Spencer Heywood remembers meeting Bill Russell when the Celtics played against the Pistons in Detroit, before he played as a forward with the Sonics, and before he formed a life-long friendship with the legend.
Russell was basketball’s greatest player at the time, and Haywood’s high-school coach, Will Robinson, wanted him to see the man who, more than anyone in the history of the game, results in a game with his defense and rebounding alone. can determine.
Heywood was impressed by Russell’s skills on the court, but what stood out to him was his style and his flair: his fabulous clothes, his debonair top hat, and—of course—his goatee.
“I couldn’t wait to develop one of those,” Heywood said on Sunday. “That’s what I did for the first time on my way to the Olympics. And I was blocking every shot that came, telling myself “I’m Bill Russell!”
Russell passed away on Sunday morning at the age of 88 of unknown causes, leaving a void in the basketball universe. The longtime Mercer Island resident won a record 11 NBA championships in a 13-year span with the Celtics – two of them as player coaches – before serving as coach of the Sonics and Kings.
Often hailed as the greatest winner in team sports history, Kendra’s résumé includes two NCAA championships with the University of San Francisco and an Olympic gold medal in 1956. He was also prominent in many civil rights causes, which inspired many. Heywood than wants to be like him.
“Bill Russell was my idol. I watched him on and off the court,” Magic Johnson tweeted Sunday. “His success on the court was undeniable; he was impressive and great, winning 11 NBA championships. Off the court, Bill Russell followed me Like paved the way for people.
Russell was famous for never giving autographs. Instead, he would offer to have a cup of coffee or a conversation with someone who came and looked for his John Hancock. How could any fan of basketball or life in general turn down that opportunity? It was a chance to gain real-time insight into one of the greatest minds to ever grace the world of sports.
Despite averaging 15.1 points per game for his career and never logging more than 18.9 for a season, the man dominated his era like no other player. But he pulled off an incredible 22.5 rebounds per game in his career – second only to Wilt Chamberlain – and if he had recorded blocked shots while playing, he would likely have been the all-time leader.
Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist Jim Murray talks about how, when he worked for Sports Illustrated, he would push Russell to be on the cover of the magazine during his time at USF. His editor asked “Why? I’m looking at the box score and the guy only had six points. To which Murray replied: “Yeah, but did you notice the other team only had 42?”
Russell’s NBA teammates certainly noticed, voted Russell League MVP five times—once more than Chamberlain’s—despite Wilt’s staggering offensive stats. Celtics coach and general manager Rad Auerbach also looked on, eventually signing Russell to an annual contract worth $100,001 – $1 more than Chamberlain. Considering that none of the players in the four most popular American sports leagues have ever won as many titles as a Louisiana native, this was money well spent.
Of course, Russell’s post-Celtics coaching career was nothing short of exemplary. In four years with the Sonics, he finished with a record of 162–166 – then went 17–41 11 years later with Sacramento.
Heywood, who played for him at the time, said that if Seattle lost 127–126 the previous night, Russell would see the team run 127 laps before practice began. Not everyone was a fan.
“He was doing all this stuff like it was fun, but a lot of people just didn’t get it,” Heywood said. “I was raised by a coach, so I was like ‘Hey, that’s cool,’ but it wasn’t like that for other people.”
Heywood, however, doesn’t remember most of his time playing for Russell. His most prominent memories are from when he and his coach would go out to dinner late at 13 Coins, and Russell would hear about the racial discrimination he and fellow Black athletes would face during their playing days. He will then discuss the steps he will take to try and instigate change—whether it’s marching with Martin Luther King Jr. in D.C. or standing by Muhammad Ali after he refused to be drafted during the Vietnam War.
NBA Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens has similar memories. Wilkens took over coaching the Sonics shortly after Russell left, and led them to their only championship in 1979. Wilkens mentioned how fun it was to compete against Russell when the two were playing. He saw how the Bills and the rest of the Celtics complemented each other and tried to incorporate that harmony into his coaching style. But when asked how Russell impressed him the most, Wilkens went beyond basketball.
“He wasn’t afraid to speak up,” Wilkens said. “He expressed his opinion, he stood up for the players – he was an incredible man.”
Right now, a lot of people are speaking out and expressing their opinions about Bill Russell. And like Wilkens, everyone is saying how incredible he was.
Basketball will never see another winner like him. Some might say it will never see a man like him.