Anchoring a squad of such renowned names as Ron Tomsic and Robert Jeangerard (a combined 10 career NBA games), Russell led the Americans to an undefeated gold medal, winning by an average of just over 50 points per game.

9. 2011 Presidential Medal Of Freedom Recipient

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    WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 15:  Former Boston Celtics captain Bill Russell (L) is presented with the 2010 Medal of Freedom by U.S. President Barack Obama during an East Room event at the White House February 15, 2011 in Washington, DC. Obama presented the
    Alex Wong/Getty Images

    This entry falls so low on the list not because it isn’t important, but because it depends so heavily on all of Russell’s other brilliant achievements.

    Russell becomes the first basketball player to earn America’s highest civilian award. In honoring him, President Obama highlighted his civil rights activism—which included marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—in addition to his sensational basketball career.

8. First African-American Inducted Into Basketball Hall Of Fame

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    NEW ORLEANS - FEBRUARY 17:  Bill Russell attends the 57th NBA All-Star Game, part of 2008 NBA All-Star Weekend at the New Orleans Arena on February 17, 2008 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by download
    Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

    Although Russell joined the Celtics nearly 10 years after Jackie Robinson had integrated baseball and six seasons after Earl Lloyd did the same for the NBA, racism was still a very real issue to be faced in 1956.

    Though battles with prejudice scarred his relationship with Boston and its fans, Russell fought through those obstacles to become one of the NBA’s most admired and respected stars, as well as the leader of its top team.

    He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1975.

7. First Player To Reach 50 Rebounds In 1 Game

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    SAN ANTONIO - JUNE 12:  NBA legend Bill Russell is introduced to the crowd during the game between the San Antonio Spurs and the Detroit Pistons in Game two of the 2005 NBA Finals at SBC Center on June 12, 2005 in San Antonio, Texas.  The Spurs defeated t
    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Russell managed the feat in a 1960 meeting with the Syracuse Nationals (now the 76ers). Russell’s mark was bested only by (of course) Wilt Chamberlain, who holds the league record with 55.

    Only two other players besides Russell and Chamberlain have even broken 40 rebounds, a feat Russell managed eight times in all.

6. 2-Time NCAA Champion (1955-56)

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    CAMBRIDGE, MA - JUNE 7:  Microsoft co-founder and Chairman Bill Gates (2nd R) listens as commencement ceremonies wrap up at Harvard University June 7, 2007 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Gates, who enrolled at Harvard in a pre-law program in 1973 and left i
    Darren McCollester/Getty Images

    Russell’s astounding success as a pro has overshadowed his remarkable performance as a collegian.

    Despite playing for a previously unheralded team from the much-ignored West Coast Conference, Russell led the San Francisco Dons to NCAA championships in 1954-55 and 1955-56. He also came away with victories in the last 55 consecutive games of his college career, an NCAA record at the time.

5. 5-Time NBA MVP

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    In the 55-year history of the NBA’s MVP award, only eight times has it been given to players who scored under 20 points per game that season.

    Five of those were to Bill Russell.

    Russell had to be accounted for on defense the way Jordan or Chamberlain did on offense. At 6’9” and change, he was one of the greatest rebounders and shot blockers the game has ever seen.

    MVP voters noticed; point totals be hanged.

4. Undefeated Record In Playoff Game 7s

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    The myth of the clutch player in pro sports has been largely debunked by statisticians, who argue that sample-size errors account for any apparent spike in a player’s numbers in the postseason.

    On the other hand, some players have put together postseason performances so impressive as to make even the statisticians to sit up and take notice.

    Ten times Bill Russell’s teams faced a winner-take-all Game Seven.

    Ten times, Bill Russell’s teams won.

3. First Black Head Coach In The NBA

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 15:  Former NBA player Bill Russell stands on the court before Game Six of the 2010 NBA Finals at Staples Center between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics on June 15, 2010 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User
    Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

    When Hall of Fame Celtics coach Red Auerbach decided to leave the bench after the 1965-66 season, he chose Russell as his successor. A player-coach for the last three years of his Boston career, Russell would finish 162-83 with two NBA titles.

    In the process, he became the first black head coach in any of the four major professional sports. 

    Though his later coaching jobs in Seattle and Sacramento were less successful, Russell’s pioneering role helped open coaching doors for minorities across the sports world.

2. 8 Consecutive NBA Championships

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    ORLANDO, FL - JUNE 14:  A reflection off of the Bill Russell MVP Trophy of Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers during the post game news conference after the Lakers defeated the Orlando Magic 99-86 to win the NBA Championship in Game Five of the 200
    Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    No team in any of the four major sports can match the Celtics’ run of NBA titles from 1959-1966.

    Russell, an All-Star every one of those seasons and MVP in half of them, was the face of the team. His tireless rebounding and defense gave Boston a chance to win every night each season, and win they did.

1. 11 NBA Championships

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    Russell’s greatest individual achievement can only be measured by the yardstick of his team's success. Though there’s no doubt he played on some stacked Celtics rosters (the 1962-63 edition featured seven eventual Hall of Famers, not including Russell himself), Russell was one of the best players on all 11 of those teams.

    In the history of the four major sports, only Henri Richard of the Montreal Canadiens can match Russell’s total of 11 team championships.

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