Bill Russell may have been the greatest team-sport athlete in American history. Even more remarkably, that status isn’t the most impressive thing about him. In the 1950s and 1960s Russell, who died Sunday at age 88, helped to redefine the conception of athlete-as-citizen in American life, making issues of racial justice a central facet of his public profile in ways no major pro sports star had previously. He also revolutionized the game of basketball and set a standard for dominance that will probably never be matched, winning 11 championships in his 13-year professional career. If the goal of sports is for your team to beat the other team, Bill Russell was the best there ever was at doing just that.
Russell was born in the midst of the Great Depression in Monroe, Louisiana. From his earliest childhood he encountered vicious racism of all kinds, experiences that he would publicly recount throughout his life, including recently in a 2020 essay he wrote for the Players’ Tribune. At the age of 9, his family moved west to Oakland, where Russell later entered McClymonds High School as a 5-foot-10 freshman. As a young player Russell was raw and slow to develop, and nearly got cut from his high school team. He was an exceptional athlete but struggled to grasp the nuances of the game and to develop sound fundamentals—ironic for a player who would later become synonymous with hypercerebral discipline. He was largely ignored by college recruiters until getting offered a scholarship from the University of San Francisco, where he, future Celtics teammate K.C. Jones, and Hal Perry made the Dons into a national power, winning back-to-back national championships in 1955 and 1956. (This trio was also the first time three Black players had started for a major college basketball team.)
Russell wasn’t a traditionally dominant center on the offensive end of the floor, which, despite having marauded through the college ranks, caused him to be somewhat undervalued as a pro prospect. The Rochester Royals, who owned the first overall pick in the 1956 Draft, passed on him, and the St. Louis Hawks, who held the second pick, were thought to be skittish about the prospect of adding a star Black player. Celtics coach Red Auerbach recognized Russell’s genius and finagled a trade with St. Louis, sending six-time All-Star “Easy” Ed Macauley to the Hawks in exchange for the second pick, which Auerbach used to draft Russell. One testament to Russell’s greatness is that the Hawks acquired an in-his-prime future Hall of Famer in exchange for him and still managed to be on the wrong side of one of the worst trades in NBA history.
A few weeks back a podcaster with a degree from Duke named J.J. Redick ruffled some feathers when (in a conversation about Russell’s former teammate Bob Cousy, incidentally) he derided players of the 1950s and 1960s as “plumbers and firemen.” It was a dumb thing to say, but if you watch video of the NBA from the era in question it’s clear that the game has changed a lot between then and now, and that there are certainly plenty of players on the court who, shall we say, would struggle to adapt to certain facets of the modern game.
You need only watch a few seconds of Bill Russell highlights to know that he was absolutely not one of those players. If anything Russell was vastly ahead of his time, a freakishly athletic, punishingly intense, shot-smothering and rebound-gobbling marvel of a basketball player. Watching a young Russell is a little like watching Giannis Antetokounmpo get dropped into a late-1950s NBA game, only if Giannis’ own formidable basketball intelligence was exponentially more prodigious. When I was growing up in the Boston area, decades after Russell had retired, rumors still circulated that, in his prime, Russell boasted a 48-inch standing vertical leap. I don’t know if that is true, but Russell was an Olympic-caliber high-jumper in college, once winning the West Coast Relays with a jump of 6 feet, 9 ¼ inches, just ¾ inches shorter than his own listed height. This is mindboggling to think about.