No. 18: Bill Russell

A complex champion
By Larry Schwartz
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's SportsCentury show (Friday, Oct. 1, 7 p.m. ET and Sunday, Oct. 3 at 8 a.m. ET).

Russell, who won back-to-back NCAA titles with the University of San Francisco and 11 championships in 13 seasons with the Boston Celtics, was voted No. 18 among North American athletes of the 20th century by SportsCentury's distinguished 48-person panel.

Signature game
May 5, 1969 -- Finishing fourth in the Eastern Division, it appeared that the 35-year-old Russell and the aging Celtics didn't have much of a chance of continuing their dynasty. But they overcame the homecourt advantage of the 76ers and Knicks to reach the Finals, where they split the first six games against the Los Angeles Lakers.

 Bill Russell
The Russell-led U.S. team won the Olympic gold medal in 1956, going 8-0 and its average winning margin of 53.5 points still is the Olympic record.

Russell, in his third season as Boston's player-coach, is outscored by Wilt Chamberlain, 15-0, in the first half, but the Celtics still lead, 59-56. They take charge in the third quarter and extend their edge to 100-85 with nine minutes left.

With 5½ minutes remaining, Chamberlain twists his right knee and he's soon replaced by Mel Counts. The Lakers rally without Wilt, who wants to return, but is rebuffed by coach Butch van Breda Kolff. After the Lakers close to 103-102, the Celtics' Don Nelson bangs in a jumper high off the rim and Russell grabs a key rebound and makes a block.

The Celtics and Russell win their 11th title, 108-106, and the thousands of balloons that Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke has up in the rafters at the Forum never come down in celebration.

Chamberlain finishes with 18 points and 27 rebounds, compared to Russell's six points and 21 rebounds.

Russell doesn't think Wilt is badly injured and that he should have stayed in the game. "Wilt's leaving was like a misspelled word at the end of a cherished book," Russell will write later. "My anger at him that night caused great friction between us later."

The game will turn out to be Russell's last hurrah. In July, he will retire as both player and coach of the Celtics.

Odds and ends

  • In the second semester of his junior year at McClymonds High School in Oakland, Russell was cut from the junior varsity. As a senior, Russell started on the varsity and helped McClymonds win the league title. In a conference of only six teams, Russell did not even make third team all-league.

  • Russell graduated from McClymonds in midyear, and toured the Pacific Northwest with a group of California schoolboy all-stars. On this trip, he became a more accomplished player and after returning to Oakland he received his only scholarship offer, from San Francisco.

  • After losing to UCLA, 47-40, in the third game of Russell's junior year, when Russell was outplayed by Willie Naulls, San Francisco didn't lose again that season or the next, winning 55 straight and two NCAA titles.

  • Russell's 27 rebounds in USF's 83-71 victory over Iowa in the 1956 championship game remains a Final Four record, as do his 50 rebounds in the two games.

  • Russell was a 20-20 man at USF, averaging 20.6 points and 20.3 rebounds in his 79 games. He was Player of the Year as a senior.

  • The Russell-led U.S. team won the Olympic gold medal in 1956, going 8-0 and its average winning margin of 53.5 points still is the Olympic record.

  • On Dec. 22, 1956, three weeks after the gold-medal game in Melbourne, Russell made his Celtics' debut - he scored six points (3-of-11 FGs, 0-for-4 FTs) and grabbed 16 rebounds in 21 minutes. Most impressive was his blocking of three straight Bob Pettit shots in the second half.

  • When Russell joined the Celtics, he was the only African-American on the team.

  • Russell holds the record for most rebounds in a half with 32, set against Philadelphia (pre-Wilt) on Nov. 16, 1957.

  • Bill Bridges of the St. Louis Hawks once said, "Russell told me I better bring salt and pepper to the next game. He told me I was going to eat basketballs."

  • In 1959 Russell went to Africa on a tour with the State Department. The tour had such an impact upon him that he bought part ownership of a rubber farm in Liberia and named his baby daughter Karen Kenyatta after Jomo Kenyatta, the prime minister-designate of Kenya and former Mau Mau leader.

  • Russell once said the athletes he admired were Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson and Sonny Liston. In 1999, he said Jim Brown was the athlete of the 20th century.

  • A Celtics Thanksgiving tradition in the 1960s was their annual holiday game in Philadelphia. Russell, K.C. Jones and Sam Jones would have Thanksgiving dinner at Chamberlain's home, feasting on Wilt's mom's cooking.

  • Russell's Laws: (1) You must make the other player do what you want him to do; (2) You got to have the killer instinct; and (3) Remember that basketball is a game of habit.

  • In 1965, after Chamberlain signed a $100,000 a year contract for three seasons, Russell said he would consider retiring unless he got paid a dollar more. The Celtics finally raised their offer from $75,000 to $100,001, and Russell signed.

  • Russell's Celtics won seven of their eight playoff series against Chamberlain's teams. They were 4-0 in seventh games.

  • Russell's USF, Olympic and Celtics teams were an astounding 28-2 in games when a loss meant elimination. USF was 9-0 in two NCAA tournaments, the U.S. was 2-0 in Olympic elimination games and the Celtics were 17-2, including 10-0 in seventh games and 1-0 in a fifth game of a best-of-five series.

  • In 165 playoff games, Russell averaged 16.2 points (1.1 above his regular-season average) and 24.9 rebounds (2.4 higher). He averaged 10 points and 11.6 rebounds in 29 minutes in 12 All-Star Games.

  • He fouled out just 24 times in 963 regular-season games.

  • In each of his last eight seasons, Russell averaged at least 4.5 assists.

  • He was a pallbearer at Jackie Robinson's funeral in 1972.

  • In 1992, 28 years after signing his last autograph, Russell began signing again - for a price (reportedly $2 million for seven years). For a collectibles firm, he signed a reported 5,000 autographs. For fans, the autograph didn't come cheap ($295 for an autographed picture, $495 for an autographed basketball or shoes, and $995 for an autographed jersey).

  • On March 12, 1972, Russell's No. 6 was raised to the top of Boston Garden. It was a private ceremony, at Russell's insistence, and no fans were present.

  • Twenty-seven years later, on May 26, 1999, a more mellow Russell allowed his No. 6 to be re-raised to the top of the FleetCenter with an estimated 12,000 fans attending the ceremony.