On and off the court, Bill Russell was a giant. This past Sunday, the five-time MVP and 11-time NBA Champion died peacefully at 88.
In his 88 years, Russell’s impact extended beyond basketball. He was a civil rights activist, a coach, and an elder statesman with an iconic belly laugh, showcasing a more fun side to the legendary big man.
Russell’s impact extended beyond the parquet. How much so? Here are six incredible things (to match his jersey number) about Russell that must be remembered in the wake of his passing.
Six Ways that Bill Russell was a Giant on and off the floor
1.) The Greatest winner of all time.
There are many amazing facts and figures about Bill Russell’s career that leave you completely dumbfounded. One, from the Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan, is head and shoulders above the rest:
Bill Russell 21-0 in winner-take-all games: All NCAA games, Olympic medal round, best-of-5s, best of 7s. Greatest resume of anyone. Period.
— Bob Ryan (@GlobeBobRyan) February 12, 2017
That’s right. Russell’s teams never lost a win or go home game in the crucibles of the Olympics, NCAA tournament, and the NBA playoffs.
Guys named Brady, Jordan, Woods, and Gretzky can’t claim to have won at that kind of clip.
2.) Bill Russell: Civil Rights Icon
Russell’s immense impact extended beyond the game itself through his efforts as a Civil Rights activist. He stood with Martin Luther King Jr., at the March on Washington and was one of the athletes present at the 1967 Cleveland Summit, organized by twelve prominent Black Luminaries in support of Muhammad Ali’s opposition to the Vietnam War.
This summit included other athletes like Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bobby Mitchell, and future diplomats Sidney Williams and Carl Stokes among others.
Six years earlier in 1961, Russell’s Boston Celtics were scheduled to play an exhibition game in Lexington, Kentucky. Before the game, Celtics guard Sam Jones was denied service in the restaurant of the hotel where the team was staying.
That treatment didn’t sit well with Russell and K.C. Jones decided not to play in that night’s game in protest of the Jim Crow policies they’d experienced earlier in the day. Similarly, this act was remembered in 2020 after the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the court in the NBA bubble against the Orlando Magic in response to the Kenosha, Wisconsin protests after the shooting of Jacob Blake.
Even at his advanced age, Russell’s social justice activism never wavered. He tweeted in support of Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling and kept politically active while online.
3.) Bill Russell’s Coach In His Final Championship? Bill Russell.
You read that headline right.
Starting in 1966, Russell was named player-coach of the Boston Celtics after Red Auerbach stepped down and moved to the front office, where he stayed until his death in 2006. This move made Russell the first black head coach in any of the major American pro sports.
In 1969, Russell’s Celtics overcame advanced age and injuries to make it back to the NBA Finals against the Lakers. As a fourth-seeded team hampered by injuries, age, and fatigue, the Celtics came back after deficits of 2-0 and 3-2 in the Finals to win the title.
Oh, and Jerry West, who later became the league’s logo, averaged 38 points per game and won the series MVP. The wily veteran Celtics won on a desperation shot from Don Nelson and a coaching blunder from Butch Von Breda Kolff in not subbing Wilt Chamberlain back into the game.
Russell called this game the balloon game thanks to the rafters being packed with balloons that would be dropped in celebration, according to owner Jack Kent Cooke, when, not if, the team won the title. Legend has it, the Celtics got wind of the scheduled celebrations and were fueled to victory by that hubris.
Russell’s later coaching stint with the Sacramento Kings would not be as successful in 1987.
4.) Russell’s Rebounding Was Even Better When It Mattered Most
Russell played 165 playoff games throughout his career, which calculates out to approximately two full NBA seasons. In those 165 games, Bill Russell tallied 4104 rebounds, the most in NBA history.
He averaged more rebounds per game in the playoffs than in his entire career. There have been periods of sustained greatness in professional sports, but none are more staggering than Russell’s playoff numbers, especially as a rebounder.
In 7,493 minutes in the playoffs, Russell averaged roughly 1.85 rebounds per minute. The man was a machine on the glass. When we talk about legendary athletes who played in a bygone era, their successes seem difficult to comprehend.
For Bill Russell that can be accomplished by looking at the numbers.
5.) Russell’s Greatness Was Recognized On Every NBA Anniversary Team
In 1971, Russell was unanimously selected to the NBA 25th Anniversary team. Ten years later, he made the NBA’s 35th Anniversary team as well.
In 1997, Russell was revealed to have made the 50th Anniversary Team. This past winter, he was named to the 75th Anniversary Team.
There have only been four men in the history of the league to be named to all four Anniversary Teams: George Mikan, Bob Pettit, Bob Cousy, and Russell.
As the center position has evolved at the pro level, Russell’s position atop its history hasn’t changed.
6.) Russell Was An Elder Statesman Whose Laugh Is As Legendary As His Statistics
Bill Russell’s sense of humor is the stuff of legend. It got even better as he grew older.
Don’t believe me? Ask these legendary big men.
And if he was still around, I’d ask Wilt about Thanksgiving and his free throw shooting.
Bill Russell was in a class all his own while crashing the glass for rebounds and blocking shots, and while winning more championships than any athlete not named Henri Richard. He was also the best of us when fighting for equal rights and while enduring horrific racism and vandalism with grace throughout his career.
About death and the afterlife, Bill Russell once said the following:
“I always said that when I left the Celtics, I couldn’t go to Heaven, because that would be a step down.”