Celtics

A Tribute to the Unparalleled Bill Russell

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Heartbreaking.

That’s the best way to describe the loss of Bill Russell to the NBA community, the basketball world, and all those who knew him.

Russell passed away peacefully at the age of 88. Arrangements for a memorial service are expected to be announced soon.

Commissioner Adam Silver, past and current players, and former president Barack Obama all mourned the loss:

The NBA is entering a different era, one where the stars of the league’s early past are moving to a new life beyond Earth. John Havlicek passed away in 2019. Tom Heinsohn died from kidney failure in 2020. Sam Jones and Elgin Baylor both died in 2021. 

Now, the basketball world lost another basketball pioneer and innovator.

As someone who has an enthusiastic passion for NBA history, it’s incredibly sad to see a legend like Russell pass away. His legacy is impressive, wildly accomplished, and unquantifiable in today’s game. But his impact off the court was equally, if not more incredible, than his dominance on the court.

Few words begin to describe the countless achievements of Russell’s NBA career. No words can explain his unselfishness, character and heart.

Russell: The NBA’s First Innovator

In league history, Bill Russell is seen by many as being part of many NBA “firsts.”

Compared to nowadays, it’s clear the league was different back in the fifties and sixties.

There was an unwritten rule back in this era where no team could own more than two Black players. The three-point line didn’t exist and dribbling was rigid. For context, the league added the 24-second shot clock two seasons before Russell entered the league.

Russell took the NBA and rose it to new heights, especially on the court.

The Celtics became the first team to develop an entire system based on maximizing a superstar’s skill set. 

Russell was arguably the best defensive player in league history. Boston took advantage of his ability as a shot-blocker, help defender and rebounder. The Celtics built their entire team on his incredible defense and consistently underrated offense.

Boston became the first NBA team to employ both fastbreaks and the run-and-gun offense. Like many superstars in today’s era, the Celtics surrounded Russell with athletes, secondary playmakers and perimeter threats.

And, you cannot overlook that Bill Russell was one of the league’s first Black stars. In a now predominantly-Black league, he (and so many other forgotten Black legends from the sixties) paved the road for a more integrated NBA. 

Simply put, Russell was a pioneer for the league.

Great Winner, Greatest Teammate

Russell’s skill sets, longevity, and innovativeness translated into the greatest dynasty in NBA history.

Between 1957 and 1969, the Celtics won the NBA title in all but two of those seasons. 11 titles in 13 seasons. Compared to other iconic dynasties, no team comes close to what the Celtics accomplished with Russell:

Famous NBA Dynasties and Their Longevity

Like with many of his accomplishments, however, Russell’s success is lost in NBA lore.

Debate has sparked in recent weeks over how to compare NBA superstars from different eras. Most notably, J.J. Redick’s “plumbers and firemen” comments have been in the headlines amidst a standstill offseason.

It’s a tragedy, but unfortunately, it’s also the reality.

The generation that grew up watching Russell is fading fast. Meanwhile, the next generation of NBA enthusiasts focuses too much on analytics, statistics and a bias toward the modern crop of superstars. There’s a reason why not many fans of the league know much about the league before 1980. 

Here’s the thing: his career is unparalleled

Russell’s postseason statistics surpassed his regular-season numbers. In today’s NBA, 11 titles in 13 seasons won’t happen again in your or anyone else’s lifetime. In the clutch, Russell was 10-0 in NBA Game 7’s and 21-0 in winner-take-all basketball games.

That’s unfathomable and unrepeatable.

Yet, the greatest thing about Russell wasn’t his basketball talent, but his unselfishness. He was a fantastic teammate, the best of the best. 

https://twitter.com/thewinningdiff1/status/1553873853968957440?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

Except, unselfishness won’t appear on any NBA stat sheet anytime soon. And that’s what made Bill Russell such a legend.

Activism and Advancement Amidst Prejudice

Russell’s character translated to his actions outside of the NBA. He paved the way for the success of the average Black athlete during a time of brutal and extreme racism

Russell was one of the most important civil rights activist athletes in American history. He marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and attended MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. He participated in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Famously, Russell led the movement before the 1964 NBA All-Star Game to advocate for better pay, a league pension plan, and the first of many benefits players now can enjoy.

On the court, he became the first Black coach in NBA history, a rarity in the mid-sixties. And he became part of the first team to start five Black players in an NBA game.

Boston was deeply segregated during Russell’s playing career. Black athletes ate and slept in separate facilities compared to their white counterparts. His house was consistently destroyed and he received constant death threats. 

There is still much work needed to create a fair, equitable society for all in the United States, but Russell helped the country in an unquantifiable and impactful way.

An Incomparable Legacy

Russell’s career will always be undervalued.

Why? Because there’s more bias towards crediting perimeter players compared to big men. In today’s game, versatile guards and forward that create their own shots are more appreciated. There isn’t much value seen in centers that play defense, run the floor, and are the team’s main hub on both ends of the court.

Additionally, defense is always more underappreciated and less flashy compared to offense. There’s a reason why many of the NBA’s best ever (Tim Duncan, Hakeem Olajuwon, etc.) are less discussed compared to flashier stars (who tend to be perimeter players).

But most importantly, you can’t forget the discredit many fans now have toward less “modern” players.

Russell’s passing comes at a time when today’s generation is already forgetting the efforts of NBA legends from the past. Many will nitpick his inflated rebounding numbers, inefficient scoring and competition without understanding the historical context of the league at the time.

Yet without Russell’s impact on and off the court, the league wouldn’t be the same. And that’s without including his efforts to advocate for freedom and equity for all.

Only a handful of basketball fans were old enough to grow up watching Russell dominate the hardwood. Few are still alive to bear witness to the greatest professional sports dynasty that ever graced any field or court. And almost none can recognize the true value he had as a basketball player, friend and human.

Years down the road, I hope more fans will become more appreciative of Russell. 

Then again, this piece just scratches the surface of what he accomplished and his importance in league history. No TV discussion, podcast or article can possibly give enough credit to what Bill Russell did during his life.

To be honest, I don’t think anything can.

About Dominic Chiappone

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