Bill Russell, arguably one of the most accomplished athletes of the 20th Century, died on July 31 at the age of 88. Far beyond his incomparable accolades on the basketball court, Russell would become one of the most influential voices of the Civil Rights Movement at a time when Black athletes could risk their livelihood in speaking out against racial injustice.
Russell is the most immediate name associated with the term “sports dynasty.” Over 13 seasons at center with the Boston Celtics, Russell helped win 11 championships — including eight consecutive titles from 1957 through 1966—and would revolutionize the center position by emphasizing defense.
“I am heartbroken to hear about the passing of the greatest winner the game of basketball has ever seen, a legend, Hall-of-Famer, mentor and my friend for over 30 years, Bill Russell,” Ervin “Magic” Johnson said.
Born in Monroe, La. in 1934, the Russell family departed the Jim Crow south for the Bay Area in the mid-1940s. By age 18, he had enrolled at the University of San Francisco where he won two NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956. Russell also led the United States basketball team to the gold medal in the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia.
Russell entered the NBA draft in 1956, selected second overall by the St. Louis Hawks. He was soon traded to the Celtics in a deal spearheaded by legendary Coach Red Auerbach.
Russell was named NBA Most Valuable Player five times. His 21,620 rebounds are second only to Chamberlain. He would have likely led the league in blocked shots many times, but the NBA did not keep track of that statistic. Russell played in 963 games, averaging 15.1 points per game, 22.5 rebounds per game, 4.3 assists per game while shooting 44% from the field and 56.1% from the free-throw line.
Russell retired after the 1969 season, but returned periodically over the next several decades as a coach, advisor, and executive, including a stint as the president of basketball operations for the Sacramento Kings in the late 1980s.
Following basketball, Russell was a familiar face on television serving as colorman to announcer Keith Jackson on the “ABC Game of the Week.” He took a turn at comedy in a 1979 episode of “Saturday Night Live.” He made a series of popular AT&T “long distance” telephone commercials, and also wrote and hosted a special series “LA Roots,” tracing the history of Black Los Angeles, for Channel 7 Eyewitness News.
Russell was an avid writer. His 1966 autobiography “Go Up For Glory” became a big seller, as did a 1979 work “Second Wind.” In his 2006 book “Russell’s Rule,” he revealed he played a “significant role” in convincing Lakers teammates, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, to “bury the hatchet” and put an end to their well-publicized feud.