RIP Bill Russell

SemperFidelisSox

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After Chicago won a championship and the two were on a golf course.

Michael Jordan: “You know we’re gonna go after your record.”

Russell: “Which one?”
 

Bergs

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Jul 22, 2005
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As others have said, this one stings.

A lot.

My Mom called me a short time ago with the news, her voice cracked a couple of times.

Damn.

My Dad loved him, he used to do a lot of details at the old garden, his cousin was head of garden security, so my Dad got to know a lot of the Celtics and Bruins in the 60's through the 90's, of all the athletes he met, the two he admired most were Russell and Orr, my Dad said they were both great athletes but even better people, Russell especially, always called my Dad by his first name whenever he saw him, my Dad referred to him as "Mr. Russell", then one day Bill said to him "Chris, it's ok to call me Bill" and my Dad said "I respect you immensely, to me you will always be Mr. Russell".................my Dad told me he gave him a look that he'll never forget and replied "Thank you for that Chris. Ok, then, Mr. Russell it is."

I met him once thanks to my Dad, Bill said to me "Your Dad always took good care of me in my playing days, he's a special man, you should be proud to call him Dad."

Holy smokes is the room getting dusty.

My Dad loved his laugh among other things, my Dad also had a laugh that would fill a room.

I'd be willing to bet the two of them are up in heaven now laughing and hugging.

R.I.P "Mr. Russell"
This is great stuff. Thanks for sharing.
 

snowmanny

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We have to pretend he only played against plumbers because otherwise there are no GOAT debates, and the world demands GOAT debates. It probably is true that in today’s game he couldn’t hit a corner three, but he’d probably block about six of them on the other end. One thing that always stayed with me was hearing that when he came in the league he was the fastest player in the NBA


I am grateful that the basketball HOF finally decided this year that maybe it made sense to induct the first black coach in any professional sport, and a champion coach at that.

As someone who only saw him at the end of his career, when I was a kid, I am also grateful for hearing the stories about Russell from Cousy and Heinsohn over years, if only for the awe and respect they still had for him decades later.

Huge void left by this one.

Ed - a few years ago I was reading a news story about one of the Celtics-Knicks games from the 1969 playoffs and it casually mentioned a play where Russell got his “ninth blocked shot of the game.” This was before blocked shots were officially counted. He probably had literally hundreds of triple-doubles.


I
 
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WenZink

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Apr 23, 2010
1,078
As a white kid growing up in an all-white suburb of Boston in the 1960s, my only connection to Black America was through sports. Two great sportsmen, Muhammed Ali and Bill Russell, taught me so much more than just boxing and basketball.

My favorite Russell quote -- When asked who was the best player of his era, Russell replied, "Wilt was the best.... but I was better. (cackle, cackle, cackle)"
 

brace

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Jun 29, 2011
13
I was stationed in Alameda CA from 1999-2003. I played a lot of golf at the local course and was frequently in the group ahead of, or behind Bill Russell and Joe Morgan. We didn’t have any in depth conversation, but spoke enough to know he was a legitimately good guy and that Joe Morgan was quite prickly - at least to me.
 

mikeot

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Dec 22, 2006
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As others have said, this one stings.

A lot.

My Mom called me a short time ago with the news, her voice cracked a couple of times.

Damn.

My Dad loved him, he used to do a lot of details at the old garden, his cousin was head of garden security, so my Dad got to know a lot of the Celtics and Bruins in the 60's through the 90's, of all the athletes he met, the two he admired most were Russell and Orr, my Dad said they were both great athletes but even better people, Russell especially, always called my Dad by his first name whenever he saw him, my Dad referred to him as "Mr. Russell", then one day Bill said to him "Chris, it's ok to call me Bill" and my Dad said "I respect you immensely, to me you will always be Mr. Russell".................my Dad told me he gave him a look that he'll never forget and replied "Thank you for that Chris. Ok, then, Mr. Russell it is."

I met him once thanks to my Dad, Bill said to me "Your Dad always took good care of me in my playing days, he's a special man, you should be proud to call him Dad."

Holy smokes is the room getting dusty.

My Dad loved his laugh among other things, my Dad also had a laugh that would fill a room.

I'd be willing to bet the two of them are up in heaven now laughing and hugging.

R.I.P "Mr. Russell"
Very dusty here after reading this, thanks.
 

Al Zarilla

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As a white kid growing up in an all-white suburb of Boston in the 1960s, my only connection to Black America was through sports. Two great sportsmen, Muhammed Ali and Bill Russell, taught me so much more than just boxing and basketball.

My favorite Russell quote -- When asked who was the best player of his era, Russell replied, "Wilt was the best.... but I was better. (cackle, cackle, cackle)"
That line from Bill is great.

I was at the "three legged stool" game, I'll call it, at the old garden. That game was famous for a confrontation between Wilt and Sam Jones, but the Celtics also had a 70 something to 40 something lead in the first half and coasted to the win. Made the trip down and back from New Hampshire really worth it.
 

Jimbodandy

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Sad to see this news. Heard so much about Mr. Russell from my dad growing up that he has always felt like a distant uncle.

Special man. We were lucky as a society and a region to get to know him a little bit.

RIP #6
 

TripleOT

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I never played much basketball as a kid, and started playing in college in the early 80s. I had the temerity to jump in to pickup games with players with so much more experience and skill than I. Being without a lot of basketball skills, but being tall, athletic, and with a lot of jumping ability, I figured the only way I could get on the court and stay on the court is to be a role player that contributed to winning. Who better to model my game after than the greatest winner, Bill Russell? So I hit the glass hard, especially at the defensive end. I blocked shots, always trying to block them toward a teammate, instead of smacking the ball out of bounds. I tried to guard the tallest opponent, even though I’m only 6’4.” Anytime I played in a league, I took the number six.

Bill Russell was a giant in stature, reputation, and deeds. Today is a sad day, brightened only by some of the stories about Russell shared by fans.



Check out this Russell appearance on The White Shadow (2:08.50) A 46 or so years old Russell plays one on one while trying to mentor big man Coolidge, and then has a nice talking to him about being tall. I remember watching this and thinking that this was one of the few times I’d ever seen the Russell a softer side of Bill Russell


View: https://youtu.be/vLLuC-OO5RY
 
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cornwalls@6

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Apr 23, 2010
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Out for a pint, and just seeing the news. A true champion, greatest winner in team sports, and most importantly, a
great, hugely impactful American. Here’s to you Bill.

ps. The remembrances here are very moving. Bravo everyone.
 

54thMA

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Very dusty here after reading this, thanks.
Understood.

I've been down in the dumps the past couple of weeks; I'm at the age where people I grew up watching on TV as a kid in the 1960's/1970's are passing away, actors and actresses from the shows that were a big part of my childhood, many of the ones on TVLand and MeTV, not to mention athletes from my childhood/teenage years.

I get it, time catches up to all of us, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.

Now I just found out the actress who played Lt. Uhura on Star Trek has passed away.

Oh boy.
 

Dotrat

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What an extraordinary life, an all-time great career, and a Hall of Fame laugh. A beautiful, blessed spirit in this world.
 

J.T. Pinch

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Oct 3, 2020
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He also won two straight state titles while at Oakland's McClymonds High School. ( Frank Robinson was a teammate. )
 

TrapperAB

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At Fenway today, just before the start of the game, they announced Bill Russell’s passing.

Clearly, most had not heard.

The sound the crowd made was one I’ve never encountered before.

Gasps of shock and surprise — mixed with a collective, momentary expression of pain and grief. Not a cry, exactly, but if loss had a sound, this was it.

The moment of silence asked for and given was long, sincere, and utterly quiet.

RIP, Mr. Russell. My dad loved all that you stood for and all that you did. So do I — and my boy as well.

This one cuts deep.
 
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Norm Siebern

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May 12, 2003
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Probably my favorite story about any athlete is about Bill Russell. Apparently it happened in training camp in either his last year as a player/coach or soon thereafter. A ball was thrown to Russell along the sideline and Russell fumbled it away. Some hotshot youngster, new to the team, smirked and said under his breath "looks like the old man has a problem with his hands." Russell heard this, turned to the youngster and said "yea, I got a problem with my hands. I've got eleven rings, and only ten fingers to put them on." He is the greatest example of a player in a team sport in the history of competition. The only thing that mattered was the purpose of the exercise: the team winning the game. It's how he approached the games, and how he approached life.

RIP and Godspeed to Mr. Russell, the greatest Celtic and the original member of the Boston sport Mt Rushmore. He is already missed.
 

bankshot1

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At some point I'll collect my thoughts about the passing of the heart and soul of a great dynastic team. And a giant of a human being.

My sincerest condolences to his family, friends and fans around the world. We lost a great man today and we are all all hurting.

RIP #6
 

OCST

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Jan 10, 2004
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Now I just found out the actress who played Lt. Uhura on Star Trek has passed away.
Another leading light of the civil rights movement, as a prominent black woman in a role of a military commander, not a servant or criminal. She was going to quit Star Trek, and no less a fan than MLK begged her to stay on, due to her influence:

https://www.ajc.com/news/atlanta-news/a-conversation-with-mlk-jr-kept-nichelle-nichols-from-exiting-star-trek/X3Z7Q7LGN5BSVMVUFTDN3O63RU/#:~:text=Actress Nichelle Nichols wasn't,Television; Chick Harrity / AP)

Back to Bill - my wife didn't know about him, and in looking through the stuff about him online, we came across stories of him speaking out with other prominent black athletes in support of Muhammad Ali's refusal to be inducted into the military for the Vietnam War - here he is with Jim Brown, Ali, and Lew Alcindor:

53796


That in turn led us to Ali's outspoken statements:

View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vd9aIamXjQI


***

https://www.reddit.com/r/videos/comments/n3eijr/muhammad_ali_stares_down_and_addresses_a_group_of/

Warning: n-word, and lots of it.

Watching these it's impossible not to think that someone's about to put a bullet into his head. Russell wasn't as inflammatory as Ali, but we've learned how much he was targeted. What a terrible people we have sometimes been, that such a great man had to endure such treatment from such lowlifes.
 

LESDL

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Jul 15, 2005
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I’m very saddened. The very first thing that came to mind was being in the old Garden during Red Aurbach night with all the greats on the floor waiting for Red to make his way around to them.

When he came to Russell, Bill leaned down and bear- hugged Red and lifted him up off his feet.

The love he ( they) expressed in that moment will always be a lasting memory.
 

gtg807y

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This was about 20 years or so ago, when I was in middle school. Somehow I heard that Bill Russell was doing a book signing at a nearby mall, but I had a school band concert that night. So we finished up and Dad and I rushed over to the mall, me still in my rented cheap band tuxedo. We got there just in time and were last in line. Mr. Russell signed our books and asked me what I was dressed up for, and when I told him talked to us for a while, talking about music, etc. He treated us like old friends. An amazing moment I’ll never forget, especially sharing it with Dad. I’ll go to my grave telling people I shook hands with the great man.
 

SemperFidelisSox

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He also won two straight state titles while at Oakland's McClymonds High School. ( Frank Robinson was a teammate. )
What he accomplished in just a 5-6 year span from high school through his rookie season in the NBA is just unreal. Two high school state championships, two NCAA championships, a Gold Medal, and an NBA title.
 

RG33

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Nov 28, 2005
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What a legend. What a life. RIP.

Sadly, I had requested a Cameo from him for my AA friend who has always idolized him in early June. I had asked that he just give a “Go Celts” spiel and talk about all of the mentoring my buddy does with young AA kids. The request expired — but I got a Cameo email saying he wanted to do it and to try again. We did it two more times, and it expired each time. I’m really bummed I didn’t persist — I don’t know if it was health related, or just he couldn’t figure out the App (Dick Stockton also failed 3 times, sending us 3 different silent clips that were under 5 seconds long), but it will be a selfish regret now.
 

reggiecleveland

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I told this story on here in MBPS but it is as close as I got to meeting Bill.
I took a team to AAU in Las Vegas and had a Bill Russell shirt on, so this other coach came up to me. He and another coach said Bill agreed to speak at a different AAU tournament because of a charity promise, "raise X dollars I'll come" type of thing. A few NBA guys, including Shaq were there too, just for the chance to hang with Bill. Around half time of the game before he spoke he came in and sat in the bleachers. The intensity is off the charts and kids are going nuts, throwing lobs, etc. One big kid has two or three windmill dunks, but isn't running back on D and leaking out for dunks. His coach is fist pumping in glory when he gets a tap on the shoulder, "Mr. Russell wants you to know if your team doesn't run back on D you can give the speech and explain why he went home." He looked across and was captured by the famous glare, then called the quickest timeout in history.
 

mulluysavage

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My heart is full. Bill Russel's life is complete. What a blessing, what he did for the Celtics, for basketball, for sports, for the civil rights movement, for the USA. Thank you #6, what a gift!!!
 

jaytftwofive

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You can argue Jordan is a better player and Babe Ruth a bigger icon. You can argue Gretzky had more impact. But the undeniable reality is Bill Russell is the greatest winner in the history of team sports and until they change the purpose of playing the game he will stand alone in my book - they take the field/court/ice to win and he did it more than anyone who has ever lived.
Amen!
 

jaytftwofive

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Jan 20, 2013
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Lets' not forget the first African American head coach in pro sports, and two titles at USF and a Olympic Gold Medal. I'm sure he's having a cigar in heaven with Red and Sam and K.C. and Hondo and Heinsohn and others. RIP Bill to you and your family.
 

sheamonu

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Nov 11, 2004
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Boston has been blessed by having athletes in the four major sports that can lay a legitimate claim to being the best in their craft - Williams (whose craft was hitting), Orr, Brady and Russell. The greatest of these is Russell. Yes - it is because he was as much an icon off the court as on but watch the films of Russell on court, understand what game he was trying to play - and then marvel at how good a basketball player he was. Not "for his time" but for all time. There are films of him jumping over defenders, making floor length bullet passes, ripping boards away from people with a ferocity that has never been approached. Some people change their sport and make others try to match them - others are unmatchable. RIP to a great man - and a unique talent.
 

Mystic Merlin

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I’m not sure what other legendary team athletes are on his level as a person/figure. Lots of other athletes have lots of rings, but they ain’t Bill Russell. If anything, several of the other elite winners in team sports have dutifully avoided stepping into the public arena for a variety of reasons (Jordan, Brady). It is exceptional how engaged and impactful Russell was with the socio-political environment in which he played and coached.
 

CaptainLaddie

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Sep 6, 2004
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Getting dusty in here.

My Mom took me and my sister to his re-retirement when I was in high school. As I result, I love Bill. I mean, I would have loved the greatest Celtic ever, but that snapped it in for me.

He's the greatest winner ever. He had an off-the-field impact unlike any player other than what... Ali and Jackie? Bill Russell is an off-the-field GOAT.

My Mom always says she has three role models growing up: Julia Child, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Bill Russell. And she wrote letters to the first two, saying how much she looked up to them, but never got around to Russell. Today, when we talked about him, she told me she always regretted never writing that letter to him.

I read the news, and I called my Mom. And she didn't pick up. And then when I called her back an hour later, she didn't pick up again. I started getting feelings like maybe that was that for her, too, maybe. And I called again, and no answer. She lives alone. But twenty minutes after that, she called.

It's such a troubling feeling. Icons pass and you want to call your parents who are older, who idolized them. And when *they* don't pick up it just hardens that fear in your mind about their mortality.

Bill Russell means so much to my Mom that the second I saw the news I called her. She adores Bill. So much. As I said, she made me and my sister go to his re-retirement ceremony because she wanted us to see it in person.

Jordan never coached a Finals team. Russell is the GOAT. I'm fine with it.
 
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terrynever

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Ran across this story while researching a book about Pawtucket’s 21 KIA in the Vietnam War:

Bill Russell was so much more than a basketball player. We all know about his winning ways and his civil rights involvement, but one story comes to me that had little to do with hoops. It happened in the early 1960s when Raymond Michalopoulos, who would die in Vietnam in 1967, was working at the old R.I. Auditorium in Providence.
The Boston Celtics would play at the Auditorium two or three times a year back in the 1960s. Ray served as their ball boy, doing just about anything the players wanted.
“After one game,” said Ray’s cousin, Mike Connolly, “the family was sitting around waiting for Ray to come home from the game. It got to be 1 in the morning and still no Ray. Then a big Cadillac pulls up in the driveway. Ray comes into the house and says he wants to introduce us to Bill Russell, who was the Celtics’ big star. Bill walked into the house and my grandmother almost had a heart attack. Bill said, ‘The game was running late and I decided to drop Ray off on my way back to Boston.’ Then he pulls out a jersey and pair of basketball trunks, signs them to Ray and his family, and says, ‘Maybe these will be worth something someday.’
“To tell you the truth, I have no idea where that stuff is anymore,” Mike Connolly concluded.
***
Pretty sure there is no star athlete alive today who would drive a ballboy home from the game, and go inside to meet the family!
 

jose melendez

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I sort of met him in 2000. I went to a taping of Meet the Press and he was there talking up Bill Bradley. I didn't get to shake his hand or anything, but the charisma from just a few feet away was overwhelming.

When I was a kid, there were a few sportsmen of bygone eras that seemed as a amazing as Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill. Russel and Ruth stood alone among them.
 

Ale Xander

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Oct 31, 2013
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Just remembered I still have the Russell Rules book he signed for me a couple years before Jose at a DC book signing while interning. (Sort of met him there I guess you could say too). Need to reread that. At the time, didn't realize how rare he signed.
 

Philip Jeff Frye

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This was about 20 years or so ago, when I was in middle school. Somehow I heard that Bill Russell was doing a book signing at a nearby mall, but I had a school band concert that night. So we finished up and Dad and I rushed over to the mall, me still in my rented cheap band tuxedo. We got there just in time and were last in line. Mr. Russell signed our books and asked me what I was dressed up for, and when I told him talked to us for a while, talking about music, etc. He treated us like old friends. An amazing moment I’ll never forget, especially sharing it with Dad. I’ll go to my grave telling people I shook hands with the great man.
My sister helped run an independent bookstore in the Boston suburbs for many years. They had frequent book signing events, so she got to meet lots of celebrities hawking their works - authors, athletes (I met Dustin Pedroia at her place once), actors, etc... She would always say that Russell was by far and away the best guest they ever had for these events - really talking to people, taking a genuine interest in the staff, not just scribbling his signature and saying "next!" The only issue would be that he spent so much time talking to everyone, the line would barely move.
 
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Kliq

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Bill Russell doesn't get enough credit for being arguably the biggest game-changing player in the history of team sports; perhaps only rivaled by Babe Ruth. Before Bill Russell, basketball was a floor-bound game, dominated by slower, plodding guys who couldn't jump over a phone book but were very tall, like George Mikan or Neil Johnston. That was basketball, a game that shunned athleticism in favor of height and not-so-consequently, shunned Black players. The acting of jumping on defense was actively discouraged; players were told not to leave their feet. Simply put, the game was nothing like what it would become.

As a high schooler, Russell was undervalued. He was tall and quick and bouncy, but he didn't grasp the fundamentals of what people wanted out of a basketball player; which were basically that he couldn't reliably put up a hook shot. People didn't understand the impact he could have defensively and what being a vertical athlete could mean to basketball. While most college coaches would love to have a raw, 6'10, bouncy athlete on their team, there was real skepticism about Russell as a player, which is why he only got one scholarship offer, to San Francisco.

At San Francisco, even as he emerged as an obviously dominant player to modern eyes, there was a lot of skepticism about Russell as a player. Sportswriters scoffed at his lack of offensive fundamentals and his untraditional playing style. Nobody had ever really blocked shots before Russell; the closest would be players like Bob Kurland, who committed what we would know call goaltending, around the basket. Russell coming over as a help-defender and blocking shots was never seen before, and people didn't understand it. Some argued that he was a bad defender, because he would leave his own man to go make a play. Few eventually realized the kind of impact he was having on the court.

Russell fully arrived as a player during his junior season at San Francisco, but even as Russell dominated the game, the skepticism remained. It really wasn't until the NCAA title game, where San Francisco beat La Salle and Tom Gola, that Russell was finally acknowledged as a great player. Gola and La Salle were the reigning national champions and Gola was perhaps the most famous college basketball player in history at that time; but Russell held him to only 16 points and San Francisco dominated La Salle.

An undefeated season and another national title would follow. Yet, people still doubted if Russell would be an effective basketball player at the next level. He wasn't taken first overall in the draft, even though he was clearly the most dominant player college basketball had ever seen. To some people, Russell just wasn't what a basketball player should be because he actually jumped and played above the rim.

Red Auerbach understood it; he understood the way the game was changing and what Russell, already the penultimate winner in college basketball, could do as the engine of his team. He understood the defensive value that Russell brought as a player, and how his rebounding, shot blocking, an outlet passing would be the critical component to take his talented (but perennially disappointing) Celtics team to the next level. He understood that black athletes were the future of basketball, and that playing a vertical game was critical to evolving into the future while other teams dug in their heels and blew Russell off as a gimmick that wouldn't work in the NBA.

Russell came to the NBA and completely changed the game. Mikan was retired, but ground-bound stars still ruled the game. One of them was Neil Johnston, who had led the NBA in scoring in three out of the previous four seasons, and the Philadelphia Warriors were the reigning champions and the class of the Eastern Conference. In Russell's third career game, on Christmas Day, 1956, Johnston immediately went to work on Russell, setting up for his patented hook shot that had won him three scoring titles. Russell blocked it. Johnston tried again. Russell blocked it. Johnston tried a third time. Russell blocked it. Johnston was held to 14 points on 5-17 shooting. Johnston would retire two years later; and Tommy Heinsohn would say "Russell played Johnston right out of the league."

Johnston wasn't the only one who wouldn't survive the Russell Revolution. Almost overnight with the arrival of Russell, the old guard of the NBA was dead. Ed Macauley would only make it two more seasons after being traded for Russell, Harry Gallatin, Vern Mikkelsen, Mel Hutchins, all men who made multiple all star games and All-NBA teams, would see their status as top post players be erased as quickly as one of their weak, fundamentally sound, hook shots.

Over time, more players would come into the game that played like Russell, with Wilt being the most famous. But Russell was the first; the first "athletic" Center, the first guy to block shots, the first guy to play above the rim. Everyone knows that he was a great winner and a great teammate and a super-clutch player and all of that, but he was the FIRST guy to basically play basketball in the way people now consider the normal standard. Outside of Ruth introducing the home run to baseball, it's hard to think of a player who was a bigger innovator to their sport than Russell.

By the time Russell's career wrapped up, the NBA was completely different and it was crawling with quick, athletic big-men in the Russell mold. Willis Reed, Elvin Hayes, Gus Johnson and with many more on the way (including his eventual replacement in Dave Cowens). Russell's edge in physical superiority had waned, especially in his battles with Wilt. That is of course when the second aspect of Russell brilliance of a player kicked-in; that cerebral understanding of the game and the compulsion to win. Later in his career, Russell wasn't blocking a dozen shots a game, but his understanding of how to organize his team (literally, he was the coach), turn it on at the biggest moments, and stay poised under pressure, were invaluable aspects to his success and every bit as important to winning as were his obvious physical gifts and innovative playing style.

Russell and Jordan stand alone as the two greatest players in NBA history for that rare combination. Both men possessed game-changing athleticism, but also had a rare drive to succeed and win, at almost any cost and to an unhealthy degree. Jordan's competitiveness has been well documented, but Russell was every bit as motivated by the fear of losing, to the degree that he was still puking before games, even with two fists full of rings. You could add LeBron to that class as well; although the modern nature of his career and hopping between teams makes him harder to compare.

Lastly, Russell's advocacy for social justice and change have been well-celebrated over the last 18 hours or so since he died; and it's really pleasant to see how that hasn't been forgotten. Personally, Russell's experience in Boston held an important mirror up to the history of racism in the city and what that means for today.

The most famous racial incident in the history of the city is probably the busing riots; but for a teenager when I first learned about them, that was a complicated issue. As an adult it is easy to see the racially charged anger that led to the riots, but at the time it was explainable to me that people would be upset about their kids being shipped away from their neighborhood schools and that the riots were not entirely race-related.

With what happened to Russell though? People breaking into his house and shitting in his bed? How could you possibly explain that as other than horrifying racism? The consistent anger he felt towards the city was a reminder of the kind of environment he lived through when he should have been universally celebrated. And what did that environment that Russell endured say about my parents, who grew up and were shaped during that time period, or my grandparents, whose generation modeled the city under that sort of behavior?

It's a constant reminder in my life about what racism is like in Greater Boston; that people who grew up in an environment where what happened to Russell wasn't viewed as a massive tragedy and in some circles was certainly condoned and encouraged, are still around today and often in positions of power. What happened to Russell, and countless other Black residents of the city, wasn't that long ago and some of it still certainly still takes place today, and we as a society have got to do better.

What Russell did wasn't easy. He was outspoken and constantly vigilant in his intolerance for racism and disrespect. He was criticized for sportswriters for not being the model negro, the grateful athlete who could be respected for being a trailblazer as long as they didn't mention to often why they had to blaze a trail in the first place. It was notable that on his social media, right after announcing his passing, it was mentioned that he led the first integrated basketball camp in Mississippi, shortly after Medgar Evans was killed. That sounds like a truly incredible accomplishment, the kind of thing you could easily make a Remember-the-Titans-style movie about, and I had never heard that before, and I feel like I know more about Russell than 99% of the population. For Russell is was just another thing he did in his life.

It's amazing to think that at the time, Russell was viewed as prickly and sore with the media. Because he wasn't the grateful, happy-to-be-there athlete that the media demanded, and because he didn't keep his mouth shut and play ball like Jackie Robinson was told to do, and because he was justifiably angry about the horrible racism he had endured throughout his life, he was seen as a bitter and angry man.

That contrasts with basically any time we've seen him over the last 40 years on video, or any personal stories you hear from people who were around him. He always came across to me as funny, charming and someone who absolutely loved life. I can still hear his trademark, yuck-yuck laugh ringing in my ears. He never comes across as bitter or angry, just someone who was acutely aware of the cruelties that were unjustly directed at him as a Black man who excelled.
 

Philip Jeff Frye

Member
SoSH Member
Oct 23, 2001
9,137
Bill Russell doesn't get enough credit for being arguably the biggest game-changing player in the history of team sports; perhaps only rivaled by Babe Ruth. Before Bill Russell, basketball was a floor-bound game, dominated by slower, plodding guys who couldn't jump over a phone book but were very tall, like George Mikan or Neil Johnston. That was basketball, a game that shunned athleticism in favor of height and not-so-consequently, shunned Black players. The acting of jumping on defense was actively discouraged; players were told not to leave their feet. Simply put, the game was nothing like what it would become.

As a high schooler, Russell was undervalued. He was tall and quick and bouncy, but he didn't grasp the fundamentals of what people wanted out of a basketball player; which were basically that he couldn't reliably put up a hook shot. People didn't understand the impact he could have defensively and what being a vertical athlete could mean to basketball. While most college coaches would love to have a raw, 6'10, bouncy athlete on their team, there was real skepticism about Russell as a player, which is why he only got one scholarship offer, to San Francisco.

At San Francisco, even as he emerged as an obviously dominant player to modern eyes, there was a lot of skepticism about Russell as a player. Sportswriters scoffed at his lack of offensive fundamentals and his untraditional playing style. Nobody had ever really blocked shots before Russell; the closest would be players like Bob Kurland, who committed what we would know call goaltending, around the basket. Russell coming over as a help-defender and blocking shots was never seen before, and people didn't understand it. Some argued that he was a bad defender, because he would leave his own man to go make a play. Few eventually realized the kind of impact he was having on the court.

Russell fully arrived as a player during his junior season at San Francisco, but even as Russell dominated the game, the skepticism remained. It really wasn't until the NCAA title game, where San Francisco beat La Salle and Tom Gola, that Russell was finally acknowledged as a great player. Gola and La Salle were the reigning national champions and Gola was perhaps the most famous college basketball player in history at that time; but Russell held him to only 16 points and San Francisco dominated La Salle.

An undefeated season and another national title would follow. Yet, people still doubted if Russell would be an effective basketball player at the next level. He wasn't taken first overall in the draft, even though he was clearly the most dominant player college basketball had ever seen. To some people, Russell just wasn't what a basketball player should be because he actually jumped and played above the rim.

Red Auerbach understood it; he understood the way the game was changing and what Russell, already the penultimate winner in college basketball, could do as the engine of his team. He understood the defensive value that Russell brought as a player, and how his rebounding, shot blocking, an outlet passing would be the critical component to take his talented (but perennially disappointing) Celtics team to the next level. He understood that black athletes were the future of basketball, and that playing a vertical game was critical to evolving into the future while other teams dug in their heels and blew Russell off as a gimmick that wouldn't work in the NBA.

Russell came to the NBA and completely changed the game. Mikan was retired, but ground-bound stars still ruled the game. One of them was Neil Johnston, who had led the NBA in scoring in three out of the previous four seasons, and the Philadelphia Warriors were the reigning champions and the class of the Eastern Conference. In Russell's third career game, on Christmas Day, 1956, Johnston immediately went to work on Russell, setting up for his patented hook shot that had won him three scoring titles. Russell blocked it. Johnston tried again. Russell blocked it. Johnston tried a third time. Russell blocked it. Johnston was held to 14 points on 5-17 shooting. Johnston would retire two years later; and Tommy Heinsohn would say "Russell played Johnston right out of the league."

Johnston wasn't the only one who wouldn't survive the Russell Revolution. Almost overnight with the arrival of Russell, the old guard of the NBA was dead. Ed Macauley would only make it two more seasons after being traded for Russell, Harry Gallatin, Vern Mikkelsen, Mel Hutchins, all men who made multiple all star games and All-NBA teams, would see their status as top post players be erased as quickly as one of their weak, fundamentally sound, hook shots.

Over time, more players would come into the game that played like Russell, with Wilt being the most famous. But Russell was the first; the first "athletic" Center, the first guy to block shots, the first guy to play above the rim. Everyone knows that he was a great winner and a great teammate and a super-clutch player and all of that, but he was the FIRST guy to basically play basketball in the way people now consider the normal standard. Outside of Ruth introducing the home run to baseball, it's hard to think of a player who was a bigger innovator to their sport than Russell.

By the time Russell's career wrapped up, the NBA was completely different and it was crawling with quick, athletic big-men in the Russell mold. Willis Reed, Elvin Hayes, Gus Johnson and with many more on the way (including his eventual replacement in Dave Cowens). Russell's edge in physical superiority had waned, especially in his battles with Wilt. That is of course when the second aspect of Russell brilliance of a player kicked-in; that cerebral understanding of the game and the compulsion to win. Later in his career, Russell wasn't blocking a dozen shots a game, but his understanding of how to organize his team (literally, he was the coach), turn it on at the biggest moments, and stay poised under pressure, were invaluable aspects to his success and every bit as important to winning as were his obvious physical gifts and innovative playing style.

Russell and Jordan stand alone as the two greatest players in NBA history for that rare combination. Both men possessed game-changing athleticism, but also had a rare drive to succeed and win, at almost any cost and to an unhealthy degree. Jordan's competitiveness has been well documented, but Russell was every bit as motivated by the fear of losing, to the degree that he was still puking before games, even with two fists full of rings. You could add LeBron to that class as well; although the modern nature of his career and hopping between teams makes him harder to compare.

Lastly, Russell's advocacy for social justice and change have been well-celebrated over the last 18 hours or so since he died; and it's really pleasant to see how that hasn't been forgotten. Personally, Russell's experience in Boston held an important mirror up to the history of racism in the city and what that means for today.

The most famous racial incident in the history of the city is probably the busing riots; but for a teenager when I first learned about them, that was a complicated issue. As an adult it is easy to see the racially charged anger that led to the riots, but at the time it was explainable to me that people would be upset about their kids being shipped away from their neighborhood schools and that the riots were not entirely race-related.

With what happened to Russell though? People breaking into his house and shitting in his bed? How could you possibly explain that as other than horrifying racism? The consistent anger he felt towards the city was a reminder of the kind of environment he lived through when he should have been universally celebrated. And what did that environment that Russell endured say about my parents, who grew up and were shaped during that time period, or my grandparents, whose generation modeled the city under that sort of behavior?

It's a constant reminder in my life about what racism is like in Greater Boston; that people who grew up in an environment where what happened to Russell wasn't viewed as a massive tragedy and in some circles was certainly condoned and encouraged, are still around today and often in positions of power. What happened to Russell, and countless other Black residents of the city, wasn't that long ago and some of it still certainly still takes place today, and we as a society have got to do better.

What Russell did wasn't easy. He was outspoken and constantly vigilant in his intolerance for racism and disrespect. He was criticized for sportswriters for not being the model negro, the grateful athlete who could be respected for being a trailblazer as long as they didn't mention to often why they had to blaze a trail in the first place. It was notable that on his social media, right after announcing his passing, it was mentioned that he led the first integrated basketball camp in Mississippi, shortly after Medgar Evans was killed. That sounds like a truly incredible accomplishment, the kind of thing you could easily make a Remember-the-Titans-style movie about, and I had never heard that before, and I feel like I know more about Russell than 99% of the population. For Russell is was just another thing he did in his life.

It's amazing to think that at the time, Russell was viewed as prickly and sore with the media. Because he wasn't the grateful, happy-to-be-there athlete that the media demanded, and because he didn't keep his mouth shut and play ball like Jackie Robinson was told to do, and because he was justifiably angry about the horrible racism he had endured throughout his life, he was seen as a bitter and angry man.

That contrasts with basically any time we've seen him over the last 40 years on video, or any personal stories you hear from people who were around him. He always came across to me as funny, charming and someone who absolutely loved life. I can still hear his trademark, yuck-yuck laugh ringing in my ears. He never comes across as bitter or angry, just someone who was acutely aware of the cruelties that were unjustly directed at him as a Black man who excelled.
You should get this post published.