Honoring Bill Russell

THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco - The Philippine Star

“His name is Bill Russell and if he ever learns to hit the basket someone is going to have to revise the rules.” – Roy Terrell, Sports Illustrated, Jan. 9, 1956

The National Basketball Association and National Basketball Players Association announced that the league will retire the jersey No. 6 league-wide in honor of the late Bill Russell. This is an incredibly rare honor. In 1997, Major League Baseball retired the No. 42 in remembrance of Jackie Robinson, who broke racial barriers with hard work, integrity and persistence. In the year 2000, the National Hockey League likewise retired Wayne Gretzky’s No. 99, even as the Edmonton Oilers and Los Angeles Kings (the teams The Great One played for) did the same.

What made Bill Russell so special? In many ways, he was the first African-American basketball superstar. From the University of San Francisco (where he played with future Boston Celtics teammate KC Jones), Bill learned that the sport was his way out of poverty and against racism. A center at only 6’10”, he used his quickness and shot-blocking to derail other teams’ offenses, hence the quote above. He was part of the first US NCAA team to start three African-American players, and won two titles and Most Outstanding Player. In 1956, he also won an Olympic gold medal. Leading into his junior year, the NCAA widened the lane in the hope of diminishing his dominance. After he graduated, they prohibited basket interference, as well.

Russell joined the Celtics that year as the second overall pick (from St. Louis). In one of his first games, he blocked a shot, and a referee blew his whistle. Not knowing what infraction to call, he admitted that he had never seen that before. Anchored on Russell’s incredible defense, Boston tore through the league, winning 11 championships in his 13 seasons in the league, including eight in a row. He spent the last three of those years as playing coach before coaching two other teams after hanging up his jersey.

But what really set him apart were his duels with Wilt Chamberlain, the most dominant offensive player in basketball history. The Big Dipper was 7’1” and weighed 275, heavier than Russell by at least 50 pounds. The closest approximation would be the times skinny Dennis Rodman would frustrate a young Shaquille O’Neal. Russell more than held his own against the NBA’s Goliath, and Red Auerbach ensured that he would be paid more, as well. The two are the only players to ever pull down at least 50 rebounds in one game. He was the consummate winner, sacrificing his offense (15.1 points per game career average) for defense and intangibles (22.5 rebounds per game). His rebounding stats (like 32 in one half) are still mind-blowing.

Russell was the first of only four players to win NCAA and NBA titles back to back, won five MVP awards, but would have won more since the award was only instituted in 1969. He was a 12-time All-Star and Defensive Player of the Year. In 1980, the Captain was declared the “Greatest Player in the History of the NBA” by the Professional Basketball Writers Association of America. In 2009, the NBA named the Finals MVP trophy after him. He is also a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

More than that, he constantly fought for equal rights and athletes’ rights. He inspired underdog athletes everywhere that they could face giants and win. He taught the world that rebounding and defense made one a champion. He made everyone around him a winner. No discussion about the greatest of all time – in any sport – would be complete without him.

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