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Bill Russell’s untouchable legacy

Despite everything he accomplished, Russell hasn’t always gotten the respect he’s deserved.

Los Angeles Lakers v Boston Celtics Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The announcement of Bill Russell’s death reverberated beyond the NBA world – the world he dominated for 13 seasons in the 1950’s and 60’s. His athletic accomplishments alone make him a legend, but his courageous commitment to the civil rights movement made him an American icon.

There have been countless tributes to Russell over the past 72 hours. Everyone from Michael Jordan to Barack Obama to Jon Stewart sent tweets commemorating him. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a tribute piece on his Substack, and people have left flowers at his statue by city hall.

Every newspaper from the Wall Street Journal to the Los Angeles Times had Russell on their front page on Monday morning. CelticsBlog’s Keith Smith wrote a moving tribute, Professor Parquet broke down his game, Rich Jensen wrote about Russell’s indomitable spirit in the face of racism, while Mike Dynon wrote about being a Russell fan and seeing him in person in the 1960’s. CelticsBlog was fortunate enough to conduct an interview with him in 2007, which was republished on Sunday.

Debates about the greatest basketball player of all time are usually reserved for two guys whose last names begin with “J.” Russell was always recognized as a great winner, but modern basketball pundits don’t feel he belongs in the greatest player category. They find reasons to belittle his accomplishments rather than placing them in historical context.

As a kid, I distinctly remember looking up the list of NBA champions in a World Book Encyclopedia, and the major historical anomaly was the Celtics winning 11 times in 13 years. But growing up in Massachusetts, it seemed like Bobby Orr’s Bruins championship teams from 1970 and 1972 got more adoration. Did people not realize there was another team playing in the same arena that won five times as many championships? The 1967 Red Sox were considered “the impossible dream” for simply reaching the World Series. Why weren’t they paying attention to the other Boston team that just won eight straight titles?

Red Auerbach Hugging Bill Russell at Press Conference

The Knick championship teams of 1970 and 1973 have endless books written about them – but not Russell’s Celtics. John Wooden’s UCLA teams of the late 60s and early 70s are lionized today in ways the Celtics never were. Vince Lombardi’s Packers and Mickey Mantle’s Yankees have historical footprints double the size of Bill Russell’s Celtics.

There isn’t a six-part Netflix documentary about the dynasty, a biopic about Russell, or even an ESPN 30 for 30 about the team. They’re acknowledged, but not properly celebrated.

The reason for this is twofold. The NBA in the 1960s wasn’t in the same stratosphere of popularity as the MLB, NFL, or boxing. Games weren’t on national TV and pro basketball hadn’t penetrated the conscience of America.

The second reason has to do with Boston’s problem with race relations. The city wouldn’t support a Black athlete the same way they supported Bobby Orr, Ted Williams, or even Bob Cousy. Russell wasn’t shy about voicing his opinion, once referring to Boston as “a flea market of racism.”

Over the next several decades, Boston’s racist reputation grew with the bussing crisis of the 1970’s, the Charles Stuart case of 1989, the Dee Brown police stop of 1990, the “Dennis and Callahan” comments in 2003, the Henry Louis Gates arrest in 2009, and the Adam Jones Fenway Park incident of 2017. Fair or not, Boston has a perception as a racist city.

Russell maintained that he played for the organization, not the city. He didn’t care about cozying up to the press and never signed autographs. The local media’s role in painting him as arrogant, combined with his lack of connection to Boston, likely contributed to why the 1960’s Celtics aren’t woven into public memory like other great sports teams from that era.

Bill Russell Resting on a Bench

The attempts to discredit the 1960’s NBA recently came into focus following JJ Redick’s “plumbers and firemen” comment. Here are a handful of the ill-conceived arguments used to diminish Russell’s accomplishments.

There were only eight teams when he played.

Yes, when Russell entered the league, there were only eight teams, but that number expanded to 14 by the time he retired in 1969. There were good players who didn’t make the NBA, every team had talent, and Russell believed (in true “get off my lawn” fashion) that the NBA’s talent in later years was watered down.

He played with so many Hall of Famers.

He made them Hall of Famers. Playing with Russell means winning championships and increasing your Hall of Fame chances. Guys like John Havlicek, Sam Jones, and Tommy Heinsohn would have been great wherever they played, but Frank Ramsey, KC Jones, and Don Nelson probably aren’t Hall of Famers if they don’t win championships with Russell.

Boston Celtics team photo Photo by NBAP/ NBAE/ Getty Images

He only shot 44 percent for his career, and was a bad offensive player.

The league’s average field goal percentage was actually under 40 percent when he entered the league. Everyone shot low percentages, and it’s silly to criticize him based on today’s standards.

When he got to the Celtics, he joined a loaded offensive team that didn’t need scoring. He grabbed offensive rebounds, set screens, made outlet passes (and often outlet blocks), beat the opposing center up the floor, and consistently averaged over four assists per game. His 5.3 assists/game in 1965 was actually one of the highest marks for a center before the post-2010 positionless era.

He didn’t play against other Black players.

The NBA got progressively less segregated as his career advanced. He was the only Black player on Boston’s first championship in 1957. There were de facto racial quotas into the early 1960’s, but in Russell’s 1966 autobiography – Beyond the Glory – he acknowledged that the quota system was largely gone. There were six Black players on the 1965 Celtics and eight on the 1969 team. By 1970, the NBA was majority Black. Russell’s career traversed that evolution, and the idea that he didn’t play against Black players is simply false.

The era was weak.

I get it. If he won three or four titles in the 1960’s, maybe that doesn’t compare to three or four in the 1990’s. But he won eleven — 13 seasons, 12 Finals appearances, 11 championships. And the year he lost (in 1958 against St. Louis) he was injured. No, there weren’t as many teams, as many playoff rounds, or as many Black players, but that shouldn’t discount how he dominated his era more than any other player dominated theirs (including Michael Jordan).

Wilt was better, but Russell had a better team.

This is the most BS of all the arguments. Wilt should have been better. He was four inches taller and 50 pounds heavier. He was stronger, faster, with more offensive moves and better touch. When Wilt entered the league in 1959, people believed that Russell’s reign would end. Instead, his legend only grew. In 1962, when Wilt famously averaged 50 points per game in the regular season, Russell held him to 33 points per game in the conference finals.

Saying Russell held Wilt to 33 a game seems like an oxymoron, but it’s nearly a third less than his regular season average. In the decisive Game 7, Russell limited Wilt to 22 points. This trend continued, with Russell beating him in 1964, 1965, 1966, 1968, and 1969. Never lacking for Hall of Famers, Wilt played with Paul Arizin, Al Attles, Tom Gola, Guy Rogers, Hal Greer, Nate Thurmond, and Chet Walker. Throughout their careers, Wilt’s teammates made 21 All-Star games, and Russell’s 29. Wilt was more prolific, more talented, but aside from one season in 1967, he never beat Russell.

Philadelphia 76ers vs. Boston Celtics Photo by Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images

Russell should be remembered like Babe Ruth is in baseball and Jim Brown in football. Nobody ever criticizes Babe Ruth for being a poor right fielder and a bad baserunner, just as they don’t criticize Jim Brown for being a bad blocker and mediocre pass catcher. Both are recognized for the unprecedented dominance, and Russell should be viewed in the same light.

The 1960’s were a culturally rich time period, marked by the Beatles, JFK, MLK, the Vietnam War protests, the moon landing, the hippy counterculture, the rise of television, and the changing of America’s social structure. There are countless movies, tv shows, documentaries, and books about this period, and Russell deserves to be right in the middle of it.

His archetype would fit today’s game. Every team would love to have a fast, athletic, rim protecting center who was a skilled passer, prideful defender, and didn’t need the ball to make an impact. Professor Parquet compared him to Dennis Rodman and Ben Wallace, two of the best defensive players of their eras. He attacked the defensive end the way prime Russell Westbrook and current Giannis Antetokounmpo attack the offensive end. Bill Russell had MJ’s competitiveness, Lebron’s IQ, and Kevin Garnett’s selflessness.

They doubted Russell when he entered the league, saying his skinny frame and lack of offense wouldn’t translate to the NBA. His rookie season: championship. They said Wilt would overtake him. 1960: championship. The 1962 Lakers – with dynamic wings Elgin Baylor and Jerry West – were supposed to surpass the Celtics as the best team. Result? Championship. When Cousy retired after that season, they said he, not Russell, was the reason for the Celtics success. Spoiler alert: championship. Ramsey retired in 1964 and Heinsohn in 1965. The core of the team was gone; how would Russell respond? Championship and championship.

Bill Russell... Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

In 1966, Red Auerbach retired and appointed Russell as the player-coach. In 1967, Wilt’s Sixers finally beat Russell. The media believed it was a changing of the guard. But in 1968, with the Celtics down 3-1 to the Sixers in the Eastern Finals, they came back to win the series, and beat the Lakers in six games to win their 10th ring.

Then came 1969. Wilt joined Baylor and West on the Lakers, and this team would surely take down the aging Celtics, who’d won just 48 games that regular season, the lowest of the Russell-era. Instead, he gritted the team to a seven-game Finals victory, had a memorable post-game interview with Jack Twyman.

In that seventh game, there was a play where the 35-year-old Russell outran the entire Lakers team for an easy transition dunk. While not as memorable as his earlier career highlights – in particular, the original chasedown block on Jerry West and original original chasedown block on Jack Coleman to seal the 1957 Finals – it proved Russell could still outwork his younger, more talented opponents.

Russell once said, “I decided in college to win. That way, they couldn’t take it away from me.” That’s certainly a response to the ever-persistent racism in American society. He was actively involved with Boston’s NAACP branch, and helped grassroots groups organize a protest of the segregated Boston school system. He was part of the 1963 March on Washington, participated in the 1967 Cleveland Summit, supported Malcolm X while he was vilified by white America, and spoke out on the injustices that Black Americans suffered.

There might be another player who goes undefeated in six trips to the Finals, like Jordan. There might be another player who comes back from a 3-1 Finals deficit against a 70-win team, like LeBron did. There might be someone who builds a brand like Kobe, who sustains winning like Duncan, or who revolutionizes the game like Curry.

But on and off the court, there will never, ever, ever, be another Bill Russell.

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