Because the cornerstone of the franchise’s dynasty of the Fifties and Sixties, Mr. Russell gained enduring renown as probably the most profitable participant within the historical past of workforce sports activities. When the Celtics named him head coach in 1966, he turned the primary Black man to carry that position in a serious skilled sport in the USA.
Mr. Russell, who died July 31 at 88, was indomitable on and off the court docket and some of the fascinating public figures to straddle sports activities and civil rights. He was intensely pushed and revolutionary as an athlete, notably when pitted in electrifying matchups in opposition to Wilt Chamberlain, the dominant scorer of the period. Their rivalry elevated the recognition of the Nationwide Basketball Affiliation.
In his prime, the goateed, broad-shouldered Mr. Russell was 220 kilos of lean muscle stretched over a 6-foot-9 body. Quick and agile, he had a superior vertical leap and used his 7-foot-4 wingspan to dam photographs together with his arm outstretched like a bowsprit. Along with his athletic shot-blocking and rebounding expertise, he revolutionized the best way basketball was performed on protection.
Mr. Russell’s bodily presents had been complemented by an mental curiosity about different elements of the sport, akin to shot trajectory, rebounding angles, human psychology and gamesmanship. He was identified to needle opponents on the court docket, have interaction in trash speak, analysis gamers’ habits and aggressively block photographs early in video games. He as soon as wrote that he knew he couldn’t block all photographs however that just a few resounding blocks had been greater than sufficient to throw an opposing participant off his recreation.
“The one factor we all know for certain about superiority in sports activities in the USA of America within the twentieth century,” journalist Frank Deford wrote in Sports activities Illustrated in 1999, “is that Invoice Russell and the Boston Celtics groups he led stand alone as the final word winners.”
Amid the celebration of his prowess as a participant, Mr. Russell additionally struggled with the festering issues of prejudice and segregation. Born within the Jim Crow South, he was usually described as personal, introspective, prickly and principled, a person who searched for methods, as he as soon as wrote in a e-book introduction, for his youngsters to develop up “as we couldn’t … equal … and understanding.”
As early as 1958, he accused the NBA of utilizing a quota system to restrict the variety of Black gamers on every workforce. He took half in civil rights marches with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. however questioned the nonviolent technique of the motion, arguing that African Individuals had a proper to defend themselves.
When civil rights chief Medgar Evers was assassinated in Jackson, Miss., in 1963, Mr. Russell accepted a suggestion by Evers’s older brother, Charles, to run a youth basketball camp in Jackson, to carry White and Black youngsters collectively. He obtained dying threats however refused to again away from his views.
Mr. Russell’s steely outward character and pointed method of talking didn’t endear him to some followers in Boston, which had a protracted historical past of racism. The Boston Crimson Sox baseball workforce didn’t combine till 1959, and protests in Boston over federal court-ordered faculty desegregation within the Seventies had been among the many most violent within the nation.
Many followers perceived Mr. Russell to be aloof as a result of for years he refused to signal autographs, preferring a handshake and dialog. He described Boston as a “flea market of racism” in his 1979 e-book, “Second Wind: Memoirs of an Opinionated Man.”
Regardless of his success with the Celtics — the workforce had by no means gained a championship earlier than his arrival — Mr. Russell didn’t obtain native enterprise endorsements and located himself shut out of unique neighborhoods when he was seeking to purchase a home. In 1968, his suburban Boston residence was damaged into and ransacked. Racial epithets had been written on the partitions, and feces had been left on his mattress.
“It had all varieties, previous and new, and of their most virulent kind,” he wrote in “Second Wind.” “The town had corrupt, metropolis hall-crony racists, brick-throwing, send-’em-back-to-Africa racists, and within the college areas phony radical-chic racists. … Aside from that, I favored town.”
He refused to log off on a public ceremony in 1972 to retire his Celtics jersey, and in 1975 he declined to attend his induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Corridor of Fame, upset that he could be the primary African American participant to be enshrined.
“We foolishly lionize athletes and make them heroes as a result of they’ll hit a ball or catch one,” Mr. Russell as soon as mentioned. “The one athletes we must always hassle with attaching any specific significance to are these like [Muhammad] Ali, whom we are able to admire for themselves and never for his or her incidental athletic talents.”
In 2010, President Barack Obama awarded Mr. Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, for each his athletic accomplishments and his advocacy for human rights.
William Felton Russell was born in Monroe, La., on Feb. 12, 1934, and his father labored in a paper bag manufacturing unit. His childhood was full of searing recollections of prejudice, with every day indignities and outright threats directed at his mom and father.
When he was 9, his household moved to Oakland, Calif., within the hope of escaping the institutionalized segregation of the South. His father discovered work in a battle manufacturing plant. Mr. Russell described the general public housing initiatives of Oakland as powerful and harmful however paradise in contrast with Louisiana.
His dad and mom separated, and his mom died just a few years later. All through childhood, he and his older brother, Charlie Russell Jr., who turned a playwright, leaned on one another for assist.
Tall and uncoordinated as a youth, Mr. Russell tried organized basketball for the primary time in junior highschool however didn’t make the workforce. He later received a spot on his highschool’s junior varsity workforce solely due to a sympathetic coach. It was a flip of occasions that possible spared his life from the violent streets of the interior metropolis. “If I hadn’t had basketball,” he later mentioned, “all my energies and frustrations would certainly have been carried in another path.”
Mr. Russell obtained just one faculty scholarship supply, from the College of San Francisco, a small Jesuit faculty that had no historical past of athletic excellence. Mr. Russell led the USF Dons to consecutive NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956 and was acclaimed as a first-team all-American each years. One in every of his faculty teammates, Okay.C. Jones, joined him on the Celtics and had a Corridor of Fame profession in his personal proper.
Along with starring on the basketball court docket, Mr. Russell was one of many nation’s premier excessive jumpers within the Fifties.
Regardless of Mr. Russell’s success on the newbie degree, some NBA scouts remained doubtful of the worth of a defense-oriented heart. On the time, facilities had been coveted for placing up massive numbers on the scoreboard, which Mr. Russell by no means did.
Celtics coach Crimson Auerbach didn’t harbor such doubts. He engineered a commerce to amass the draft rights to Mr. Russell in 1956, sensing how his fashion of play might assist the workforce’s roster of future Corridor of Famers, together with Bob Cousy, Invoice Sharman and Frank Ramsey.
After lacking nearly half his rookie season, whereas main the U.S. Olympic basketball workforce to a gold medal, Mr. Russell shortly claimed a spot within the Celtics lineup and helped lead the workforce to its first NBA championship in 1957.
An ankle harm sidelined Mr. Russell in his second 12 months, when the Celtics misplaced within the NBA finals to the St. Louis Hawks. Boston then gained eight consecutive titles underneath Auerbach and two extra in 1967-1968 and 1968-1969, after Mr. Russell had taken over as player-coach, changing into the primary Black head coach in main skilled sports activities.
Not one of the championships got here simply. Mr. Russell was such an intense competitor that he threw up within the locker room earlier than every recreation. When he took the court docket, he awed crowds by shutting down opposing groups’ offenses nearly single-handedly.
Generally, whereas guarding an opponent with the ball, he would purposely enable that participant to drive round him for a seemingly simple layup, then get better in time to show and swat the ball away from behind.
Different instances, Mr. Russell would block photographs a number of instances on the identical possession, as if he had been taking part in in a one-man recreation of volleyball. When he secured a defensive rebound, he usually made a rapid left-handed move to his teammates streaking down the picket parquet flooring at Boston Backyard on a quick break.
After Chamberlain entered the NBA in 1959, the rivalry between the 2 — who had been shut pals — turned a spotlight of the league. Chamberlain could have posted higher particular person statistics, however Mr. Russell’s workforce got here away with a lot of the victories.
Chamberlain performed on just one NBA championship workforce (the 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers) throughout Mr. Russell’s 13 years with the Celtics.
“If he received 62 [points] and we gained that wouldn’t imply something,” Mr. Russell mentioned of Chamberlain in a 1997 tv interview with Bob Costas. “But when he received 62 and gained the sport, that bothered me.”
In his skilled profession, Mr. Russell scored 14,522 profession factors (15.1 factors a recreation) and grabbed 21,620 rebounds. His common of twenty-two.5 rebounds per recreation ranks second solely to Chamberlain’s 22.9 in NBA historical past.
Mr. Russell additionally set the usual for shot-blocking, regardless that the NBA didn’t document blocked photographs as an official statistic till 1973, after he had retired.
Throughout his profession, Mr. Russell made 12 NBA All-Star Recreation appearances, earned 5 rebounding titles and was named the league’s most respected participant 5 instances. In 1980, the nation’s basketball writers voted him “the best participant within the historical past of the NBA.”
Mr. Russell retired from basketball in 1969, drove his automotive throughout the nation and settled in Mercer Island, Wash. After a interval of solitude, he labored as a community broadcast commentator for NBA video games and acted in a handful of movies and tv reveals earlier than returning to basketball as coach and basic supervisor of the Seattle SuperSonics from 1973 to 1977. He was coach of the Sacramento Kings in 1987 and vice chairman of the workforce’s basketball operations till 1989.
His marriages to Rose Swisher, his faculty sweetheart, and Dorothy Anstett resulted in divorce. His third spouse, Marilyn Nault, died in 2009. Survivors embody three youngsters from his first marriage, Karen, William and Jacob.
In an indication that relations between Mr. Russell and Boston had been starting to enhance, Mr. Russell made a number of journeys again to town, together with for a 1999 ceremony when the Celtics re-retired his No. 6. At different gatherings, he appeared earlier than standing ovations together with his previous teammates — amongst them Sam Jones, John Havlicek and Tom Heinsohn — to mark the anniversaries of their championships.
In 2013, a statue of Mr. Russell was unveiled at Boston’s Metropolis Corridor Plaza. He agreed to the monument solely after metropolis officers pledged to ascertain a grant to fund a youth mentoring program. The statue reveals Mr. Russell, knees bent, with a ball in his arms able to make a chest move, a picture of the consummate unselfish teammate. The stone is engraved with a citation from Mr. Russell: “An important measure of how good a recreation I’d performed was how a lot better I’d made my teammates play.”