Bill Russell lived an unparalleled life.
From his accomplishments on the basketball court to his far more meaningful contributions to society, Russell was a truly remarkable man who left an indelible impact on the NBA and beyond.
He is the greatest winner in American professional sports history. He was a champion for civil rights, including having to stand up to abuses even while leading the Boston Celtics to their run of 11 championships in 13 seasons. He became the NBA’s first Black head coach, and his name now adorns the league’s Finals MVP trophy — a fitting tribute to a man who has claimed more championships than any player in the NBA’s 75-year history.
Russell’s legacy, however, goes far beyond his name being etched on a trophy. He is one of basketball’s foundational stars — more than a half-century after he played his final game.
Here, then, are a collection of anecdotes that, in part, explain why Russell stands tall in the annals of NBA history — and why that will be the case for as long as the league exists.
The ultimate winner
There are many ways to describe Russell’s dominance on the court. The most impressive, however, comes from another legendary basketball figure: longtime Boston Globe scribe Bob Ryan, who covered Russell’s final few seasons with the Celtics:
Between Russell’s time at the University of San Francisco, the Olympics and with the Celtics, he played in 21 different winner-take-all games: single-elimination games in either the NCAA tournament or the Olympics, or a series-deciding Game 5 or 7 during the NBA playoffs.
Russell’s record in those games? A cool 21-0.
In a win-or-go-home game, Russell’s team never went home. That unequaled drive to win separated Russell from everyone in the history of the sport — including his greatest rival, Wilt Chamberlain.
There was no opponent who Russell would be intimidated by, or believe he was lesser than. That’s why, more than 50 years later, he remains the greatest winner in American professional sports history. It’s a title that, like many other things about Russell’s life, is hard to imagine anyone taking from him.
Just chalk it up to one final victory for a man who spent his life racking them up at a record pace.
— Tim Bontemps
Michael Wilbon discusses Bill Russell’s contributions beyond the basketball court.
A civilian in Alcatraz
In 1956, Russell and the remaining four starters from college basketball’s first dynasty sailed across the San Francisco Bay toward Alcatraz, the notorious island federal penitentiary that housed mafia kingpins, serial killers, bank robbers, diagnosed psychopaths and other violent criminals that the U.S. government believed couldn’t be locked away anywhere else.
They were told civilians weren’t allowed there, but Russell and his University of San Francisco teammates — winners of two straight national championships and record 55 consecutive games — were given unprecedented access with the convicts. Why? Because the prison faced tension between its Black and white inmates, and it was believed that the USF Dons, the first team to start three African-American players (with Russell, future NBA Hall of Famer and Boston Celtic teammates K.C. Jones, and Hal Perry, a guard), could help.
In a suit and tie, and with a fedora atop his 6-foot-9 frame, Russell walked through the cellhouse, kitchen, hospital and recreation yard, and joined his teammates alongside one convict who was segregated from all others: Robert Stroud, the famous “Birdman of Alcatraz.”
“In my time, I never saw any other civilians inside the [cellhouse],” John Hernan, a former correctional officer who was present that day and escorted the players down “Broadway,” the central walkway between C and B blocks, once said. “And now that you mention it, they would be the only civilians who walked down Broadway like they did.”
The convicts worshiped Russell, who averaged 20.6 points and 21 rebounds that season for USF. They shouted his statistics at him. “They looked at Bill Russell like he was God,” Carl Boldt, one of his USF teammates, said.
More than a half-century later, the Golden State Warriors forged their own dynasty, becoming the most dominant Bay Area basketball team since Russell’s Dons. All told, he played for 21 years and saw his teams win the championship in 18 of them, but his career by then was in the rearview, left to the history books. But Russell, who grew up blocks from Oakland’s Oracle Arena, and his teammates knew all too well what it was like to be the toast of the Bay, to steamroll opponents game after game, and celebrate at season’s end. And whenever these Warriors were on, a source close to him said, Russell found a television and tuned in.
— Baxter Holmes
The patriarch of the NBA
Among all his accolades, we also need to remember Russell as the NBA’s ultimate elder statesman, our emeritus champion who would always lend his unmatched gravitas to elevate the league’s most important ceremonies.
It was in this role that microphones captured his unforgettable conversation with Kobe Bryant on the sidelines of the 2008 All-Star Game.
“See, I watch a lot of your games,” Russell said then. “You see, when I watch your games I try to pick out what each player’s agenda is and to see how well he’s carrying that out. That’s the way I watch it. Seriously, I couldn’t be prouder of you if you were my own son and that’s the truth.”
“I got that cause I read your book”
A heartfelt moment from the 2008 All-Star Game between Kobe Bryant & Bill Russell. pic.twitter.com/brGnkJAhO4
— NBA (@NBA) August 1, 2022
Those kinds of fatherly moments capture the impact that Russell had decades after he finished playing and coaching. He gracefully became the unofficial mentor of the NBA deep into his 80s.
Yes, Russell’s untouchable résumé as a player, coach, and civil rights activist always made him a perfect ambassador on paper, but it was his affable presence, his signature smile, and that legitimate support for younger players that really enabled him to thrive as the patriarch for the great league he helped legitimize decades earlier as a superstar and coach.
In February 2009, when former commissioner David Stern announced the NBA would name its Finals MVP trophy after Russell, he said, “Bill inspired a generation not just of basketball fans but Americans everywhere. He is respected by colleagues, coaches, fans, and his legacy clearly has withstood the test of time.”
Russell used all of his 88 years to build the most comprehensive legacy this sport will ever see.
— Kirk Goldsberry
Defense wins 11 championships
Russell had more impact on basketball — and on his team’s ability to win — than any other NBA player. And it shows up in the numbers.
Every one of his 11 titles can be traced directly to Russell’s dominance.
Despite all of his Hall of Fame teammates, Russell’s Celtics typically had below average offenses as measured by team offensive rating. But the defenses … oh my goodness, the defenses!
The Celtics boasted the best defense in the NBA in 12 of Russell’s 13 seasons, at times by absurd margins. During the 1963-64 season, the Celtics’ defensive rating was a whopping 10.8 points per 100 possessions better than league average. By comparison, the best offense that season was only 4.3 points per 100 possessions better than league average. The Celtics won the championship that season despite finishing last in the NBA in offensive rating.
In 1964-65, the Celtics defensive rating was 7.4 points per 100 possessions better than the second place team. Again, the Celtics won the chip despite having one of the worst offenses in the league.
Russell’s arrival in 1956 kicked off that historic run, including five of the top-25 measured defenses in history in five consecutive seasons during Russell’s peak. The Celtics won the championship with the best defense in the NBA in Russell’s rookie season, and they won the championship with the best defense in the league in his 13th and final season.
The season after Russell retired, the Celtics’ defense plummeted to the bottom half of the league.
— André Snellings