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NBA 75 Series: #6 Bill Russell

Updated: Aug 30, 2022

At #6 of my NBA 75 Greatest Players of All Time, is none other than the greatest winner in sports history, who is arguably the greatest defensive player of all time, and will have his #6 retired league-wide by the NBA this upcoming season The late great Bill Russell. Russell was born on February 12, 1934, in West Monroe, Louisiana, and sadly passed away on July 31 at 88 years old.

Russell grew up in a very segregated South at the time, with his family struggling to deal with racism in their daily lives. In fact, it was so bad Russell’s father, Charles, was refused service at a gas station until all the white customers were taken care of first. What makes matters worse is when Russell’s father tried to walk away the attendant pointed a shotgun at him and threatened to kill him if he did not wait his turn.

Russell was initially closer to his mother Katie growing up, but she sadly passed when he was just 12 years old. Russell would use basketball as an escape from the racist world and all that was going on in his life while his father would work as a steelworker after his wife’s passing to be closer to Russell and his siblings and provide for the family.

Russell was a stupendous athlete from a young age, having large hands, being a great runner, and a spectacular jumper. However, he still didn’t quite understand the nuances of the game yet which would lead to him getting cut from the Herbert Hoover Junior High School team. He would attend MClymond’s High School in Oakland where as a freshman he almost was cut from the team again! But, coach George Fowles saw the potential oozing out of Russell due to his remarkable athleticism and encouraged the young man to develop his fundamentals of the game.

Thanks to a growth spurt and hard work, Russell would become a force to be reckoned with on the defensive end, something he would become well renowned for through his legendary career. He played with the baseball Hall-of-Famer Frank Robinson. Russell would become obsessive in studying his opponent's every move and seeing what their tendencies were from what foot they moved first on certain plays if they were a shooter or driver, and more.

Due to disgusting racism that was so prevalent in the world, Russell didn’t receive a single college offer until recruiter Hal DeJulio from the University of San Francisco (USF) to play for the Dons. He wasn’t “amazed” by Russell’s mediocre scoring ability and fundamentals, but was enthralled by his defensive instincts and feel for when to make the right play in the clutch.

Russell would become the starting center for coach Phil Woolpert, who was big on defensive effort and half-court execution, which favored Russell’s skillset. Woolpert was the first coach to start three African-Americans in Russell, future Boston Celtics teammate K.C. Jones, and Hal Perry. He was very unique in using his lanky athletic frame to guard on the perimeter against guards and forwards and pressure them on their shots.

He had the stature and shot-blocking skills of a center and the agility of a guard. Russell was so dominant that they had to rewrite the rules, widening the lane for his junior season. Once Russell graduated the NCAA instituted that basket interference (goaltending) was prohibited due to Russell’s defensive wisdom at the collegiate level.

Russell was also an unbelievable track and field athlete by being a prominent high jumper who ranked seventh in the world in 1956. He won multiple high jump athletic titles and finished a 440-yard dash in 49.6 seconds. He was pure electric!

On the hardwood though, Russell would finish his collegiate career with two national championships, winning back-to-back in 1955 and 1956. He once swatted 13 shots in a game and recorded an unofficial triple-double of 26 points, 27 rebounds, 20 blocks, 3 steals, and an assist. He would be named the Most Outstanding Player in 1955 with an average of 20.7 points and 20.3 rebounds per game for his career on 52% from the field.

Russell would also be named a three-time first-team WCC selection, two-time first-time All-American, and UPI College Player of the Year in 1956, which stopped in 1996.

After a prestigious collegiate career, Russell would be invited by the Harlem Globetrotters to join their exhibition team. However, he would decline the offer due to being enraged by the racism that owner Abe Serpeinstein only discussed the matter with Woolpert, which rubbed Russell the wrong way.

After the debacle of the Globetrotters, Russell would enter the 1958 NBA Draft where he would be selected 2nd overall as a territorial pick to the Boston Celtics to play for the iconic coach Red Auerbach. The Celtics needed the toughness and defensive standard that Russell set and they had won no franchise titles at that point.

The Celtics were lucky to get him after the St. Louis Hawks (now Atlanta Hawks) traded for six-time all-star center Ed Macauley who was a hometown hero in St.Louis, as well as trading for another Hall-of-Famer in Cliff Hagan, which sparked a deal between the two teams. The Celtics would also acquire Russell’s former college teammates in Jones and Tommy Heinsohn who he faced in college, all becoming Hall of Famers.

Before his rookie year, Russell would play for the U.S. Olympic basketball team where he would be named the captain of the squad. It was held in Melbourne, Australia, which caused him to miss his rookie season up until December. He helped the U.S. capture the gold medal by defeating the Soviet Union 89-55, leading the team in scoring with 14.1 points per game and dominating the competition by an average of 53.5 points!

Upon his arrival to the Celtics for his rookie season Russell would average 14.7 points per game and a league-leading 19.6 rebounds per game while helping lead the Celtics to a 44-28 record, good for their second-best record ever at the time since they first began in the BAA in 1946-47. He scored 16 points and snatched 31 rebounds in his first playoff game against the great Dolph Schayes and the Syracuse Nationals.

Russell would lead the Celtics to their first title in 1957 against the Bob Pettit-led Hawks in a 133-125 Game 7 classic that saw him score 19 points and grab 32 rebounds, with Pettit having a double-double himself with 39 points and 19 rebounds to go along with three assists.

It was just the beginning of Russell’s reign over the league as he would ultimately become the best leader and teammate in league history. He was the best winner in NBA history, and it’s not even close, being the driving force for the Celtics' 11 championships in his 13 seasons in the league! He was the ultimate professional, doing his job at an elite level despite going through racism in a tough Boston city. He helped speak on social justice issues during a time when it was very hard and scary to be a black man in America. He is the greatest defender ever, being the originator in blocking shots by keeping them inbounds to start a fastbreak.

He wasn’t the greatest scorer, averaging just 15.1 points per game on 44% shooting for his career, but made up for his lack of scoring with his elite defense, intangibles, and knack for rebounding. He is an NBA record 11-time champion, has five NBA MVPs,12-time all-star, 11 all-NBA selections, and one all-defensive team, which he would’ve had a plethora of if awarded his entire career. Russell also led the league in rebounding four times and rightfully has the NBA Finals MVP award named after him.

Russell is the greatest defensive player of all time, who helped revolutionize the game of basketball on and off the court. Although he did sadly pass away in July, the great Russell will be remembered as one of the truly iconic athletes in sports history, and the greatest Celtic of all time.

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