In memory of the player that redefined the game, the social consciousness of athletes, and equality in coaching in the NBA
What do you define greatness by? Is it winning championships? Is it dominating ability? Is it being a great citizen of your sport during and after your playing days? By whatever terms you measure greatness, Bill Russell was the definition of it. The accolades speak for themselves, he was the face of the early era of basketball and is a Hall-Of-Famer both as a player and a coach. But outside of the hardwood, Bill Russell was an even better human being. A trailblazer that paved the way for the modern athlete. Russell passed away peacefully on July 31st, 2022 in his sleep, and was the definition of 1 of 1.
The Archetype of a Winner
Any sort of accolades that a player would hope to reach in basketball was achieved by Russell. He won at the high school level (two state championships), college-level (two-time NCAA champion), the Olympic level (1956 gold medal), and of course the NBA-level (11-time champion). Outside of team winning, Russell was a five-time league MVP, 11-time All-NBA selection, and 12-time All-Star. He is regarded as one of (if not the) greatest defender in NBA history. He redefined the way that defense was played that helped shape the games of countless NBA centers that followed him.
To this day, players that play defense with the same sort of verticality and rebound with ferocity are still compared to Bill Russell. In his 13 seasons as a player, he never averaged less than 18 rebounds per game which is absurd to even imagine today. The NBA didn’t start recording blocks until 1974, meaning that Russell’s block averages are unknown but many have speculated that he averaged over 8 blocks per game, making him the most prolific shot blocker the league has ever seen. He remains the gold standard of defensive play for centers even over 50 years since he retired from the game.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Russell’s career is that he continually denied the great Wilt Chamberlain time and time again in the playoffs. Wilt only won one title during the time that Russell was playing for the Celtics, which continually damages the perception of his greatness in the eyes of many basketball historians. Russell was the cornerpiece of the NBA’s first true dynasty and elevated the Boston Celtics to their mantle of basketball royalty in the history of the game. In his later years, he took on the mantle of player-coach winning a couple more titles in the process. He was also named to the NBA’s top 25, 50, and 75 greatest players lists, and is often in almost everyone’s top 10 lists for greatest players of all time. Yet amazingly, his accolades as a player pale in comparison to what he did for the game as a human being.
A Model Citizen
Being a black basketball player in the 1960s was not easy. Being a black basketball player in a city like Boston that has a perception of being racist is even more difficult. Throughout his career, Russell had a challenging relationship with the Boston media often accusing them of being racist. Russell grew up in an environment filled with bigotry and prejudice, and being a championship player for the Boston Celtics did not change this. Boston fans frequently rejected the Celtics because they had “too many black players” and opted to support the all-white and less talented Boston Bruins of the NHL instead.
Russell was very aware of social injustices and was one of the first Black athletes to take a stand on these issues. He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and was a member of the Black Panther Party. He would later go on to be the first African-American head coach in the NBA’s history and was always conscious of the path that he was blazing. Russell entered a league that had only 15 Black players and left it as a league that was filled with mostly Black players. Russell often encouraged athletes to be more than just the numbers on a stat sheet, to stand up for what they believed in.
He continued using his platform and voice to impact change well into his retirement, always encouraging Black players to protest injustices that they faced (he was a very vocal supporter of NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem for instance). Without the efforts of Bill Russell, players like LeBron James and Chris Paul would not have had the platform to protest the injustices of their era. Bill Russell was a player that was more than just an athlete, he was a citizen of the world that advocated for peace and equality. This lifetime of influencing change was rewarded in 2011 when former president Barack Obama awarded Russell with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor that an American citizen can receive.
The Beloved Father of the Modern Game
I am a Knicks fan, so it is engrained in me to not like the Boston Celtics. But there are always exceptions, players and personalities that transcend a silly rivalry. Bill Russell was one of those players that were beloved figures by basketball fans. His legacy of winning and frequent exhibits of humanity made him impossible to not like. The free-flowing game of fast breaks was due in large part to his redefinition of the sport. The game before Russell was a grinding half-court slog that was given a desperate need of adrenaline thanks to his ability to turn blocked shots and rebounds into initiating plays.
Bill Russell set the foundation for NBA players to wear “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts, to be able to walk out of a game in protest, and for NFL players to take a knee. It is due to this foundation that the league today is perceived as the most progressive in professional sports. His success as a coach led to the influx of Black head coaches in the NBA, who now make up half of the league's head coaching positions. It is difficult to think of a single person in the league’s history that has impacted the playing style, individual player persona, and head coaching status quo more than Russell. That is the ultimate legacy of Bill Russell, the ultimate symbol of breaking down walls in basketball and as a result society as a whole. There will never be another Bill Russell; a true icon, innovator, and legend that we were all blessed to have on this earth.