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More on Bill Russell

Classic Boston moments

Russell was proud, fierce warrior
By Ron Flatter
Special to

"It wasn't a matter of Wilt versus Russell with Bill. He would let Wilt score 50 if we won. The thing that was most important to him was championships, rings and winning," says former teammate John Havlicek about Bill Russell on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

They were pro basketball's most dominant team. Never mind "three-peats." The Boston Celtics of the fifties and sixties pulled off an "eight-peat."

The Celtics had Cousy and Sharman and Havlicek. They had the Joneses -- K.C. and Sam. But only one star was there for all 11 titles from 1957 to 1969.

Bill Russell -- the prototypical defensive center -- was a champion from his rookie season until his last game in his last Final. Before he arrived, the Celtics had never won an NBA title.

Five times the 6-foot-9 Russell was voted MVP. Four times he was the league's leading rebounder. He played in every All-Star Game after his rookie year. His 21,620 rebounds (22.5 per game) are second all-time to Wilt Chamberlain's 23,924 (22.9 average). Relying on his left-handed hook shot, Russell averaged 15.1 points in 963 regular-season games. He probably would have led the league in blocked shots several years, but that stat wasn't kept then.

He was complex, introspective, enigmatic, principled, aloof. His refusal to sign autographs during his playing days was legendary. "You owe the public the same thing it owes you," he said. "Nothing."

When Russell was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1975, he didn't attend for "personal reasons." Speculation has been that he was unhappy that no other African-American players had been elected previously.

He also shunned the retiring of his No. 6 jersey at Boston Garden in 1972. Still, the public respected that he was a champion, the very quality that remains the first thing his proponents mention in arguments over who was better, Russell or Chamberlain.

The rivalry between the two centers defined basketball in the sixties. Chamberlain won the scoring titles; Russell simply won.

Russell was the consummate team player, the one who authoritatively blocked shots to teammates or fired the precision outlet pass. He was the last ingredient the Celtics needed to perfect what became their trademark -- fast-break basketball.

He never finished higher than 15th in the league in point production. But Russell was not about scoring; he was about winning.

"Shooting," he said, "is of relatively little importance in a player's overall game."

William Felton Russell was born on Feb. 12, 1934, in Monroe, La. His family moved to West Oakland, Calif., in 1943, and three years later, his mother, Katie, died at 32. Bill and his older brother Charlie Jr. were raised by their father, Charlie.

Russell, who began playing basketball at nine, didn't become a starter at McClymonds High School until he was a senior. Spotted by a University of San Francisco alum, Russell got a scholarship to the school on the other side of the bay though coach Phil Woolpert was not impressed when he worked out the skinny center.

But Woolpert would become impressed. Russell led the Dons to 55 consecutive victories and back-to-back national championships. In 1955, he was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four after grabbing 25 rebounds to key San Francisco's 77-63 victory over La Salle in the final. In 1956, his second straight All-American season, Russell scored 26 points in the Dons' 83-71 title victory over Iowa.

To acquire Russell, the Celtics' Red Auerbach traded Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan to the St. Louis Hawks, who had selected Russell with the No. 2 pick in the draft. Then Boston had to wait until Russell was finished leading the U.S. to a gold medal in the 1956 Olympics, which ran until December in Melbourne, Australia.

After signing for $19,500, Russell established his rebounding prowess right away, averaging 19.6 boards and leading the Celtics to their first NBA title.

That championship might have been the first of 10 straight for Boston if Russell, the 1958 MVP, had not sprained his ankle in Game 3 of that year's Finals. When the Hawks won the title in six games, it marked the last time someone other than Boston would win the championship until 1967.

The rivalry with Chamberlain began Nov. 7, 1959, at Boston Garden. Chamberlain outscored Russell 30-22, Russell outrebounded Chamberlain 35-28, and Boston beat the Philadelphia Warriors 115-106.

Against Russell, Chamberlain won the battles, becoming the first to win MVP and Rookie of the Year honors the same season. But Russell and the Celtics won the first of eight consecutive championship wars.

Russell set an NBA record with 51 rebounds against the Syracuse Nationals on Feb. 5, 1960, but Chamberlain broke it with 55 against Boston nine months later. (The Celtics, though, won the game.) Russell won his second MVP award in 1961. And, of course, there were more championships.

The road to the 1962 title began in rocky style during the exhibition season when the Celtics' African-American players were denied admission to an Indiana bar and Kentucky hotel coffee shop. So Russell, K.C. Jones, Sam Jones and Satch Sanders -- all black -- boycotted a game in Lexington.

Although Russell never considered himself a role model for African-Americans, he didn't back away from speaking about racial issues. "The basic problem in Negro America," he said in the early sixties, "is the destruction of race pride. One could say we have been victims of psychological warfare, in a sense, in that this is a white country, and all the emphasis is on being white."

Over the next two regular seasons, Chamberlain overshadowed Russell, scoring 100 points one night and leading the league in scoring and rebounding both years. But Russell kept winning titles, and he was voted his third and fourth MVP awards in 1962 and 1963.

The Celtics literally had a changing of the guard in the early sixties. As Sharman (in 1961) and Cousy (1963) retired, K.C. Jones and Sam Jones moved in, and John Havlicek became the team's leading scorer in only his second season (1963-64). Russell was the glue. Together, they overcame Chamberlain's San Francisco Warriors in the Finals.

In 1965, Russell won his fifth MVP award and another title. A year later, en route to a seven-game victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1966 Finals, Auerbach announced he was handing the team to Russell, who would serve as player-coach.

Russell became the first African-American head coach in any major sport. (Fritz Pollard was a black NFL head coach in the 1920s, before the league was big-time.) But in Russell's first season at the helm, the Celtics' eight-year title streak ended with a five-game loss in the Eastern finals to Chamberlain and the 76ers, who went on to win the championship.

Boston rebounded in 1968, beating the Lakers in the Finals, but Russell's on-court productivity slipped to 12.5 points and a career-low 18.6 rebounding average.

In 1969, Russell -- at 35 -- was third in the league in rebounding (19.3) though he averaged a career-low 9.9 points. But the Celtics, who finished fourth in the East, pulled off three upsets in the playoffs for Russell's last hurrah.

Two months after that 11th championship, Russell retired as both player and coach. At career's end, Russell was outscored by Chamberlain by an average of 29-15 and outrebounded 29-24 in head-to-head competition. But he beat was 86-57 against Wilt's teams. When they were playing simultaneously, Russell won nine championships to Chamberlain's one.

Russell took two more coaching jobs. He led the Seattle SuperSonics to their first ever playoff berths, leaving in 1977 with a four-year record of 162-166. Other than working as a TV commentator, Russell was out of the game 10 years when he resurfaced with the Sacramento Kings. A disastrous 17-41 record led to his exit from the bench. He became the Kings' vice president of basketball operations, but was fired 21 months later, on Dec. 19, 1989.

The lasting memory of Russell, though, is what he did as a Celtic. "I played because I enjoyed it," he said, "but there's more to it than that. I played because I was dedicated to being the best. I was part of a team, and I dedicated myself to making that team the best."

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