When we saw that Bill Russell had died Sunday, the impulse was to rush to post something. In Russell’s case, that seems wrong. His passing requires more consideration and respect.
A lot of Russell’s story is well known. He was born in Louisiana in 1934 and his family soon moved to California to leave the Jim Crow south for better opportunities.
Russell was a marginal high school player but managed to get a scholarship to nearby San Francisco where he began to revolutionize the sport.
Russell and KC Jones, who would also join him as a longtime Celtic teammate, put together back-to-back undefeated seasons at USF.
Red Auerbach had built a powerful motor in Boston and recognized that Russell would be a perfect fit.
And he was: he led Boston to 11 titles in 13 years and one of those years he was hurt. In between NCAA and NBA glory, he also won an Olympic gold medal. Legendarily, his teammates listened for the sounds of Russell throwing up before a game - which apparently happened pretty much every game - because then they knew he was locked in.
And any account of Russell’s basketball life is incomplete without talking more about Auerbach. The two had immense respect for each other and became life-long friends. If you don’t know anything about it, Russell wrote another book about that relationship called Red And Me that’s worth checking out.
But as great as all that success was, there was so much more to him than basketball.
In his autobiographies (he wrote two), Russell talks about his family influences, his feelings about Boston and his teammates, his anger at the racism he dealt with and many other things.
We never met his dad obviously, but he brought him to life through stories: a guy who backed down to no one, who lived by a code of, essentially, strength and honor. He was a remarkable man in many ways.
Russell inherited that code and honed it. He refused to back down to racists in Boston who wanted to share his success but not their neighborhoods. He never worried about what the media thought. He always told the truth as he saw it.
When his jersey was retired, he refused to make it a public event, perhaps not wanting to deal with the hypocrisy.
Over time, we think, his character and intelligence won Boston over and he mellowed somewhat, too. He participated in a later public ceremony and maintained a strong connection to his team, if not as much to the city, although, in his later years, he was more forgiving.
Russell reminds us in some ways of former Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, first in how strong-willed he is and second because he is an independent thinker who puts things his own way.
They differ in an interesting and revealing way though: Coach K always wanted his players to react instinctively where Russell wanted to think everything through. thoroughly. He never wanted to just react.
And that was perhaps the most interesting thing about Russell - well, that paired with his formidable will.
Russell is being celebrated - justly - as the greatest winner in team sports history. No one save a few of his Celtic teammates is even close.
But it’s how he did it.
He was an immensely gifted athlete, but he studied every opponent. He knew their tendencies. And with the massive Wilt Chamberlain, he used charm and guile off the court so that he could savage him on it (he socialized with Chamberlain, had dinner at his parent’s house in Philly and even took naps there in Chamberlain’s bed, at Mrs. Chamberlain’s insistence).
By the time you got on the court with Russell, he knew you inside out, and you would never match his will.
In many ways, he defined our age, both on the court and off. We were deeply lucky to have him for as long as we did.
It would be really difficult to honor him properly but one way would be for the NBA to retire #6 for the entire league. It would be richly deserved.
Bob Ryan, who covered the Celtics forever for the Boston Globe, said that in today’s game, Russell would have won a few titles, but not 11 out of 13. Interesting and we take his point. But here’s a counterpoint.
Take three different teams: the Magic Johnson era Lakers, the Michael Jordan era Bulls and the Splash Brothers era Warriors.
Remember that Russell plugged in perfectly to the Celtics when he arrived. What if he was in LA with Magic’s team? What about the Bulls minus Jordan - or with him? What about putting him on the Warriors with Draymond Green up front and Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson?
Those teams were built with intelligent draft picks and with strong cultures. LA, remember, got in position to draft Johnson and James Worthy when they were already good. Toss in Kareem and wow - what a group. But then add in Byron Scott, AC Green, Michael Cooper - that’s a culture. Same for the other two.
Put Russell in any of them, with his will and a modern sense of the game, and he would have won plenty of championships.
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