Bill Russell’s Oakland roots helped him stand tall in Boston

Bill Russell, who died at the age of 88 on Sunday, said it was his days in Oakland that prepared him for all that came his way to become the biggest winner in American sports.

The people who encountered him as a student at McLemonds High School in West Oakland in the early 1950s set him on the road to success.

“We inspired each other,” he said in a 2007 interview with this news organization. “Frankly, I think if I hadn’t gone to McLemonds, I wouldn’t be (who I am) today.”

Beginning his career at the University of San Francisco, Russell transformed basketball with his brutal defensive game. Fast and smart at 6-foot-9, he elevated shot blocking to an art form, prompting college officials to establish goal-prone rules after his junior season.

John Wooden, the late UCLA coaching legend, called Russell “the greatest defensive man I’ve ever seen”.

“Russell single-handedly revolutionized the game because he made defense so important,” said Rad Auerbach, his coach with the Celtics.

Even Wilt Chamberlain, who died in 1999 at the age of 63, credited Russell with improving his game, though he rarely came out on top when his teams met in the NBA playoffs.

“Bill Russell helped make my dream a better dream because when you play with the best, you know you have to play your best,” Chamberlain said.

For nearly two decades, no one got better on the court than Russell.

He captured two NCAA championships and won 60 consecutive games in the USF. He was the leading scorer on the 1956 Olympic team, winning each game by at least 30 points to win the gold medal from Melbourne.

And he led the Celtics to 11 championships over a period of 13 seasons, the final two as player-coach, when in 1966 he became the first black coach in American professional sports.

Former Cal coach Pete Newell, who led the 1960 Olympic team and later served as general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers, said that Russell stands alone at the top of the NBA pyramid.

In a 1999 interview, Newell said, “Bill Russell probably had the biggest impact on anyone’s game, and I include Michael (Jordan) in that.” “His impact on victory and defeat was greater than anyone in the game.”

Russell was a 12-time All-Star and won five MVP awards in the NBA, with Chamberlain averaging 50.4 points in 1962 and scoring 100 runs in a single game.

“Wilt and I were not rivals. We were competitors,” Russell once said. “In a rivalry, there is one winner and one loser. He was never defeated.”

An arrogant and complex figure, Russell witnessed social injustice as a young child in his hometown of Monroe, Louisiana. And he experienced it in Boston, where he was the city’s first black sports star.

His home in the Boston suburbs was ransacked, with a racial adjective spray-painted on the walls. Recalling the verbal abuse and threatening letters, Russell called Boston “a flea market of racism” in his 1979 book, “Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man.”

His former teammate Tom Heinsohn, who is white, admitted that Russell felt animosity towards Boston. “And they were well-established animosity,” he said.

Russell was more than a spectator in the civil rights movement, participated in the 1963 March on Washington, participated in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the National Mall, and defended Muhammad Ali’s stance against the Vietnam War.

“Having a true impact of positive change in the world often means standing up to injustice and fighting adversity,” he said after sharing Sports Illustrated’s Muhammad Ali Legacy Award with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jim Brown.

Russell remained a voice fighting social injustice till the end.

In August 2020, in response to Kenosha, Wisconsin NBA players being kicked out of a playoff game, a policeman shot Jacob Blake, a black man, seven times from behind, Russell spoke of on Twitter.

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