Calling William Felton Russell the greatest winner in the history of American sports is not enough because it would be too limiting.
It’s also not enough to call Russell one of the seminal figures of the civil rights movement, although that would feel more accurate.
It is not enough to define Russell in any box, because the sports world as we know it does not know a world without Bill Russell. Russell passed away peacefully at the age of 88, his family said on Sunday afternoon. He was fully admired and valued, perhaps while being overlooked in the pantheon of individual talent the NBA has seen.
The numbers will not fully contextualize the man, nor the rings that adorned his worn and abused fingers. But winning is as much a part of Russell’s story as the town where he played and started Celtic Pride, even if the town only loved him for 48 minutes at a time and tolerated him at best in civilian clothes.
Russell had no illusions about where he was playing or what country he was living in. While he certainly spoke with clarity and emphasis during the civil rights movement in the liberal enclave of Boston, Russell knew it was a battle being fought upstream, often with citizens of Boston degrading his property with the most heinous acts and likely hiding behind their cheers for hide the Celtics.
Uncompromisingly black and forward-thinking, Russell likely got a city to look at itself, forcing Boston to blame itself for what it told its visitors and the cold reality that people lived without the protection of the Celtics franchise awaited.
It didn’t seem like the city loved what was thrown back at itself by images of the Celtics team in the 1960s, even when the Celtics dominated the NBA and Russell gave that to his direct opponent — a guy named Wilt Chamberlain seemed blues.
The beauty in Russell goes far beyond winning and its own symbolism. There is no separation between the artist and his art and his humanity, a common exercise in cognitive dissonance practiced today to preserve our views on current stars.
The man and the athlete stood erect. He was dangerous, “woke” – challenging anyone to challenge their consciousness, their boots-on-the-ground stripes, or their authenticity. Russell was as menacing during the 1967 Cleveland Summit while waiting for ambitious drivers as he was for the establishment. Russell, Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, among others, came together to voice their support for Muhammad Ali’s refusal to serve in the military during the Vietnam War.
They answered questions from the media and spoke the truth to those in power to defend a then-young Ali and his decision not to serve in an unpopular war. History certainly helped them, but the risks were enormous. Russell was 34 then and already knew how ugly a nation and a city can be.
His size off the ground didn’t hide what he was doing on it – oh, the basketball was undeniably exceptional.
You almost have to close your eyes to imagine his dominance. The NBA’s archival footage wasn’t as sophisticated as the NFL’s back then, so stills can tell Russell’s presence – the only thing that really stands out is that infectious laugh and distinctive voice.
Chamberlain’s numbers are so outrageous compared to Russell’s that they almost eclipse him as an individual. But from Russell’s arrival in 1956-57 to his last season in 1968-69, the Celtics had the best defense in the league and captured all the championship rings they didn’t previously have.
Russell has played with countless Hall of Famers, but all pointed to his amazing ability to uplift everyone he played with. Russell allows his teammates to be the best version of themselves without commanding the ball or attention, and the fame feels similar to Tom Brady being the one-man stimulus pack – something to watch around to believe it.
It’s very easy to dismiss pre-merger basketball as the competition is divided at a point where the ABA takes their share of talent and lack of information and sophistication for their time. But can anyone imagine Russell with today’s training methods, rest and recovery, and even travel accommodations? Whether an Olympic athlete could translate with a ridiculous long jump in any era would be little question.
They have repeatedly played the best competition with so few teams in the NBA. Unable to take nights off, Russell routinely hosted Chamberlain at Thanksgiving dinners and then a night later had to defend the man who had such a pronounced advantage of scale, and hopefully flatter Chamberlain with some hospitality beforehand.
Russell would not be played from the ground with small ball lineups; He would harass point guards and wings alike on switches while still coming back to scare anything on the edge. Blocked shots weren’t even a statistic until Russell quit, but he launched the quick break and batted the ball down to clean things up when one of his teammates missed the goal.
Russell was Batman on the pitch and Bruce Wayne next to, being the hero Boston didn’t deserve but got anyway. If he had access to today’s technology, Russell would have been Superman, totally illegal to consider, insensitive to pain, and jumping from foul line to foul line in a single bound.
The concentration Russell had to muster to play in Boston while knowing what his patrons really felt about his style after he stripped off the jersey had to be unimaginable. That he didn’t want any part of the city for years after his retirement highlighted the damage done to the man’s psyche. The biggest winner, unable to receive his well-deserved flowers because the city is ugly and unwilling to acknowledge what it saw when looking in the mirror, is an attribute Boston follows today.
And in the sporting context, it started with Russell.
Consider how Boston now barks back at opposing players producing tales of abuse and place it in the volatile 1960s. Playing with vigor and dignity, Russell certainly angered those who would claim that Boston was the image of progressiveness and integrity.
Someone broke into Russell’s home and spilled feces all over the man’s walls and into his bed while he was under FBI surveillance for his beliefs. Shockingly, the perpetrators of this crime have never been found.
Even a teammate Russell was helping to back up, Bob Cousy, would not lend his hand or voice to succor him. The two seemed a perfect duo on the ground, the point guard and the center, but away from that they functioned like ships sailing by in the night. The resentment Russell might have for teammates, the resentment we’ve since seen for minor issues, doesn’t fester when it comes to the task at hand.
Russell had a job to do, and it manifested itself in 11 titles in 13 years, giving him a monopoly on winning. Either the Celtics won, or you had to see them to get yours, a pound of meat that few got away with.
The league honored Russell with the NBA Finals MVP trophy, and before his health started to fail he was being paraded around events, awards shows and the playoffs, bringing his laugh and famous middle finger with him.
Russell never shied away from work when it came to raising all the tides between the lines, never avoiding the reality of the times he was playing. A man with few words obscured the man who had so many thoughts and observations, the man who never let himself be swayed by any level of public opinion or culture.
His principles were his own, for only he could describe what he saw. It wasn’t for anyone else to defend or understand; He didn’t ask for a fellow sign, there was more beauty in his belief.
He wasn’t a hater of current players standing on his shoulders to make money beyond his wildest dreams, even if they never saw him play or fully appreciated him, a rarity in a sense.
Bill Russell was a man of his time, in his time and at the same time timeless.