Bill Russell: 11 of his greatest moments

Bill Russell

In Boston’s TD Garden, Bill Russell’s No. 6 hangs above the parquet alongside the jersey numbers of other legendary Celtics players like Tom Heinsohn and Sam Jones. 

Since the team has a long history of success, its retired jersey numbers are crammed eight to a banner. This creates extra space in the rafters to display the 17 titles the team has won, 11 of which were earned during Russell’s 13-year career.

These 11 championships—the first in 1957 and the latest in 1969—remain among the NBA’s most untouchable and unfathomable records. Russell has as many championship rings as both Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson combined, as well as more than LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and Kevin Durant.

One of the NBA’s most unbroken and unfathomable records still stands thanks to their 11 championships, the first of which came in 1957 and the last in 1969. More rings are in Russell’s collection than belong to Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and Kevin Durant combined.

Wilt Chamberlain, his main competitor, only won one on Russell’s watch and another after his retirement. A 2022 lottery pick like Paolo Banchero or Chet Holmgren would have to win the 2023 championship as a rookie, win eight straight championships from 2025 to 2032, and then bank two more championships in 2034 and 2035 before retiring to meet Russell’s consistent excellence.

Despite never averaging more than 20 points per game, Bill Russell, who passed away on Sunday at the age of 88, is still ranked second in career rebounds and is considered one of the game’s best shot-blockers and defenders.

So it makes sense that Russell is more frequently identified with 11—the total of his team’s accomplishments—than with 6—his personal identification number. Here are 11 important events from Russell’s basketball career.

1. Early glory

Bill Russell

Russell was a lightly recruited high school prospect who signed with the University of San Francisco. He was born in Louisiana and raised in Oakland, California. Before Russell, USF had never claimed an NCAA championship. Russell helped USF win the championship in 1955 and 1956. USF has not triumphed since Russell’s administration.

By scoring 23 points and 25 rebounds in the championship game of 1955, Russell defeated La Salle, the reigning champion, and was named the game’s Most Outstanding Player. In the following season, he finished an unbeaten campaign with 26 points and 27 rebounds in a victory over Iowa in the championship game.

2. Draft day

Bill Russell

Dynasties require luck in the draft; just look at Johnson (coin flip), Jordan (Sam Bowie), and Curry (Jonny Flynn and Ricky Rubio) as examples. This was also true of Boston’s run.

In 1956, the Celtics traded Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan to the St. Louis Hawks for the opportunity to choose Russell with the second pick after the Rochester Royals selected Si Green of Duquesne with the first pick.

Throughout a nine-year career, Green averaged a pedestrian 9.2 points and 4.3 rebounds, never making the All-Star Game or winning a championship. Future Hall of Famer Macauley played in St. Louis for just three seasons before retiring, while Hagan joined him in Springfield.

Before Russell’s Celtics went on to win the following eight in a row, Macauley and Hagan assisted the Hawks in winning the 1958 championship. The best draft class in league history, which included Russell and two other Hall of Famers in Heinsohn and K.C. Jones, was selected by the Celtics in 1956.

3. Olympic gold

Bill Russell

Russell won a gold medal with USA Basketball at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, decades before the Dream Team. Russell’s NBA career was delayed as a result of the Summer Games, which were held in November and December with Australia serving as the host nation. With an 8-0 record and a rout of the Soviet Union in the final, Team USA won the gold medal for the fourth time in a row.

4. Boston’s reign begins

Bill Russell

Russell’s debut season was capped by the Celtics winning the 1957 championship, but defeating the Hawks required them to survive two overtimes in Game 7 of the Finals.

Russell, who finished with 19 points and 32 rebounds, made a sweeping left-handed layup in the waning seconds of regulation and blocked a transition shot from Jack Coleman with a chase-down move to force overtime.

Later, Heinsohn would refer to that victory in Game 7 as “the best game ever.” Only one other Game 7 of the NBA Finals went into overtime. Russell’s 30 points and 40 rebounds helped the Celtics defeat Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, and the Los Angeles Lakers in that contest in 1962.

5. Topping Wilt

Bill Russell

Russell and Chamberlain were the typical rivals; in their 94 regular season games, the latter averaged an absurd 29.9 points and 28.1 rebounds. However, Russell’s Celtics defeated Chamberlain’s squads 57-37 during the regular season and 29-20 during the postseason, winning the Finals in 1964 against the San Francisco Warriors and 1969 against the Lakers, respectively. 

In 1964, Boston needed just five games to win the championship. Russell contributed the game-winning 14 points, 26 rebounds, and six assists.

6. Cleveland Summit

Bill Russell

The most well-known picture of Russell was probably shot in Cleveland in June 1967 when he joined Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and other notable Black sportsmen to support Muhammad Ali’s decision to decline the military draft.

Russell, who spoke out against racism throughout and after his career, skipped a 1961 game because a Kentucky coffee shop wouldn’t serve Black players. Russell over the years became a symbol of social justice and civil rights, standing for Colin Kaepernick and NBA players who demonstrated in response to the murder of George Floyd.

7. Dual roles

Bill Russell

Russell’s successful career as the Celtics’ player-coach from 1966 to 1969 contributed to his reputation as a strong leader. Russell became the first Black coach in significant professional sports history and led Boston to the 1968 and 1969 championships, despite not being Red Auerbach‘s first choice for the position.

Russell retired from playing, and he also left Boston’s bench. Russell was inducted to the Hall of Fame for the second time in appreciation of his coaching accomplishments, despite less successful coaching stints with the Sacramento Kings (1987–1988) and Seattle SuperSonics (1973–1977). 341-290 was his final coaching record (.540).

8. Going out on top

Bill Russell

Russell ended his career with a dramatic Game 7 triumph over Chamberlain, West, and the rival Lakers in the 1969 Finals, a generation before Jordan made his infamous “last shot” in the 1998 Finals.

Los Angeles had been the favourite going into the series, and after scoring 42 points, 13 rebounds, and 12 assists in the championship game, West became the first player from a losing team to be named Finals MVP. Nevertheless, Russell won 108-106 with six points, 21 rebounds, and six assists to earn his 11th championship and maintain his perfect 10-0 record in Game 7s.

9. Finals MVP

Bill Russell

Russell, the NBA’s greatest champion and a five-time MVP, was never awarded Finals MVP, which is one of the true curiosities in NBA history. Of course, West earned the postseason award that year since the NBA didn’t start giving them out until 1969, Russell’s final campaign.

The NBA decided to rename the award in Russell’s honour in 2009 to close the historical difference. Russell then started showing up often for championship awards, giving the trophy to players like James and Durant.

10. White House honour

Bill Russell

When President Barack Obama awarded Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 in celebration of his social justice advocacy, it was a significant honour for Russell. Obama grinned broadly as he bestowed Russell with the nation’s highest civilian distinction, later referring to him as a “civil rights trailblazer” who “endured insults and vandalism, but never let it stop him from speaking up for what’s right.”

11. Grieving Kobe Bryant

Bill Russell

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, Russell has ceased attending important occasions like the NBA Finals and its 75th-anniversary celebration. But to pay tribute to Kobe Bryant, who passed away in a helicopter crash, he sat courtside during a game between the Celtics and Lakers in February 2020 at Staples Center.

Russell exchanged his Celtics green for a Bryant white jersey, putting their enduring rivalry to one side. After the deal, Russell said he and Bryant had “much love and respect for one another” and that they had a “deeper connection.” The fact that Russell was there served as a constant reminder of his position as basketball’s wise man.

Nobody has more significant victories than Bill Russell. And even 53 years after his final game, he continued to matter and always will.

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