Bill Russell was the GOAT of GOATs.
Winning is the most important characteristic any athlete can display.
And Bill Russell won.
At every level.
He won two state championships in high school.
He never lost an NCAA tournament game.
He never lost in the Olympics.
He was 10-0 in Game 7s.
Russell played 13 seasons, all with the Boston Celtics, and won 11 NBA championships. The final two came in 1968 and 1969, when he was a player-coach.
He won two NCAA championships while playing for the University of San Francisco. The Dons won 55 straight games at one point. Russell won a gold medal while playing with the 1956 USA Olympic team in Melbourne, Australia, 36 years before anyone heard of “The Dream Team.”
Russell is the greatest team championship athlete in American history. Only Canada’s Henri Richard won as many pro rings as Russell, nabbing 11 with the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens from 1956-73.
Russell was 6-foot-10. But he stood 10 feet tall.
We’ve exhausted too many words, too much time, and too many terabytes trying to somehow compare NBA players of the 21st Century to their 20th Century counterparts. These discussions do nothing but diminish all involved.
Russell played in an NBA that had anywhere from eight to 14 teams during his tenure. And there was no free agency during Russell’s tenure. That meant he was able to play with fellow Hall of Famers K.C. Jones, Sam Jones, Tommy Heinsohn, Tom Sanders and John Havlicek for 46 combined seasons.
Don’t blame Russell because he played alongside so many greats for so many years. One could easily argue that they were “greats” because they played with Russell.
Russell hadn’t played in more than 50 years. It’s easy for those who didn’t see him play in person or on their black and white TVs to scoff at statements placing him among the top NBA greats.
Ponder this math: Russell won as many rings as Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant … combined.
Among the flood of content that resurfaced following Russell’s passing on Sunday was a video clip from 1997 featuring Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Russell. In it, Magic talks about how “all the rings are right here.” He was only mildly exaggerating. At the time, the NBA was 51. Russell had 11 rings. Magic 5 and Bird 3.
Russell revolutionized basketball. That all-around style of playing defense on offense and offense on defense that Jordan mastered, Kobe perfected and LeBron James tries to mimic?
It, too, was invented by Russell.
Russell had no choice. He often had to get past Wilt Chamberlain to win his next title.
He spent his 88 years in perpetual combat against racism, on both a personal and institutional level. Russell was the NBA’s first Black head coach. But he never rested on that laurel, or any other.
Like so many other Boston legends, Russell came to the city from elsewhere. He was born in Louisiana and played college ball in California. The Celtics said “Russell‘s DNA is woven through every element” of their organization, “from the relentless pursuit of excellence, to the celebration of team rewards over individual glory, to a commitment to social justice and civil rights off the court.”
The animosity Russell faced growing up in the segregated South, during his days as an NCAA player and in his time in Boston has been well documented. Russell toppled those man-made obstacles. He used his time in the spotlight to make sure others would not have to face the same poison flung his way decades ago.
Boston and Russell held each other at a distance for far too long. The accolades given to others who accomplished far less came too easily in comparison. Eventually, Russell got his statue. It’s there near City Hall. If you can find it.
They did not name the Ted Williams Tunnel after just a ballplayer. Ted served the United States in two wars and flew 39 combat missions over Korea.
Russell’s name should be featured on your favorite bridge not because he led the Celtics to eight straight NBA titles. Russell, too, served his nation. He was a warrior in the battle for social justice when doing so carried a real price. He saw wrong and fought to make it right without concern for the cost.
Whatever “injustices” LeBron & Co. claim to have endured, Russell experienced them in real time.
Thankfully, Russell stayed with us long enough to be unconditionally embraced by the city in which he played his entire career.
His life and legacy are worthy of every celebration his passing may bring.
He was the greatest Boston ever saw.
Bill Speros (@RealOBF) can be reached at [email protected]