Why Bill Russell is perhaps the most important player in NBA history
It’s not enough to call William Felton Russell the greatest winner in the history of American sports because it would be too limiting.
It’s not enough to call Russell one of the seminal figures in the civil rights movement, either, although that would feel more accurate.
It’s not enough to define Russell in any one box because the sports world as we know it doesn’t know a world without Bill Russell in it. Russell died peacefully at the age of 88, his family announced Sunday afternoon. He was fully admired and appreciated, perhaps while being overlooked in the pantheon of individual talents the NBA has seen.
The numbers won’t fully contextualize the man, nor will the rings that adorned his worn and battered fingers. But winning is a part of the Russell story, as much as the city in which he played and initiated Celtic Pride, even if the city loved him only 48 minutes at a time and tolerated him at best when he wore civilian clothes.
Russell operated under no delusions about where he played or the country he lived in. While he certainly spoke with clarity and force during the civil rights movement, in the liberal enclave Boston, Russell knew it was a battle fighting upstream, with citizens of Boston often degrading his property with the most vile of acts, probably hiding behind their cheers for the Celtics.
Russell, being unapologetically Black and forward thinking, likely made a city look at itself, forcing Boston to hold itself accountable from what it told its visitors and the cold reality that awaited people without the protection of the Celtics franchise.
It didn’t seem like the city loved what was reflecting back to itself through images of the Celtics team that ran through the 1960s, even as the Celtics dominated the NBA and Russell seemed to give his direct opponent — a guy named Wilt Chamberlain — the blues.
The beauty in Russell goes far beyond the winning and his own symbolism. There’s no separation between the artist and his art and his humanity, a common exercise of cognitive dissonance practiced today to preserve our views of current stars.
The man, and the athlete, stood tall. He was dangerous, “woke” – daring anyone to challenge his consciousness, his boots-on-the-ground stripes or his authenticity. Russell was as menacing while waiting on ambitious drivers to the lane as he was to the establishment during the Cleveland Summit in 1967. Russell, Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, among others, got together to voice support for Muhammad Ali’s refusal to serve in the military during the Vietnam War.
They took questions from the media and spoke truth to power to defend a then-young Ali and his choice to avoid serving in an unpopular war. History has certainly aided them, but the risks were massive. Russell was 34 then, and already aware of how ugly a nation and a city could be.
His greatness off the floor didn’t obscure what he did on it — oh, the basketball was undeniably exceptional.
You almost have to close your eyes to imagine his dominance. The NBA’s archival footage wasn’t as sophisticated as the NFL in that time, so through still photos, one can glean Russell’s presence — the only thing that truly stands out is that infectious laugh and distinctive voice.
Chamberlain’s numbers are so outrageous compared to Russell’s, so as an individual he almost gets overshadowed. But starting from Russell’s arrival in 1956-57 to his last season in 1968-69, the Celtics had the league’s best defense and captured all those championship rings they didn’t own before.
Russell played with countless Hall of Famers, but they all pointed to his amazing ability to lift up everyone he played with. Russell enabling his teammates to be the best version of themselves while not commanding the ball or the attention and the glory feels similar to Tom Brady being the one-man stimulus package — something one has to see to believe.
It’s very easy to dismiss pre-merger basketball, with the competition being split at a point with the ABA taking its share of talent and the lack of information and sophistication for its time. But can anyone imagine Russell with today’s training methods, rest and recovery and even the travel accommodations? There would hardly be any question of whether an Olympic-style athlete with a ridiculous long jump could translate in any era.
They repeatedly played the best competition, with so few teams in the NBA. Russell couldn’t take any nights off, routinely hosting Chamberlain for Thanksgiving dinners then having to defend the man who had such a pronounced size advantage one night later, hopefully buttering up Chamberlain with some hospitality beforehand.
Russell wouldn’t be played off the floor with small-ball lineups; he’d be harassing point guards and wings alike on switches, while still getting back to scare anything at the rim. Blocked shots weren’t even a stat until after Russell retired, but he started the fast break and beat the ball downcourt to clean things up if one of his teammates didn’t finish.
Russell was Batman on the court and Bruce Wayne off it, being the hero Boston didn’t deserve but got anyway. If he had access to today’s technology, Russell would’ve been Superman, completely illegal to consider, impervious to pain and leaping from foul line to foul line in a single bound.
The concentration Russell had to apply playing in Boston while knowing how its patrons truly felt for his kind once he took that jersey off had to be unimaginable. Not wanting any part of the city for years after his retirement illustrated the damage it did to the man’s psyche. The greatest winner unable to receive his deserved flowers because of the ugliness of the city and its unwillingness to acknowledge what it saw when looking in the mirror is an attribute that follows Boston today.
And in a sports context, it started with Russell.
Consider how Boston barks back now when opposing players produce stories of mistreatment and place it in the volatile 1960s. Russell played with vigor on the floor and dignity off it, surely upsetting those who wanted to claim Boston as the picture of progressiveness and righteousness.
Someone broke into Russell’s home and put feces across the man’s walls and in his bed, all while he was under FBI surveillance due to his beliefs. Shockingly, the perpetrators of this crime were never found.
Even a teammate Russell helped amplify, Bob Cousy, didn’t lend his hand or voice to stand with him. The two seemed like a perfect duo on the floor, the point guard and center, but away from it operated like ships passing in the night. The resentment Russell could’ve had for teammates, the resentment we’ve seen for lesser issues since, didn’t fester when it came to the task at hand.
Russell had a job to do, and it manifested itself in 11 titles in 13 years, putting a monopoly on winning. Either the Celtics won, or you had to see them to get yours, a pound of flesh hardly anyone came away with.
The league has honored Russell with the NBA Finals MVP trophy, and before his health began to fail he was paraded around at functions, awards ceremonies and the playoffs, bringing that laugh and famous middle finger with him.
Russell never shied away from the work when it came to lifting all tides in between the lines, never avoided the reality of the time in which he played. A man of few words obscured the man who had so many thoughts and observations, the man who was never going to be swayed by any level of public opinion or culture.
His principles were his own because only he could describe what he saw. It wasn’t for anyone else to defend or understand; he wasn’t asking for a co-sign, it was more beauty in his beliefs.
He wasn’t a hater of current players who stood on his shoulders to make money beyond his wildest dreams even if they never saw him play or fully appreciated him, a rarity in a sense.
Bill Russell was a man of his time, in his time and timeless, all at the same time.