If I think of Bill Russell, my mind inevitably travels to the words of Sir Isaac Newton “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Russell is not only the cornerstone of the Boston Celtics dynasty but the redefinition of the sport, the center position, and the defense.
The list of accomplishments Bill Russell accrued over his 13-year-career is imposing. There is no NBA superstar with a matching record, and most likely, there will never be one as great as the greatest of all time.
The Celtics center won 11 NBA Championships, two as a player-coach. He was the first black head coach in the NBA.
He was a true hero on and off the court. In 2011, former President Barack Obama honored Russell with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his civil rights efforts. His advocacy for inclusion, respect, and equality paved the road for all who came after him, values that are still tangible in the league.
Russell was named five times Most Valuable Player and was the first Black player to reach NBA superstar status. From 1958-1969, he was an NBA-All-Star 12 times and the All-Star Game MVP award in 1963.
I’ve broken down the reasons behind the Celtics’ elevated game style while Russell wore jersey number six:
Bill Russell’s Brilliant Defense
In Bill Russell’s time on the court, the NBA was not overly obsessed with stats, so we might have trouble measuring Russell’s defensive greatness. However, it was all recorded on film, through biographies, and interviews.
Russell redefined the defensive game by blocking shots. Back then, centers were encouraged to stay flat-fleeted, but Russell didn’t listen to that strategy. He made shot-blocking and rebounding an art, this was Russell’s blueprint: anticipation and timing.
The Celtics’ defense improved from the third worst in the league to the best in their dynasty throughout the 1960s.
In an interview for SportsIllustrated in 1963, Russell stated “The psychology in defense is not blocking a shot or stealing a pass or getting the ball away. The psychology is to make the offensive team deviate from their normal habits. This is a game of habits, and the player with the most consistent habits is the best. What I try to do on defense is to make the offensive man do not what he wants but what I want.”
His mind games and basketball psychology, undoubtedly, point out he had a high basketball IQ. In defense, Bill Russell not only master the art of blocking shots but rebounding as well.
Bill Russell: Four-Time Rebounding Champion
Bill Russell was a four-time rebounding champion who ranks second in the NBA All-Time Leaders with 21,620 rebounds. From 1957 to 1967, Russell averaged at least 21.0 rebounds per game for 10 straight seasons. He was regarded as the best NBA Defensive Player.
According to StatMuse, Bill Russell is the only player in the NBA with the most rebounds per minute all-time: .53 positioning him as the only player in NBA history to average .5 or higher.
In 1960, Russell broke his previous record of most rebounds in a single game (49) with 51 versus the Syracuse Nationals. On top of that, he scored 23 points contributing to the Celtics’ win 124-100 win.
Russell’s play was not only intellectually intelligent as he knew the game remarkably well to create his own strategy. He was also emotionally bright. Russell had the capacity to identify his own strengths and weaknesses, as well as his teammates, and that was his fuel.
In Russell’s words “The most important measure of how good a game I played was how much better I’d made my teammates play”.
But…Why Were the Celtics Far and Beyond Everyone Else?
This article would be far to be finished without discussing the greatest rivalry in the NBA: Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell. Their story holds key aspects that demonstrate the superiority of the Celtics in the Bill Russell era.
Chamberlain was a much better player statistically and in regular-season games, however, Russell was all about winning finals and championships. To say the least, Wilt holds only two championships versus Russell’s eleven victories.
In 1960, they met in the Eastern Finals, Boston led 4-2 winning over the Warriors. Russell averaged 25 points and 25 rebounds, Wilt was not far behind averaging 26 points and 24 rebounds.
Two years later, they met again. Boston was crowned champion of the Eastern Divison. Chamberlain scored 22 points contributing to a dramatic final score of 109-107.
They had their first encounter in the NBA Finals in 1964 which was also the first time for the Boston Celtics and the Golden State Warriors to play in the NBA finals. Boston won the series over the Warriors 4-1, the Celtics became the only basketball franchise to win six consecutive championships.
During 18 playoffs games between Warriors and Celtics, Chamberlain averaged 31 points and 27 rebounds while Russell averaged 18 points and 25 rebounds. However, Boston won 12 out 18 meetings.
Bill Russell revolutionized the game of basketball, he is the OG champion. We can’t talk about the Celtics or basketball without going through his archives.
He impacted the lives of many NBA athletes through his career and will continue to be a role model for the younger generations…in and off the court.