Ten minutes before the tipoff of Game Seven of the NBA Finals between the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, Coach Red Auerbach suddenly realized he had a problem. He immediately summoned the Celtics off the floor and took them back to the locker room. There had been a breach in pre-game protocol that demanded remedy.
As soon as all had gathered, Auerbach addressed his center, Bill Russell: “You forgot to throw up. Go do it now.”
Russell, intensely competitive, always experienced pre-game anxiety that translated into somatic distress. He usually vomited before games. It was no secret: anyone in the vicinity could hear Russell in the act. His teammates took solace from the noise. It meant the big guy was really dialed into winning the game, always a good omen for the Celtics. It was a group catharsis that Auerbach completely understood.
In this case, Russell performed as his coach instructed. And like clockwork, the Celtics returned to the basketball floor and dispatched the Lakers.
When Russell passed away at 88 on July 31, 2022, the world of sports lost its biggest winner and the best team player of the twentieth century. “When you are playing a team game, the only important statistic is the score,” Russell always said.
“There are two types of superstars,” former teammate and fellow NBA legend Don Nelson said. “One makes himself look good at the expense of the other guys on the floor. But there’s another type who makes the players around him look better than they are, and that’s the type Russell was.”
John Wooden, the late college coach who lived by the credo of team play, called Russell “the most important college and pro player of all time.”
The accomplishments are beyond anything human. Russell played on 11 NBA championships in 13 seasons. Eight of those were done consecutively. Prior to the pros, he played on the title team at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. He also was the centerpiece on two college championship teams at the University of San Francisco. He was even part of two state championships for McClymonds High School in Oakland.
A part of this stellar record is sometimes forgotten: he won a college championship, an Olympic Gold Medal, and an NBA title in one 13-month period.
Russell was named an All Star 12 times (again, in a 13-year career, missing only in his rookie season); he was selected for 5 MVP Awards; and the MVP Award for the NBA Finals carries his name.
One last stat: in his career, Russell played in 30 elimination games. His record was 28-2.
As former U.S. Senator and New York Knicks star Bill Bradley has said numerous times, “Of all the players who have played the game of basketball, Bill Russell is the first player I would pick to start a team.”
It’s impossible to gauge Russell’s significance from the film footage available today. If you had the good fortune to watch him play in person, the accolades he continues to receive make more sense.
Russell dominated the court starting with the players’ game introductions. While most players ran out on the court when their names were called, Bill Russell did not. He deliberately walked out with a scowl on his face.
In reality, this practice began accidentally: he had a pulled hamstring one night when the lineups were announced. Russell was forced to walk out slowly. Because the injury was unwrapped, the opposing players didn’t understand he was hurt and saw his demeanor as challenging. Russell comprehended the slow walk got under the other team’s skin, so he continued the practice after the hamstring was healed.
A lot is made of Russell’s amazing ability to block shots. Bill Bradley explained Russell had several techniques, but the one that was most effective was the block he made from behind, or beside the unsuspecting shooter. When the “coming out of nowhere” block occurred, the opponent began believing he had to be ten feet away from Russell to launch a clear shot. It completely altered the flow of play.
In one postgame television interview, a future NBA Hall of Famer was asked why his team didn’t drive toward the basket much in the fourth quarter against the Celtics. “Mr. Russell doesn’t permit that,” was the answer.
After Red Auerbach retired, Russell served as player/coach for three seasons. He was the first African American to coach a major professional sports franchise in this country. Two of those seasons, including his last, Russell and his Celtics brought home the NBA crown. No NBA player/coach has done it since.
Off the court, Russell was equally prominent for his total commitment to civil rights activism. Whenever he perceived a wrong, Russell bravely stepped forward to do his part to induce meaningful change. He never hesitated to say what was on his mind.
When the city of Boston dedicated a statue to Russell, here’s one of the comments he made: “Of all the things that have happened to me in life, the single most important thing is the friends I have made. My friends have no race, no color, no religion — or not, no political views — or not. If I can come to the conclusion that they are good people, that’s all that matters.”
Bill Russell, RIP.