obituary of Bill Russell

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In his 13 seasons in the National Basketball Association (NBA) with the Boston Celtics, Bill Russell, who has passed away at age 88, won 11 championships, a record unmatched in team sports. But his place as one of the most influential American athletes of the 20th century, behind only Muhammad Ali and perhaps baseball player Jackie Robinson, is based on more than his relentless will to win, and his intelligence in connecting his skills to that. from his teammates. to facilitate that process.

He was the NBA’s first black star, five times the league’s most valuable player. His defensive jumping skills transformed basketball from a horizontal to a vertical game. And in 1966, when Celtics coach Red Auerbach stepped down and named Russell his successor, he became the first black head coach in the four major sports leagues of modern America.

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Outside of court, he was a pioneer in the struggle for human dignity. Russell stood next to Martin Luther King during his “I have a dream” speech in Washington; when Ali resisted the service, Russell stood next to him on the “Cleveland Summit” of star athletes, with the star of the roster and actor Jim Brown on the other side.

Russell came to his abilities late, but learned his self-esteem early on. Born in deeply segregated Monroe, Louisiana, his father, Charlie, taught young Bill what his father had taught him: “A man must draw a line within himself that he will not let any man pass.” When Charlie was denied a raise he believed he deserved, he went to work in Detroit, leaving his wife, Katie (née King), to look after their sons, Bill and his brother, Charlie Jr. to care. Hampered by the cold winters, Charlie moved to Oakland, California, started a profitable trucking company that hauled day labor, and had the family picked up. But when Bill was 12, Katie died and Charlie took a job in a steel mill to have more time with his kids.

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Bill couldn’t make it to his high school basketball team until his senior year. His only scholarship offer came from the University of San Francisco, but he developed quickly. USF won consecutive national basketball championships in its junior and senior seasons, losing just one game and winning 55 in a row. In the 1956 final against Iowa, Russell scored 26 points, had 27 rebounds and blocked 20 shots. He was the top scorer for the U.S. Olympic team that won the gold medal in Melbourne that year, with an unparalleled average of 53.5 points per game.

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Bill Russell with Celtics coach Red Auerbach after the team won its eighth consecutive NBA title in 1966. Russell succeeded Auerbach to become the first black head coach in the major American sports leagues. Photo: TUSEN

Meanwhile, Auerbach had traded two star players to get second-choice in the NBA draw, and the Celtics owner, Walter Brown, persuaded the Rochester Royals to pass first-choice Russell, by giving their arena the chance to a cash-spinning two-week run of the Ice Capades skating show in return. After the Olympics, Russell led the Celtics to the 1957 title, over the St Louis Hawks. In fact, Russell could probably have claimed 12 titles in 13 years if he hadn’t sprained his ankle in game three of the 1958 final, including against the Hawks, who then lost to the Celtics.

At 2.08m (6ft 10in) and 99kg (15st 10lb) tall, Russell possessed an agility that changed the way big centers played. In college, he would run the 440 meters (the distance that has now been replaced by the 400 meters) and high jump; at the 1956 Coast Relays, his 2.06m jump was equal to Charlie Dumas, who won the gold medal in Melbourne. Russell played center as a sweeper; his teammates overplayed opponents, defending tightly, knowing he could cover their mistakes. He controlled his blocks and rebounds to get the ball to his teammates; the signature Celtic “fast-break” offensive was born.

He also won U.S. team sports’ biggest individual rivalry, against Wilt Chamberlain, who was two inches taller and much taller. Chamberlain broke the records, once scoring 100 points in a single game, but Russell won most of their meetings, and all but one of the playoffs. Wilt thought what was best for Wilt was best for the team; as both player and coach Russell looked for ways to challenge his teammates without the common superstar problem of undermining them.

While fully committed to the Celtics, the first NBA team to field a black player and the first to start an all-black lineup, Russell’s relationship with the city of Boston, Massachusetts, which he described as “a flea market of racism” , was more difficult. His home in the suburbs of nearby Reading was broken into and vandalized. When he complained to the police about the trash cans being knocked over, they laughed and blamed the raccoons. When Russell asked where he could get a gun permit to shoot raccoons, the vandalism stopped.

Bill Russell
Bill Russell responded to the news in 2009 that the NBA Most Valuable Player award was named after him. Photo: Matt York/TUSEN

Russell protected his privacy by refusing to sign autographs; I know because I asked for it when I worked near him during the 1976 Olympic basketball final in Montreal. He politely declined, but shook my hand. He worked as a TV commentator, where he often seemed bored by the restrictions on opinions offered on the air, and then as a coach and general manager of the Seattle SuperSonics, 3,000 miles from Boston. His four-year success in Seattle was followed by a failed stint with the Sacramento Kings; Russell found players without his and the Celtics’ drive for team success frustrating. He worked tirelessly for charities, especially a mentorship program he helped establish.

Russell co-wrote four books; Second Wind (with Taylor Branch, 1979) and Red and Me (with Alan Steinberg, 2009) are classics from the sports memoir. In later years, his public personality softened to match his private one, strengthening his legacy. He reconciled with Boston, where a statue of him was unveiled in City Hall Plaza in 2013. The NBA trophy for the most valuable player in the final is named after him. In 2012, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama; in 2017, when President Donald Trump called for NFL players to take a knee to “get fired,” Russell released a video of himself kneeling, holding that medal.

He is survived by his fourth wife, Jeanine Fiorito, and by his son Jacob and daughter, Karen, from his first marriage to Rosie Swisher, which ended in divorce. His eldest son, William Jr, died in 2016. His second marriage, to Dorothy Anstett, a former Miss USA, also ended in divorce. His third wife, Marilyn Nault, died in 2009.

William Felton Russell, basketball player, born February 12, 1934; died July 31, 2022

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