Bill Russell: Life & Major Accomplishments

Bill Russell a 5- time NBA Most Valuable Player

Although William Felton Russell also known as Bill Russell stopped gracing the hardwood of the basketball court in 1969, his influence on the game is still felt today. You might be aware of his historic 11-time NBA Championship reign or of his 5- time NBA Most Valuable Player awards. However, there’s way more to Bill Russell than just being the face of the Boston Celtics. Let’s go deeper and find out more.

Formative Years

The American professional basketball player was born to Charles Russell and Katie Russell in West Monroe, Louisiana on February 12, 1934. Bill Russell attended Oakland, California’s McClymonds High School. He studied at the University of San Francisco from 1953 to 1956. Russell finished his studies and obtained his college graduation at the end of 1956. In a single year, Russell earned a Bachelor of Arts degree, joined the select group of Olympic gold medalists, married his first girlfriend, Rose Swisher and signed a contract with the National Basketball Association.

Russell played center for the basketball team at McClymonds High School and was an uncomfortable, average player until his stature earned him a scholarship to the University of San Francisco, where he excelled.  When Russell got his scholarship opportunity from the University of San Francisco, he made an immediate mark on the Campus and left a lasting legacy of excellence. With 461 points in 23 games and a record-setting 20 points per game average, the lanky Russell was a standout on USF’s freshmen basketball squad.

Bill Russell’s Achievements as a Player

Russell was selected for the Olympic team, and after competing in the Melbourne Games in 1956, he took home a gold medal. Under unusual circumstances, Russell, who was selected in the second round of the 1956 NBA Draft was transferred to the Boston Celtics and that was a blessing in disguise. While playing in the NBA, Russell dominated as the league’s finest defensive player. He could jump like a monster and pull down a lot of rebounds. He was indeed a true team player.

Before Russell, it was unheard of in the NBA for a player to position himself only with the intention of blocking opposing scorers while neglecting the prospect of scoring a basket. Because of his weak ball-handling skills, Auerbach, his coach at the time, warned him against taking shots and maintaining possession of the ball. This became his permanent play style.

Bill Russell and coach Auerbach

Critics have suggested that having Russell on the squad was a major factor in the Celtics’ 11 NBA championships between 1957 and 1969. When Russell first entered the NBA, he was signed by the Boston Celtics, where he made $19,500 and wore jersey number 6. In the 1957–58 season, Russell played on the NBA’s All-Star squad. His team won the NBA championship seven times between 1957 and 1969. Before Russell’s rookie year with the Celtics, the team had never come close to winning a championship.

As a player, Russell was inducted into three different halls of fame: the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975, the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006, and the FIBA Hall of Fame in 2007. He was chosen for the NBA 25th Anniversary Team in 1971 and the NBA 35th Anniversary Team in 1980. In 1996, he was named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History, making him one of only four players to achieve all three awards. In 2021, he was chosen for the NBA 75th Anniversary Team.

In 2009, the NBA honored him by rechristening the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award with his name. It wasn’t until 2021 that he received the honor of being elected into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame for a second time, this time for his contribution to the game as a coach.

He was also a 12-time NBA All-Star (1958–1969), 3-time All-NBA First Team (1959, 1963, 1965), 4-time NBA rebounding champion (1958, 1959, 1964, 1965) and 2-time Helms Player of the Year (1955, 1956).

Bill Russell’s Achievements as a Coach

In 1966, he was the first African-American to be named a head coach in the National Basketball Association (NBA). There were two championships won during his three year spell as a player-coach. Bill Russell is one of only four players (the others being Henry Bibby, Magic Johnson, and Billy Thompson) to win both the NCAA championship and the NBA championship in successive years.

By devoting himself to defense on a level no one else had before, Bill Russell changed basketball forever and earned himself the title, hero. Bill Russell was an iconic basketball player who also made strides as a civil rights activist in the fight against racism.

Throughout his coaching career, Russell fought against discrimination and inequality, both for himself and his peers. Russell chose to speak out against injustice and used his popularity in the league to break down barriers. Parallel to the growth of the civil rights movement, he reinvented basketball and the role of the black player in the sport.

In 1966, Bill Russell accepted the job of a head coach for the Boston Celtics, a position he held on to until 1987. Russell’s achievements as coach were enormous. When he first took on the role of player-coach for the Celtics, he led them to a 60-21 record. As head coach, Russell led Boston to consecutive NBA titles in 1968 and 1969, compiling a 102-62 regular season record. After leading the Celtics to a seven-game championship series victory against the Lakers in the 1969 NBA Finals, Bill Russell decided to call it quits as a player and coach.

Bill served as both the general manager and head coach of the Seattle SuperSonics from 1973 through 1977. He began a career in media in the 1970s, working as a broadcast analyst for a variety of television stations.

In the 1987–1988 season, he coached the Sacramento Kings, and from 1988 through 1989, he was the head of basketball operations for the Kings. In 1974, when Bill Russell became the first African American player to be inducted into the National Basketball Association Hall of Fame, the entire community rejoiced with him.

After leading his club to two championships in three seasons as a defensive anchor, the NBA’s first black coach became an inspiration for other minority coaches. Since Bill Russell first took on player-coaching responsibilities with the Boston Celtics 55 years ago, nearly 70 black NBA head coaches have taken the court for at least one game due to his fight for equality in the sport.

Other Interesting Facts

  • Shortly after Russell’s passing   on July 31 of 2022, the National Basketball Association (NBA) retired his number 6 jersey across the league, making him the only player in NBA history to be so honored.
  • Russell got married 3 times in his lifetime. He first married Rose Swisher from 1956 to 1973, Dorothy Anstett from 1977 to 1980 and Marilyn Nault from 1996 to 2009.
  • Russell died in his home after a short illness in 2022.
  • Russell is also known as “The Secretary of Defense” and “Mr. 11 Rings.”
  • In 1979, Russell presided over a Saturday Night Live program.
  • With 21,620 total rebounds for his career, Russell finished second all-time in the NBA behind Wilt Chamberlain’s 23,924.
  • Russell was named the NBA’s All-Time Greatest Player by the PBWAA in 1980.
  • In three years at University of San Francisco, Russell averaged 20.7 points and 20.3 rebounds.
  • Russell once had a single-game record of 51 rebounds.
  • At Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, police found and arrested him with a loaded caliber handgun.
  • Russell became the first NBA player to visit Africa in 1959.
  • He received the award for the Medal of Freedom from US president Barack Obama in 2011.

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