Sports

The Unfathomable Greatness of Bill Russell

The transcendent Celtics star was everything we should want out of public figures.

Russell blocks Chamberlain's shot in midair as their teammates and the crowd watch
Bill Russell harasses Wilt Chamberlain as he attempts to score at the Boston Garden on Jan. 27, 1965. Bettmann/Getty Images

Bill Russell may have been the greatest team-sport athlete in American history. Even more remarkably, that status isn’t the most impressive thing about him. In the 1950s and 1960s Russell, who died Sunday at age 88, helped to redefine the conception of athlete-as-citizen in American life, making issues of racial justice a central facet of his public profile in ways no major pro sports star had previously. He also revolutionized the game of basketball and set a standard for dominance that will probably never be matched, winning 11 championships in his 13-year professional career. If the goal of sports is for your team to beat the other team, Bill Russell was the best there ever was at doing just that.

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Russell was born in the midst of the Great Depression in Monroe, Louisiana. From his earliest childhood he encountered vicious racism of all kinds, experiences that he would publicly recount throughout his life, including recently in a 2020 essay he wrote for the Players’ Tribune. At the age of 9, his family moved west to Oakland, where Russell later entered McClymonds High School as a 5-foot-10 freshman. As a young player Russell was raw and slow to develop, and nearly got cut from his high school team. He was an exceptional athlete but struggled to grasp the nuances of the game and to develop sound fundamentals—ironic for a player who would later become synonymous with hypercerebral discipline. He was largely ignored by college recruiters until getting offered a scholarship from the University of San Francisco, where he, future Celtics teammate K.C. Jones, and Hal Perry made the Dons into a national power, winning back-to-back national championships in 1955 and 1956. (This trio was also the first time three Black players had started for a major college basketball team.)

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Russell wasn’t a traditionally dominant center on the offensive end of the floor, which, despite having marauded through the college ranks, caused him to be somewhat undervalued as a pro prospect. The Rochester Royals, who owned the first overall pick in the 1956 Draft, passed on him, and the St. Louis Hawks, who held the second pick, were thought to be skittish about the prospect of adding a star Black player. Celtics coach Red Auerbach recognized Russell’s genius and finagled a trade with St. Louis, sending six-time All-Star “Easy” Ed Macauley to the Hawks in exchange for the second pick, which Auerbach used to draft Russell. One testament to Russell’s greatness is that the Hawks acquired an in-his-prime future Hall of Famer in exchange for him and still managed to be on the wrong side of one of the worst trades in NBA history.

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A few weeks back a podcaster with a degree from Duke named J.J. Redick ruffled some feathers when (in a conversation about Russell’s former teammate Bob Cousy, incidentally) he derided players of the 1950s and 1960s as “plumbers and firemen.” It was a dumb thing to say, but if you watch video of the NBA from the era in question it’s clear that the game has changed a lot between then and now, and that there are certainly plenty of players on the court who, shall we say, would struggle to adapt to certain facets of the modern game.

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You need only watch a few seconds of Bill Russell highlights to know that he was absolutely not one of those players. If anything Russell was vastly ahead of his time, a freakishly athletic, punishingly intense, shot-smothering and rebound-gobbling marvel of a basketball player. Watching a young Russell is a little like watching Giannis Antetokounmpo get dropped into a late-1950s NBA game, only if Giannis’ own formidable basketball intelligence was exponentially more prodigious. When I was growing up in the Boston area, decades after Russell had retired, rumors still circulated that, in his prime, Russell boasted a 48-inch standing vertical leap. I don’t know if that is true, but Russell was an Olympic-caliber high-jumper in college, once winning the West Coast Relays with a jump of 6 feet, 9 ¼ inches, just ¾ inches shorter than his own listed height. This is mindboggling to think about.

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Russell’s professional statistics are both brain-breakingly unbelievable and strangely incomplete. He never averaged over 20 points per game in a season, but averaged over 20 rebounds 10 times. In the 1962 Playoffs he averaged 22.4 points, 26.4 rebounds, and 48 minutes per game. He went 10–0 in Game 7s during his career. Had the NBA’s Finals MVP award existed while Russell was playing, he would assuredly own more than anyone by an unsurpassable margin. (The current record-holder is Michael Jordan, with six; fittingly, in 2005, the trophy was renamed after Russell.) And yet the on-court act that he was most known for, that to this day most anyone who knows basketball will tell you he was better at than anyone else who’s ever played, was the blocked shot, which didn’t become tracked as a statistic until after he retired.

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A great blocked shot is one of basketball’s most spectacular plays, the spiritual mirror-opposition of the posterizing slam dunk. It’s an assertion of dominance that’s humiliating and demoralizing, and in its highest forms can feel like watching a human being snatching another’s soul. The most famous blocked shot in NBA history came in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals, when Cleveland’s LeBron James chased down Golden State’s Andre Iguodala on a fast break and smothered a would-be go-ahead layup into the backboard with less than two minutes remaining in the game. It was a block that, in the moment, made you feel like LeBron had simply decided that the Warriors were not winning this basketball game, that the mere suggestion that they might was obscene to him.

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By all accounts of those who played with and especially against him, Russell’s blocks frequently had that quality. Beyond having otherworldly defensive timing Russell was a psychological master of the blocked shot, terrorizing opponents by seemingly knowing exactly what they would do, probably because he was already in their head before the game had even started. One of the most celebrated aspects of Russell’s shot-blocking was his ability to keep the ball in play and produce a live-ball turnover, scarfing up shots and then immediately turning them into outlet passes for his fast-breaking teammates.

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Russell’s life and deeds outside of basketball were even more consequential than his triumphs within it. During his playing career, Russell was politically outspoken in ways that were unprecedented for a star American athlete. In 1961, he led a boycott of an exhibition game in Kentucky after two Black teammates, Sam Jones and Thomas “Satch” Sanders, were denied service at a restaurant. After Medgar Evers was assassinated in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1963, Russell traveled to the city to put on an integrated basketball camp; that same summer he marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington, D.C. In 1967, he was one of the most prominent participants in the 1967 “Cleveland Summit” convened by Jim Brown in support of Muhammad Ali’s refusal to serve in Vietnam. (For a fuller account of Russell’s political activity and significance, check out Aram Goudsouzian’s terrific 2010 book King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution.)

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All of this made Russell’s relationship with Boston, a city whose racial history is largely disgraceful, immensely fraught. Throughout his playing career Russell was never showered with the love that the city bestowed on its star white athletes, including some of his own teammates, and was at times subjected to jeers and racist taunts from his home crowd. When Russell and his family moved to the affluent suburb of Reading in 1963, their house was broken into and vandalized, including with racial slurs scrawled on their walls. When the Celtics retired Russell’s number in 1972, he refused to attend the ceremony, in protest of his treatment by the city. As Russell’s former teammate and longtime Celtics announcer Tommy Heinsohn put it to Sports Illustrated in 1999, “he came to Boston and won 11 championships in 13 years, and they named a fucking tunnel after Ted Williams.”

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In more recent decades, Russell’s relationship with the city began to thaw. In 1998, the Celtics re-retired his number in a ceremony that he attended, and his reception was rapturous. A statue of Russell was erected outside of Boston City Hall in 2013. He attended Celtics games with some frequency, always greeted with raucous ovations, and was unfailingly generous to younger generations of Celtics players. He loved his former teammates and coaches, many of whom he outlived. When Heinsohn died in 2020, Russell’s tribute to the beloved former Celtic was the most moving.

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There are literally millions more words one could write about Bill Russell—I haven’t even touched on the fact that he was the first Black head coach in NBA history, that his 1979 memoir Second Wind (co-written with future Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Taylor Branch) is one of the best books of its kind you’ll ever read, or that he was the first basketball player to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Bill Russell wasn’t just everything we should want out of people who play sports; he was everything we should want out of public figures, an absurdly gifted human being who understood there was a world outside those gifts and who set himself to help change it. Back in August 2020, when the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play a playoff game in the “bubble” against the Orlando Magic in the aftermath of the police shooting of Jacob Blake, the first person I thought of was Russell. Among basketball fans it’s a frequent matter of debate as to when the “modern NBA” starts: sometimes with the ABA merger, often with Magic and Bird, occasionally with Jordan. But on its very best days, it starts with Bill Russell.

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