On a fine American morning, Charles Russell was waiting to fill gas for his inexpensively priced family car. To avoid the queue at the gas station, Russell arrived there around 2 hours before peak hours to get done with this errand. Having been first in the line, he, however, was refused service by the white staff. An ordeal awaited him – Charles Russell watched as other white Americans fill their tanks for four hours.
He couldn’t complain. The destiny of African Americans was no better than being segregated, often suffering intense public humiliation. When Charles Russell offered to leave the station, a shotgun was pointed at his head – “stay here and watch till your turn comes” – that is precisely what he was told. His son, Billy, was shocked when he heard his father’s story. His entire childhood like his father’s was spent facing such racial bias towards the Blacks.
Today, Charles Russell is no more. His son, Billy, is 78 years old. Who would’ve thought Papa Russell’s boy, William “Bill” Felton, will turn out to become the most decorated player in a North American Professional League? In the midst of such tumultuous racial upbringing, young Bill Russell motivated himself to re-write the path that nobody ever took – 11 NBA Championships, 5 Finals MVP awards and a two-time NCAA Champion. And further for coveting himself as the greatest rebounder of all time, Bill Russell rightfully earns the number three spot in my list of The Greatest Ever in NBA History.
Born in the southern conservative state of Louisiana, Bill Russell stood out amongst his friends as the abnormally tall kid. Unfortunately, his skills weren’t the best because he never watched the coverage of the game. In middle school and the earlier years of high school, big boy Bill was nearly cut from the school’s roster due to his inefficient knowledge of the game – booted out by more racial abuse.
Things only changed when George Powles, the coach of the varsity team saw how beneficial his athletic potential and growth spurt could prove to be. Moreover, this added a source of encouragement to Russell who was used to bitter abuse from a white man – something Powles helped change in Russell’s perspective. The renovated Billy now blossomed into a substantial center, often blocking 10-15 shots in a game. Teams preferred to shoot from the three pointers, knowing Russell awaited them in the paint where they stood not much of a chance.
In spite of being a low post threat, college offers weren’t pouring in as coaches asserted that Russell’s offensive prowess wasn’t up to par with college standards. He wasn’t a prolific scorer, just a defensive machine. Soon, his fortunes changed when University of San Francisco’s head coach, Hal DeJulio spotted his potential in clutch situations where his defense shut out the best of shooters. Coach DeJulio offered Russell a scholarship, which the youngster keenly accepting it. Rising from poverty and an undignified childhood, Russell was finally hogging the limelight of a college recruit. “Fortune favors the brave” – never has been truer.
To breeze through Russell’s college achievements at San Francisco, he won the NCAA tournament in 1955 and ’56, won Player of the Tournament in 1955, averaged 20.3 points and an astounding 20.7 rebounds a game. This earned Russell appreciation from UCLA’s venerated coach John Wooden who described Russell as the greatest defensive player he’s ever seen. Russell also competed in Track & Field events for USF where his proficiency in high jump ranked him amongst the best in the nation. His athletic caliber carried onto his form on the court where he could last an entire game without being subbed, at the same time not losing any stamina.
Initially after graduation, Bill Russell wanted to wear the colors of the famed Harlem Globetrotters but a fallout with the owner, forced him to make himself eligible for the 1956 NBA Draft. After a number of on-draft trades, the Boston Celtics landed Bill Russell along with two future Hall of Famers: K. C. Jones and Tom Heinsohn. Thus began the storied journey of the Celtics and Bill Russell.
Under Red Auerbach at Boston, Russell illuminated the Garden with him piling up 21,620 rebounds – an unheard of stat. His rookie season at the Garden was anything but short of spectacular. In the NBA Finals of 1957, Bill Russell singlehandedly turned around Game 7 against St. Louis Hawks with the “Coleman Play”. Jack Coleman was clear to hit an open jump shot to seal victory for the Hawks but for Russell’s acrobatic maneuver block from baseline to midcourt. Celtics would go onto edge the game by 2 points, thereby winning their first championship.
For the next 12 years, Bill Russell would go onto script his name in history books, winning 10 more championships. After 13 illustrious seasons with the Massachusetts franchise, Russell’s numbers were phenomenal: 11 NBA Championships, Olympic Gold Medal, dominance over Wilt Chamberlain, 15.1 PPG, 22.5 RPG, 4.3 APG (a center assisting 5 times a game – unbelievable!) and possibly 10 BPG (blocks weren’t counted during those days). In decisive Game 7s, Russell averaged a stellar 29.3 RPG and 18.6 PPG – evidence of why he remains one of the most convincing performers at clutch situations.
Victories didn’t stop Bill Russell from being racially abused; he was severely lashed with racist slurs throughout his career. A champion on court, Russell struggled to establish firm connections with the media and fans. After his last game in 1969, Russell quit the Boston franchise and wasn’t present at the victory parade. He blamed the public for not being supportive during his fight against racism, glory hunting his championships and refuted if he owed the fans anything. Neither was he present at the Celtics’ commemoration function to officially retire his jersey. He believed the torturous actions aimed at African Americans hadn’t changed and deciding to live in exigency due to financial trouble and hatred at the media, he eloped from the limelight. To cover up his monetary laments, he resorted to publishing books and motivational speaking. The game of basketball lost its first colored dandy for a long time, till he came back to the game in late 1990s.
At the turn of the millennium, Bill Russell was back in the fray. He played a crucial role in settling the hyped Kobe-Shaq feud and became an advocate of professionalism in sports. In 2006, he was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame’s founding class, and in 2009, NBA commissioner David Stern renamed the Finals’ MVP award in his honor. To cap everything, in 2011, Bill Russell was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama, citing his contribution towards bettering societal relations amongst people of different backgrounds.
After Russell, then came the victors of the NBA named Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan but what remains apodictic is the man’s influence on changing the way the game of basketball was approached with on and off the court. Bill Russell may not be governing the courts no more; however, his voice remains a focal point in inspiring the younger generation to take up the game of basketball for the right reasons. The man of 7 feet conquered heights immeasurable with a drive unforeseen – till day; he remains the most salient warrior in the battle fields of the NBA.