Remembering Bill Russell, the NBA’s Original GOAT
Some things are bigger than basketball, and at 6’10”, Bill Russell was practically one of them. The 11-time NBA champion was a monster on the court, widely regarded as the greatest defensive force to have ever slipped into a Celtics uniform, but sadly, all good runs must come to an end. On Sunday, Russell’s family confirmed that the Hall of Famer had passed away at age 88.
“Bill Russell, the most prolific winner in American sports history, passed away peacefully today at age 88, with his wife, Jeannine, by his side,” a statement posted on social media read. “Bill’s wife, Jeannine, and his many friends and family thank you for keeping Bill in your prayers. Perhaps you’ll relive one or two of the golden moments he gave us, or recall his trademark laugh as he delighted in explaining the real story behind how those moments unfolded. And we hope each of us can find a new way to act or speak up with Bill’s uncompromising, dignified and always constructive commitment to principle.”
As noted, Russell’s 11 titles with the Boston Celtics, which included a whopping eight in a row from 1959-1966 still stand as a modern-day record. Such was the influence of the great man that the current NBA Finals MVP trophy is named after him, a testament to the Centre’s incredible ability to turn it on when it mattered most. Those old enough to see The Secretary of Defense in action will remember his long-held rivalry with Philadelphia and Los Angeles star Wilt Chamberlain, which saw the two towering legends trade blows over several seasons in the 1960s, not always in uniform. Famously, when Chamberlain signed a $100,000 a year contract for three seasons in 1965, Russell told the Celtics that he would consider retiring unless he got paid a dollar more. The Celtics agreed, raising his contract offer from $75,000 to $100,001, setting a record at the time for an NBA athlete.
“Through the taunts, threats and unthinkable adversity, Bill rose above it all and remained true to his belief that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity.” – Adam Silver, NBA commissioner
However, despite his enviable NBA record, in which he averaged 15.1 points and 22.5 rebounds, Russell’s greatest achievements often came without the ball in hand. A trailblazing voice for social justice, Russell broke the glass ceiling for athletes across the board, setting a new precedence for acceptance and inclusion within the NBA. In 1967, following the retirement of influential coach Red Auerbach, the Cs found themselves without a guiding force, however, at the behest of Auerbach and former teammate Tim Heinsohn, the often surly Russell took up the reins as player-coach. While the monumental double-duty wasn’t unheard of for the time, the appointment cemented Russell as the first-ever black coach in NBA history, paving the way for modern-day specialists like Doc Rivers and Monty Williams.
Famously, Auerbach originally wanted Frank Ramsey to coach, with Bob Cousy and Tom Heinsohn his second and third options. But when Heinsohn revealed he didn’t think he could handle the brutish Russell, Auerbach recognised the opportunity for the Celtics’ best player to elevate to another level. According to John Taylor’s book The Rivalry: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and the Golden Age of Basketball, Russell frankly quipped to a peddling journalist, “I wasn’t offered the job because I am a Negro, I was offered it because Red figured I could do it.”
From that point on, Russell solidified his already stellar status in sport’s civil rights movement. The Louisana native had been present at Dr Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I have a dream speech’ and backed Muhammad Ali’s stance against the military draft, but the NBA centre had now joined their ranks. Russell went on to win a further two titles as player-coach, before retiring from the NBA in 1969. Just a few short years later, he became the first Black player inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame and in 2011, was awarded the Medal of Freedom by then-president Barack Obama. Speaking of Russell’s passing on Sunday, Obama noted the NBA legend’s legacy was more than that of an athlete.
“Today, we lost a giant. As tall as Bill Russell stood, his legacy rises far higher — both as a player and as a person,” former US president Barack Obama posted on Twitter. “Perhaps more than anyone else, Bill knew what it took to win and what it took to lead. On the court, he was the greatest champion in basketball history. Off of it, he was a civil rights trailblazer, marching with Dr. King and standing with Muhammad Ali. For decades, Bill endured insults and vandalism, but never let it stop him from speaking up for what’s right. I learned so much from the way he played, the way he coached, and the way he lived his life.”
When the news of Russell’s passing broke on Sunday afternoon, the entire NBA community collectively joined in celebration of the sport’s greatest-ever winner. Current Celtics stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown acknowledged the franchise legend, with the team stating that Russell’s DNA was “woven through every element of the Celtics organisation”. Even Michael Jordan, who many believed inherited the GOAT moniker from Russell, paid tribute to 12-time All-Star.
“He paved the way and set an example for every Black player who came into the league after him, including me,” Jordan said. “The world has lost a legend.”
A pioneer both on and off the court, the legend of Bill Russell is encapsulated in a statue that resides outside Boston’s City Hall Plaza, but his spirit lives on in the next generation of Black stars. A man who took no prisoners on the court, Russell’s best-fought bout was that with social structure and segregation. Perhaps unsurprisingly for the 11-time NBA Champion, it was a battle he won.