NBA Legends: Bill Russell

The Life And Career Of The Boston Celtics Captain Bill Russell 

We are only a few days away from the start of the NBA Finals. This year, it is going to be the Golden State Warriors versus the Boston Celtics. 

The Warriors are looking to add a 7th title to their trophy room and repeat their 2018 victory. The Celtics are trying to add the 18th title to their history books and claim their first title in 14 years.

You can find the best NBA Finals odds for this year here.  

Today, we are going to take a look at the career of a man who played for the Celtics during 11 of those victories. We are, of course, going to discuss the legendary Bill Russell. 

Russell is an 11-time NBA champion, an Olympic gold medal winner, and holder of the presidential medal of freedom. Russell was not just a titan on the pitch but he also fought fervently for the rights of black people across America during the Civil Rights Movement. 

Let’s take a deeper look at his extraordinary life. 

The Early Years 

Russell was born on 12 February 1934 in West Monroe, Louisiana. 

Russell grew up in a segregated neighborhood and was hugely impacted by the way the white people around them bullied, threatened, and belittled his parents. 

His father had to move away to work and his mother died when he was 12. His brother signed up for the army during World War 2. Russell had a difficult and lonely childhood. 

Coaches spotted that Russell had great potential in high school, but that he didn’t understand how the game was meant to be played. On his team was MLB Hall of Famer Frank Robinson. 

Russell said that he learned how to play basketball by watching others, copying their moves, and then improving upon them. 

Russell went to college and played basketball for the University of San Francisco. He led the team to two national championships. Later, he was approached by Harlem Globetrotters but they wouldn’t deal with him because he was black, instead, they went to his manager. Because of this, he turned them down and entered the NBA Draft.

After seeing him play at college, Russell’s hero George Mikan said,  “Let’s face it, he’s the best ever. He’s so good, he scares you.”

As well as playing basketball in college, Russell competed in the high jump and was ranked 7th in the world when he graduated. However, he chose to focus on basketball. 

The NBA Years 

Before entering the draft, Russell won an Olympic gold medal with Team USA. We would not be able to play at the Olympics again because of their rules about not allowing professional athletes to play. 

Russell entered the 1956 NBA Draft and was picked by the Boston Celtics. The manager at the time said he wanted to experiment with having a center that could defend as well as make plays. Together they would go on to redefine the role of Russell’s position in the game of basketball. 

In his rookie year with the Celtics, the team won the NBA Finals and Russell played a big part in this. In fact, he made a huge impact from his very first game. He only played half a season because he went to the Olympics so he did not end up winning Rookie of the Year. One of his teammates did. 

The next year they were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs. 

However, they did not take this lying down – the Celtics went on to win 8 NBA championships in a row between 1959 and 1966. This has never been matched and probably never would be. By the end of this amazing run, Russell was the player-coach of the team. 

He was the fourth choice of the former head coach but he gladly accepted the offer. This new role made him the first black head coach in NBA history. 

The team didn’t win the championship in his first year as a coach but they won the next two years. As time went on, Russell struggled to cope with the pressure he was under, the racism he was experiencing, and he felt that he wasn’t changing the world while playing basketball. 

He quit the team in 1970 – to the horror of both fans and players. 

Throughout his career, Russell’s main rival was Wilt Chamberlain. The two began as friends, but due to a reporter leaking some of Russell’s comments on Chamberlain, the pair didn’t speak for 20 years. Russell sought out Chamberlain and personally apologized. They remained close friends until Chamberlain died in 1999. 

Many believe their rivalry was responsible for raising the quality of basketball in the NBA. 

Throughout his career, Russell received a lot of racial abuse from visiting fans and from Boston fans. He was an outspoken supporter of the Civil Rights Movement and would defend himself against the abuse he experienced. 

Outside The NBA

After leaving the NBA Russel made a series of bad investments and ended up defaulting on multiple loans and nearly losing his home in the 70s. 

In the 1980s, he rebuilt his life – he became a vegetarian, took up golf, and started working as a commentator for sports networks. 

In 2009, the NBA Finals MVP award was named after Russell to honor his contributions to the sport. 

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