Definition of Greatness: Understanding the Career of Bill Russell
“You kick it like me, no exaggeration necessary. Livin’ revolutionary, nothing less than legendary.”—T.I., "Swagger Like Us"
Before you can truly understand Bill Russell’s greatness, you must first understand the game of basketball. Next one must fully comprehend his struggle and his progress. Then and only then will you give him his due acclaim as a player and as a man.
Basketball has always been appreciated by all but understood by few. The casual observer will say the game is about scoring, while the meticulous fan will explain the unparalleled significance of rebounding and defending. The tragically misguided will emphatically shout players do not win championships. Conversely, those who know the game will simply state basketball is the only sport where an individual can elevate a team to unprecedented heights.
The battles have always been won by the greatest warrior, not the greatest army. This was Bill Russell, a warrior.
In college Russell won two NCAA championships as the team’s offensive leader. The man many today believe to be the first Dennis Rodman actually averaged 21.4 points and 20.4 rebounds in 1955, leading his team to a record of 28-1.
Not to be outdone, the following year Russell averaged 20.5 points and 21.0 rebounds while leading the University of San Francisco to a 29-0 record. The perfect season was one of only six in NCAA history, but it fails miserably in illustrating just how great Russell’s team was. The Dons' average margin of victory was 20 points. Polly on that for a moment—they beat teams by an average of 20 points a night.
In two years, Russell led the Dons to a combined record of 57-1 and two national championships. It was in college that Russell developed his insane pattern of winning. In the two championship games, Russell scored 23 points and 26 points while grabbing 25 rebounds and 27 rebounds, respectively. He was such a dominating force the NCAA created what was known as the “Russell Rule.”
The supposed amateur athletic league widened the free-throw lane to 12 feet in an attempt to keep Bill from getting putbacks. In the history of the game only four players—Mikan, Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain and Russell—have had rules instated to stop them from scoring, while one player has had rules enforced to help him score. Yet, they are all forgotten because their games cannot be found on SportsCenter and their numbers are not easily accessible.
What Russell was able to accomplish in college will forever play a close second to what he would accomplish in the NBA.
Consequence Is No Coincidence
The center was drafted second overall in the 1956 NBA draft by the St. Louis Hawks and traded to the Boston Celtics. The future Hall of Famer would not join the team until December because of the Olympics. Once he did join the club, Russell would lead them to 1957 NBA crown. This was the Celtics’ first title and Russell’s first year in the league.
He continued his pattern of greatness in championship games by grabbing 32 rebounds and having the biggest play of the game. The Hawks were up 103-101 and Russell tied the game with 20 seconds remaining. With the score tied, Hawks forward/center Jack Coleman somehow got behind the Celtics defense and appeared to be racing toward an easy layup.
At the last moment Russell, who had sprinted the length of the floor, blocked the Coleman layup and sent the game into overtime where Boston would secure the win.
Such a tremendous conquest in the infancy stages of one’s career is worthy of spectacular accolades unless that person is Bill Russell. He had experienced racism in college from the fans in opposing arenas and had been denied access to hotels, instead being forced to sleep in “Negro accommodating” locations.
He persevered nonetheless, despite the fact that fellow Celtics rookie Tommy Heinsohn won the Rookie of the Year award. Bob Cousy won the regular season MVP award and Russell was not voted onto either of the All-NBA teams, which pained Russell deeply. The media voted for these awards and they deemed the center not deserving despite his play. Sadly, there was no NBA Finals MVP for Russell to take home either because the award did not exist at that time.
This was not the first time the media ignored Russell’s on-court endeavors. His junior year at the University of San Francisco, he led the Dons to a 28-1 season and the national championship. Arrogance had set in and the all-world center was certain he would win Player of the Year in his conference, especially since he had won the Final Four MVP. Yet, Russell was passed over for Ken Sears, a Caucasian center from the University of Santa Clara. Sears had averaged 22 points, but the Broncos had gone a pedestrian 13-11.
On the court the Celtics worked in unison, however off of it Russell was alone. As the Celtics' only black player in 1957, Russell was called every racial epithet you could imagine. His trip to St. Louis, which was a known hotbed for racism, for the championship series was filled by calls of “baboon,” “coon,” and “black nigger.” The Hawks, who originally drafted Russell, still had an all-white team and the Celtics only had one black player, Russell. So not only was Russell the only black player in the series, he was the only black person in the building.
Things grew so hotly contested Celtics that coach Red Auerbach punched Hawks owner Ben Kerner in the mouth just for living.
Russell’s performance in that series was not only groundbreaking, it was infuriating to a league that was not ready for such a skilled player, who was willing and able to speak his mind. Russell’s first year in the NBA he felt hate that his teammates could never understand.
The next season, in 1958, racial tension was still extremely high as this was just four years after the earth-shattering Brown vs. Board of Education and a few months after Congress had just passed the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Needless to say these were not happy times for African Americans, especially for one as unwaveringly strong as Russell. Bill, after being forced to sleep in a “colored hotel” separate from his teammates in North Carolina, called the city of Charlotte crummy to local reporters and vowed to never play there again.
In fact, his entire career was marred by racism. He was refused service at All-Star games, refused housing on road trips and denied awards because of his refusal to accept the injustices of America. He boycotted games and cities to show solidarity with follow Negros who were not athletes, in an effort to end racial segregation.
There were times when he was not directly involved but still led the charge. In 1961 in Lexington, Kentucky, the Celtics were scheduled for an exhibition game against the St. Louis Hawks. Earlier that day four black players were refused service at a coffee shop. When Russell heard the news, he and the other black players on the team boycotted the game.
Three of those players were on the Hawks roster, and such actions were not tolerated in St. Louis. As a result of the boycott, Woody Sauldsberry and Si Green were traded shortly after, thus leaving St. Louis with one African American in Cleo Hill. Hill would later that season be frozen out of the Hawks offense and Hawks players would refuse to rebound his missed shots.
Hall of Fame forward Bob Pettit would deny this in his autobiography, saying, "This hurt because I have never had anything but good relations with boys I played with or against." This, ladies and gentlemen, was the world Bill Russell flourished in.
Where's the Love?
His 11 titles and 12 trips to the NBA championship series was amazing not just because of his play on the court, but also for his perseverance off of it. He called out his employer for having a quota for black players on teams—a quota that suggested no more than three black players are allowed on a team at more than one time.
Russell was despised because he was black and hated because he was the opposition. Yet, in that atmosphere he did not just win—he embarrassed teams. The 6'9" center was smarter than his opponent and had an iron will that would never be broken. Despite popular opinion he could score, but focused on things that displayed heart and true grit, like defense and rebounding.
Yes, other players' resumes boast of 40- and 30-point explosions, but none can say they averaged 29.5 rebounds in an NBA championship series. It was not that he couldn’t score, it was that his team needed him more in other areas. He controlled the game without sometimes taking more than four shots.
No player dealt with being called Schvartzeh, a racial slur used daily by his coach in practice while being the only black player on the team, except Bill Russell.
He should be revered by basketball fans for playing so triumphantly when we all needed a hero. Instead, the center’s NBA Finals record of 15 games of 20 or more rebounds is an afterthought to most.
His dominance over not just Hall of Fame players but arguably top-five players at their positions is ignored while a generation praises another player who tries desperately to ruin the kingdom he is no longer king of.
Russell played the game and lived his life with courage and unfathomable strength. He defeated giants while only being three inches taller than a guard.
True, some players have succeeded while being ill, but Russell succeeded while his life was threatened. His strongest supporters were not allowed in the building and he rarely if ever heard the cheers of love and adulation. The clapping for this warrior was instead doused with toleration.
Even today he is approachable, often seen walking the sidelines and discussing life with the sons of the fathers he stood side by side with in a quest for equality. Maybe that is why he is so misunderstood. Maybe that is why he is so questioned, because he never flew above the crowd—rather, he chooses to walk among it.
No, he is not the greatest basketball player who ever lived. That person only exists in video games and in the 20 to 30 age group.
For some of you, Bill Russell is nothing more than an inconvenient truth. You begrudgingly mention his accomplishments then quickly dismiss them as if they were nothing more than a middle school title. In the same sentence or breath you sing the praises of others so eloquently and passionately, almost suggesting their rings shine brighter.
Said John Wooden in a Huffington Post interview in 2003:
“I thought the most difficult person to play against was Bill Russell. I think he's the most valuable pro that's ever played. Not the best, but the most valuable. He changed the game. … Well, he got 'em playing defense. He got other players to become better defensive players because they knew if their man got away they've got Bill behind them. He just changed the game. Auerbach -- if you look back on his record -- I don' think Boston won much or came close to winning until they got Bill Russell. You bring in Bill Russell and you win championship after championship."
Sometimes greatness can be understated or even misunderstood, but the effects of greatness can never be ignored. The game of basketball is better because of Bill Russell. The game of life is better because of people like Bill Russell.
Close your eyes and imagine Mr. Russell telling a group of young men who idolize him they can’t play the game they love because he is not making money—hard to imagine.
To this day, Russell has never put himself in the conversation of great players, which is fitting because what he did should stand alone.