Bill Russell obituary | NBA

During his 13 seasons in the National Basketball Association (NBA) with the Boston Celtics, Bill Russell, who died at the age of 88, won 11 championships, a record unmatched in team sports. But his place among the most influential American athletes of the 20th century, behind only Muhammad Ali and perhaps baseball player Jackie Robinson, rests on more than his relentless will to win and his cleverness in combining his skills with those of his teammates. . to facilitate this process.

He was the NBA’s first black star, five times the league’s most valuable player. His defensive jumping ability transformed basketball from a horizontal game to a vertical game. And in 1966, when Celtics coach Red Auerbach resigned and named Russell his successor, he became the first black head coach in the four major modern American sports leagues.

Off the pitch, he was a pioneer in the fight for human dignity. Russell stood with Martin Luther King during his “I have a dream” speech in Washington; when Ali withstood the draft, Russell was next to him at the “Cleveland peak” of star athletes, with gridiron star and actor Jim Brown on the other side.

Russell came late to his abilities, but learned his self-worth early on. He was born in deeply segregated Monroe, Louisiana, and his father, Charlie, taught young Bill what his father had taught him: “A man must draw a line within himself that he does not allow no man to cross.” When Charlie was denied a raise he thought he deserved, he went to work in Detroit, leaving his wife, Katie (née King), to care for their sons, Bill, and brother, Charlie Jr. Bothered by the cold winters, Charlie moved to Oakland, California, started a profitable trucking business hauling day labor, and sent for the family. But when Bill was 12, Katie died and Charlie took a job at a steel mill so he could have more time with his children.

Bill couldn’t make his high school basketball team until his senior year. His only college scholarship offer was from the University of San Francisco, but he grew rapidly. USF won back-to-back national basketball championships in its junior and senior seasons, losing just one game and winning 55 in a row. In the 1956 Finals against Iowa, Russell scored 26 points, had 27 rebounds, and blocked 20 shots. He was the top scorer on the US Olympic team that won gold in Melbourne that year, winning by an unmatched average of 53.5 points per game.

Bill Russell with Celtics coach Red Auerbach after the team won their eighth consecutive NBA title in 1966. Russell succeeded Auerbach to become the first black head coach in major American sports leagues. Photography: AP

Meanwhile, Auerbach had traded two star players for the second pick in the NBA draft, and Celtics owner Walter Brown persuaded the Rochester Royals to pass Russell on with the first pick, giving their arena the chance to host a two-week money-turning ice-skating show Ice Capades in exchange. After the Olympics, Russell led the Celtics to the 1957 title, against the St Louis Hawks. In fact, Russell probably could have won 12 titles in 13 years had he not sprained his ankle in Game 3 of the 1958 Finals, also against the Hawks, which the Celtics then lost.

At 2.08m (6ft 10in) and 99kg (15th 10lb), Russell possessed an agility that changed the way great centers played. In college, he ran the 440 yards (the distance now replaced by the 400 m) and high jumped; in the 1956 Coastal Relay, his jump of 2.06m tied that of Charlie Dumas, who won the gold medal in Melbourne. Russell played center as a sweeper; his teammates overplayed their opponents, defending firmly, knowing he could cover their mistakes. He controlled his blocks and rebounds to get the ball to his teammates; the trademark Celtic “fast-break” offense was born.

He also won the biggest individual rivalry in American team sports, against Wilt Chamberlain, who was three inches taller and much taller. Chamberlain broke the records, once scoring 100 points in a single game, but Russell won the majority of their meetings and all but one of their playoff games. Wilt believed that what was best for Wilt was best for the team; as player and coach Russell looked for ways to challenge his teammates without the common superstar problem of undermining them.

Despite being totally dedicated to the Celtics, the first NBA team to sign a black player and the first to start an all-black roster, Russell’s relationship with the city of Boston, Massachusetts, which he described as ” a flea market of racism”, was more difficult. His home in the nearby suburb of Reading was broken into and vandalized. When he complained to the police about the overturning of the trash cans, they laughingly accused the raccoons. When Russell asked where he could get a gun license to shoot raccoons, the vandalism stopped.

Bill Russell
Bill Russell reacting to the news in 2009 that the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award had been renamed in his honor. Photography: Matt York/AP

Russell protected his privacy by refusing to give autographs; I know because I asked for one when I was working near him in the 1976 Olympic basketball final in Montreal. He politely declined, but shook my hand. He worked as a television commentator, where he often seemed bored by the constraints of opinion offered on the air, then as a coach and general manager of the Seattle SuperSonics, 3,000 miles from Boston. His four-year success in Seattle was followed by an unsuccessful spell with the Sacramento Kings; Russell found players without his and the Celtics’ will for the frustrating team’s success. He worked tirelessly for charities, including a mentoring program he helped set up.

Russell has co-authored four books; Second Wind (with Taylor Branch, 1979) and Red and Me (with Alan Steinberg, 2009) are classic sports memoirs. Over the next few years, his public persona softened to match his private persona, helping to cement his legacy. He reconciled with Boston, where in 2013 a statue of him was unveiled in City Hall Plaza. The NBA Finals Most Valuable Player trophy is named after him. In 2012, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama; in 2017, when President Donald Trump called on NFL players to kneel to “get fired,” Russell posted a video of himself kneeling holding that medal.

He is survived by his fourth wife, Jeanine Fiorito, and his son Jacob and daughter, Karen, from his first marriage to Rosie Swisher, which ended in divorce. Her eldest son, William Jr, died in 2016. His second marriage, to Dorothy Anstett, a former Miss USA, also ended in divorce. His third wife, Marilyn Nault, died in 2009.

William Felton Russell, basketball player, born February 12, 1934; passed away on July 31, 2022

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