In one remarkable moment, all the elements of Bill Russell’s illustrious life were gathered together. And in that moment, the most accomplished team athlete in the history of the sport was silenced by emotion.
It was the evening of May 5, 1969, a Monday night in Inglewood, Calif. Inside the guest dressing room at Fabulous Forum, an ABC-TV broadcaster named Jack Tweeman stood in an already champagne-soaked room, where the Boston Celtics celebrated their 108–106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Were were
As the camera’s red light clicked, Tweeman stood close to Bill Russell.
“Bill,” said Tweeman, “that must have been a big win for you.”
Russell’s smile widened for a second.
Then the smile disappeared. Russell rubbed the top of his head, and then covered his face as tears rolled down his eyes. He took a deep breath, tried to speak, couldn’t speak. Twyman, who had seen Russell’s many seasons as a player at the hands of the Celtics, put his hand around his old opponent’s shoulder. “I know it’s hard to say what’s on your mind, Bill…”
and it was. That night was the culmination of many things that made Russell the most prominent figure in the history of professional basketball. He had only scored six points that night, but he scored 21 rebounds, and he set up enough to secure the Celtics’ 11th championship in 13 years, with Jon Havlisek and Sam Jones. he was the one.
He got there, as it seemed he had always done, by outfoxing his ever-present rival, Wilt Chamberlain, who had outsold him to 12 and outsmarted him to six, yet for the seventh time, Russell did. The Chamberlain team was defeated. How to win the championship. And this time he watched with equally shock and anger as Chamberlain pulled himself out of the game in the fourth quarter, bending his knee.
“Wilt is cop out,” Russell would say a few months later, his voice dripping with contempt. “Any injury to a broken leg or a broken back is never good enough.”
Forcing Chamberlain to tap out again. He was two.
But as Russell spoke to Tweeman, it just wasn’t the same as the Celtics’ star center. He was also their coach—the first African-American head coach in the history of American professional sports when he was named player-coach in 1966, nine years before Frank Robinson broke the color ceiling in baseball, Art. Worked for Shell 23 years ago. in football. For a man who survived Boston’s harsh racial ties during the ’60s, that was number three.
Russell died Sunday afternoon at the age of 88, and it marked the end not only of a great American life but of a respected American sporting ideal. For Russell, the fact that Chamberlain broke records—and made twice as many NBA teams as he did—was always beside the point. For him, winning was not just something that sounded good in a bite. It was an essential chromosome. This allowed him to breathe.
“Every ounce of him burned to win,” his old teammate Bob Cousy said in 2018. He did not care for personal glory, did not spend a moment thinking about it. Everything was team. Team, team, team.”
Such was the case at the University of San Francisco in college, where he led the Dons 57-1 in back-to-back championships in 1955 and ’56. Such was the case during the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, where he averaged 99–52 to lead the US to seven victories. And it was so in Boston. Eleven titles in 13 years. It still doesn’t feel real.
But Russell, he was real. He was tough. He had an infectious laugh that was a no-nonsense but he was a serious man – about basketball, about civil rights, about justice. He didn’t have to bear any fool. And he wasn’t above mind games, especially when it comes to basketball. He once hosted four straight Thanksgiving dinners to Chamberlain, cultivating a friendship that many of Wilt’s other friends were convinced was designed solely to soften him.
When Chamberlain became the NBA’s first $100,000 player in 1965, Russell visited the Celtics’ offices and demanded his own salary: $100,001.
That was Russell. He wanted to pay because of the victory. He wanted to be happy because of the victory. And he wanted to be remembered because of the victory. He will be. We use the word “great” a lot in sports. Sometimes it is exaggerated.
With Russell, it was simply fact. The way he won, no one ever won. He was great.
He really was the greatest.