Russell playing for the Celtics.
|Born||February 12, 1934|
West Monroe, Louisiana
|Listed height||6 ft 9 in (2.07 m)|
|Listed weight||225 lbs (102 kg)|
|College||San Francisco (1953–1956)|
|NBA Draft||1956 / Round: 1 / Pick: 2|
|Selected by the St. Louis Hawks|
|Playing career||1956–1969 (13 years)|
|Career highlights and awards|
Bill William Felton Russell (born February 12, 1934) is a American retired professional basketball player who played center for the Boston Celtics of the National Basketball Association (NBA) from 1956 to 1969.
A five-time NBA Most Valuable Player and a 12-time All-Star, he was a core piece of the Celtics dynasty that won eleven NBA championships during his 13-year career. Russell and Henri Richard of the National Hockey League are tied for the record of the most championships won by an athlete in a North American sports league. Russell led the San Francisco Dons to two consecutive NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956, and he captained the gold-medal winning U.S. national basketball team at the 1956 Summer Olympics.
Even though Russell never averaged more than 19.0 points per game or shot as much as 47 percent in any season in an offense-friendly era, many regard him to be among the greatest basketball players of all time. He is 6 ft 10 in (2.08 m) tall, with a 7 ft 4 in (2.24 m) wingspan. His shot-blocking and man-to-man defense were major reasons for the Celtics' domination of the NBA during his career. Russell was equally notable for his rebounding abilities. He led the NBA in rebounds four times, had a dozen consecutive seasons of 1,000 or more rebounds, and remains second all-time in both total rebounds and rebounds per game. He is one of just two NBA players (the other being prominent rival Wilt Chamberlain) to have grabbed more than 50 rebounds in a game.
Russell played in the wake of black pioneers Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper, and Sweetwater Clifton, and he was the first black player to achieve superstar status in the NBA. He also served a three-season (1966–69) stint as player-coach for the Celtics, becoming the first black coach in North American professional sports and the first to win a championship. In 2011, Barack Obama awarded Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his accomplishments on the court and in the Civil Rights Movement.
Russell is one of seven players in history to win an NCAA Championship, an NBA Championship, and an Olympic gold medal. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. He was selected into the NBA 25th Anniversary Team in 1971 and the NBA 35th Anniversary Team in 1980, and named as one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History in 1996, one of only four players to receive all three honors. In 2007, he was enshrined in the FIBA Hall of Fame. In Russell's honor the NBA renamed the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player trophy in 2009: it is now the Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award.
Bill Russell was born to Charles and Katie Russell in West Monroe, Louisiana. West Monroe was strictly segregated, and the Russells often struggled with racism. Once, Russell's father was refused service at a gasoline station until the staff had taken care of all the white customers. When his father attempted to leave and find a different station, the attendant stuck a shotgun in his face, threatening to kill him unless he stayed and waited his turn. At another time, Russell's mother was walking outside in a fancy dress when a policeman accosted her. He told her to go home and remove the dress, which he described as "white woman's clothing". Because large numbers of blacks were moving to Oakland, California during WWII to look for work there, Russell's father moved the family out of Louisiana when Russell was eight years old and settled them in Oakland. While there the family fell into poverty, and Russell spent his childhood living in a series of project homes.
Charlie Russell is described as a "stern, hard man" who was initially a janitor in a paper factory (a typical low paid, intellectually unchallenging "Negro Job", as sports journalist John Taylor commented), but later became a trucker when World War II broke out. Being closer to his mother Katie than to his father, Russell received a major emotional blow when she suddenly died when he was 12. His father gave up his trucking job and became a steel worker to be closer to his semi-orphaned children. Russell has stated that his father became his childhood hero, later followed up by Minneapolis Lakers superstar George "Mr. Basketball" Mikan, whom he met when he was in high school.
In his early years, Russell struggled to develop his skills as a basketball player. Although Russell was a good runner and jumper and had extremely large hands, he simply did not understand the game and was cut from the team in junior high school. As a sophomore at McClymonds High School, Russell was almost cut again. However, coach George Powles saw Russell's raw athletic potential and encouraged him to work on his fundamentals. Russell, who was used to racist abuse, was delighted by the warm words of his white coach. He worked hard and used the benefits of a growth spurt to become a decent basketball player, but it was not until his junior and senior years that he began to excel. Russell soon became noted for his unusual style of defense. He later recalled, "To play good defense ... it was told back then that you had to stay flatfooted at all times to react quickly. When I started to jump to make defensive plays and to block shots, I was initially corrected, but I stuck with it, and it paid off." One of Russell's high school basketball teammates was Frank Robinson.
Russell was ignored by college recruiters and did not receive a single letter of interest until Hal DeJulio from the University of San Francisco (USF) watched him in a high school game. DeJulio was not impressed by Russell's meager scoring and "atrocious fundamentals", but sensed that the young center had an extraordinary instinct for the game, especially in clutch situations. When DeJulio offered Russell a scholarship, the latter eagerly accepted. Sports journalist John Taylor described it as a watershed in Russell's life, because Russell realized that basketball was his one chance to escape poverty and racism; as a consequence, Russell swore to make the best of it.
At USF, Russell became the new starting center for coach Phil Woolpert. Woolpert emphasized defense and deliberate half-court play, concepts that favored defensive standout Russell. Woolpert was unaffected by issues of skin color. In 1954, he became the first coach of a major college basketball squad to start three African American players: Russell, K.C. Jones and Hal Perry. In his USF years, Russell used his relative lack of bulk to develop a unique style of defense: instead of purely guarding the opposing center, he used his quickness and speed to play help defense against opposing forwards and aggressively challenge their shots. Combining the stature and shot-blocking skills of a center with the foot speed of a guard, Russell became the centerpiece of a USF team that soon became a force in college basketball. After USF kept Holy Cross star Tom Heinsohn scoreless in an entire half, Sports Illustrated wrote, "If [Russell] ever learns to hit the basket, they're going to have to rewrite the rules."
However, the games were often difficult for the USF squad. Russell and his African American teammates became targets of racist jeers, particularly on the road. In one notable incident, hotels in Oklahoma City refused to admit Russell and his black teammates while they were in town for the 1954 All-College Tournament. In protest, the whole team decided to camp out in a closed college dorm, which was later called an important bonding experience for the group. Decades later, Russell explained that his experiences hardened him against abuse of all kinds. "I never permitted myself to be a victim," he said.
Racism also shaped his lifelong paradigm as a team player. "At that time," he has said, "it was never acceptable that a black player was the best. That did not happen ... My junior year in college, I had what I thought was the one of the best college seasons ever. We won 28 out of 29 games. We won the National Championship. I was the MVP at the Final Four. I was first team All American. I averaged over 20 points and over 20 rebounds, and I was the only guy in college blocking shots. So after the season was over, they had a Northern California banquet, and they picked another center as Player of the Year in Northern California. Well, that let me know that if I were to accept these as the final judges of my career I would die a bitter old man." So he made a conscious decision, he said, to put the team first and foremost, and not worry about individual achievements.
On the hardwood, his experiences were far more pleasant. Russell led USF to NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956, including a string of 55 consecutive victories. He became known for his strong defense and shot-blocking skills, once denying 13 shots in a game. UCLA coach John Wooden called Russell "the greatest defensive man I've ever seen". During his college career, Russell averaged 20.7 points per game and 20.3 rebounds per game. Besides basketball, Russell represented USF in track and field events. He competed in the 440 yards (400 m) race, which he could complete in 49.6 seconds. He also participated in the high jump; Track & Field News ranked him as the seventh-best high jumper in the world in 1956. That year, Russell won high jump titles at the Central California AAU meet, the Pacific AAU meet, and the West Coast Relays. One of his highest jumps occurred at the West Coast Relays, where he achieved a mark of 6 feet 9 1⁄4 inches (2.064 m).
After his years at USF, the Harlem Globetrotters invited Russell to join their exhibition basketball squad. Russell, who was sensitive to any racial prejudice, was enraged by the fact that owner Abe Saperstein would only discuss the matter with Woolpert. While Saperstein spoke to Woolpert in a meeting, Globetrotters assistant coach Harry Hanna tried to entertain Russell with jokes. The USF center was livid after this snub and declined the offer: he reasoned that if Saperstein was too smart to speak with him, then he was too smart to play for Saperstein. Instead, Russell made himself eligible for the 1956 NBA Draft.
In the 1956 NBA Draft, Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach had set his sights on Russell, thinking his defensive toughness and rebounding prowess were the missing pieces the Celtics needed. In perspective, Auerbach's thoughts were unorthodox. In that period, centers and forwards were defined by their offensive output, and their ability to play defense was secondary. However, Boston's chances of getting Russell seemed slim. Because the Celtics had finished second in the previous season and the worst teams had the highest draft picks, the Celtics had slipped too low in the draft order to pick Russell. In addition, Auerbach had already used his territorial pick to acquire talented forward Tom Heinsohn. But Auerbach knew that the Rochester Royals, who owned the first draft pick, already had a skilled rebounder in Maurice Stokes, were looking for an outside shooting guard and were unwilling to pay Russell the $25,000 signing bonus he requested. The St. Louis Hawks, who owned the second pick, originally drafted Russell, but were vying for Celtics center Ed Macauley, a six-time All-Star who had roots in St. Louis. Auerbach agreed to trade Macauley, who had previously asked to be traded to St. Louis in order to be with his sick son, if the Hawks gave up Russell. However, the owner of St Louis called Auerbach later and demanded more in the trade. Not only did he want Macauley, who was the Celtics premier player at the time, he wanted Cliff Hagan, who had been serving in the military for three years and had not yet played for the Celtics. After much debate, Auerbach agreed to give up Hagan, and the Hawks made the trade. During that same draft, Boston also claimed guard K.C. Jones, Russell's former USF teammate. Thus, in one night, the Celtics managed to draft three future Hall of Famers: Russell, K.C. Jones and Heinsohn. The Russell draft-day trade was later called one of the most important trades in the history of North American sports.
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