The greatest basketball player of all time died yesterday. William Felton Russell passed away at the age of 88.
Others may choose to anoint Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson or Wilt Chamberlain, but for me Bill Russell was the GOAT.
He led the Boston Celtics to 11 NBA championships in 13 years, including eight in a row, was the league MVP five times, and played in 12 All-Star games.
Russell’s brilliant, intimidating defense and the Celtics’ fast break revolutionized the game.
Russell was an intimidating shot blocker at a time when few shots were rejected. He didn't swat the ball out of bounds. Instead, he kept it in play by blocking the shot and tipping the ball to a teammate, or blocking the shot, retrieving it, and throwing an outlet pass to start the break, all in a split second.
He was only 6-9, battling and containing the 7-1 Chamberlain and other behemoths. He was almost never injured, typically missing only three or four games per year while playing an average of 44 minutes.
Russell didn't care how many points he scored, or any other statistic for that matter. All he cared about was winning, and he did that better than any player in the history of team sports.
In his final season, 1969, at age 34, worn down from being player-coach, Russell still managed to lead the Celtics to the championship. Boston had finished fourth in the Eastern Division but somehow reached the finals and beat the Wilt Chamberlain-Jerry West-Elgin Baylor-led Lakers in a stirring seven game series.
He finished with 21,620 career rebounds—an average of 22.5 per game. He had 51 rebounds in one game and 49 in two others. He averaged 15.1 points and 4.3 assists per game over his career.
Statistics weren't kept for blocked shots in those days, but I'd estimate he averaged four or five per game. He often made multiple blocks on the same possession.
Russell also was a civil rights pioneer, marching to Washington and sitting in the front row of the crowd at Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech. He went to Mississippi after Medgar Evers was murdered and opened an integrated basketball camp. He supported Muhammad Ali when Ali refused induction into the armed forces during the Vietnam War.
Russell never backed down, on or off the court. Once, in Marion, Indiana, he was presented with the key to the city. Later that night, after being denied service at a restaurant, he drove to the mayor’s house and gave back the key.
In 1961, after a restaurant in Lexington, Kentucky, refused to serve some of the Celtics’ black players before an exhibition game, he organized a boycott of the game.
Russell was also a champion in college. He and K.C. Jones, who later became his teammate on the Celtics, led the USF Dons to two straight NCAA championships and 55 straight wins. He won an Olympic gold medal as a member of the 1956 U.S. team.
I never had the privilege of meeting Russell, but one of my fondest memories was getting to know K.C. Jones. When I was CEO of the American Basketball League, I hired him to coach our New England Blizzard team. The Blizzard played in Hartford and he lived a half hour away in Springfield, Mass.
K.C. was really a wonderful guy. He told a lot of great stories about Russell, coach Red Auerbach, and the rest of his Celtic teammates.
It turns out we both loved Frank Sinatra. One night we went out to an Italian restaurant, both had too much red wine, and sat there singing Sinatra songs.
One of Sinatra's best, "My Way," could've been a fitting tribute to Bill Russell.