Bill Russell: The Ultimate Winner in Any Sport

By Eric Williams
Updated: June 4, 2006

PHILADELPHIA — It was only a few years ago that I wrote a column naming the 10 greatest postseason performers in NBA history when I unsuspectingly received a surprising amount of praise from numerous editors and readers all over the country for both, its originality and ingenuity.

Now, there were several e-mails I received from readers who suggested some players that weren’t on my list like James Worthy or Willis Reed and many others, but for the most part, the mass of readers all agreed with the majority of my selections.

Having said that, I must admit that it’s really not important to me at all that readers agree with what I am writing. Expecting anything even remotely close to that would just be absolute nonsense. I realize that everyone has his or her own opinion and I certainly respect that.

My goal as a columnist is to provide enlightenment and entertainment as well as give the reader something to think about, whether they agree with it or not. Rule number one is to make the reader feel something, no matter what emotion it is.

Having said that, this column was formed because of the insensitive and idiotic comments of one of my fellow Philadelphia employees (who really got her panties in a bunch) because I selected former Boston Celtics Hall of Fame center, Bill Russell as my number one postseason performer in NBA history.

Although I am used to talking with unknowledgeable sports fans that think they know everything about every player in every sport, I was genuinely taken aback when my fellow employee made her foolish query. To quote the unnamed proofreader, she asked, “How far back did you have to go to come up with that one?”

Now, I understand that the majority of young people in the U.S. these days don’t think that anything existed in this world before they were born, but I was genuinely shocked to hear an African-American, whether male or female, over the age of 30, denounce the unbelievable efforts and accomplishments of one of this country’s foremost African-American athletic founding fathers who, coincidentally, paved the way for generations of African-Americans in a multitude of fields, to succeed at their chosen professions.

At any rate, I felt that, not only did I have to rise to Russell’s defense and defend his unmatched legacy, but educate some people about Russell in the process as well.

This feature, which is centered on Russell’s basketball career, will resoundingly support my argument for selecting Russell as the “Greatest Postseason Performer in NBA history.” Russell’s legacy was a simple mantra that every team in sports “not just basketball” has come to realize and prioritize: Defense wins championships.

Before Russell brought his spectacular defensive and shot blocking skills, to basketball, the game focused primarily on offense. Russell initiated a defensive mentality that, once again, remains the focal point of championship-quality sports at every level. Simply put, the five-time league MVP was — and still is — without a doubt, the greatest defensive center in the history of the game.

Before Russell ever set foot on the famed parquet floor for the Boston Celtics, he was a dominant collegiate player who teamed with fellow Hall of Famer, K.C. Jones to make the University of San Francisco one of college basketball’s greatest teams of its era. Russell led the Dons to 55 consecutive victories and capped his collegiate career by winning back-to-back NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956.

Those same years, Russell also earned All-America honors and was named national Player of the Year in 1956. Russell’s pro career was delayed for several months after finishing his collegiate career so he could play in the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia where he led the U.S. to an 8-0 record and the gold medal.

After arriving in Boston, thanks to a shrewd trade in which Boston head coach and general manager, Red Auerbach, traded “Easy” Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan to the St. Louis Hawks, who had selected Russell with the No. 2 pick in the draft.

Russell played in 48 of the Celtics’ 72 games as a rookie, and became the foundation for a dynasty that has only been rivaled in any sport by John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins and Major League Baseball’s New York Yankees of the 1920s.

Russell’s presence turned the Celtics into a well-oiled machine that overwhelmed opponents both defensively and offensively. During his amazing career, Boston won 11 NBA championships, including a never-to-be-matched, eight consecutive, from 1959 to 1966.

The game’s greatest defensive wizard, who once had 51 rebounds in a game against the Syracuse Nationals in 1960, led the NBA in rebounding five times and grabbed 21,620 rebounds (second all-time) while averaging 15.1 ppg and an astounding 22.5 rpg for his career.

At the beginning of the 1967 season, Russell made more history when the Celtics named him to succeed Red Auerbach as head coach, making him the first African-American head coach in NBA history. Russell served as player/coach from 1967 to 1969, and led Boston to the 1968 and 1969 NBA titles.

Yes, I know the Celtics had several Hall of Fame players on their roster during the years Russell played for the team, but Russell was the only player who was there for all 11 titles from 1957 to 1969 — cementing his legacy as the cornerstone for the Celtics dynasty.

Even Russell’s teammates agree that, were it not for his presence, the Celtics may have had a decidedly different future.

“It wasn’t a matter of Wilt versus Russell with Bill. He would let Wilt score 50 if we won. The thing that was most important to him was championships, rings and winning,” said former teammate and Hall of Fame inductee, John “Hondo” Havlicek .

Incredibly, Russell played in every All-Star Game after his rookie year and his 21,620 rebounds (22.5 per game) are second all-time to Wilt Chamberlain’s 23,924 (22.9 average).

Although Russell never considered himself a role model for African-Americans, unlike many of today’s current athletes, he didn’t back away from speaking about racial issues that affected African-Americans of his era and once boycotted a game after being refused entry into a southern diner with the rest of his black teammates.

“The basic problem in Negro America,” he said in the early 1960s, “is the destruction of race pride. One could say we have been victims of psychological warfare, in a sense, in that this is a white country, and all the emphasis is on being white.”

As former Celtics player and NBA coaching legend, Don Nelson, once told the Boston Herald, “There are two types of superstars. One makes himself look good at the expense of the other guys on the floor. But there’s another type who makes the players around him look better than they are, and that’s the type Russell was.”

Simply put, there has never been a better team player or postseason winner than Russell who once wrote, “To me, one of the most beautiful things to see is a group of men coordinating their efforts toward a common goal, alternately subordinating and asserting themselves to achieve real teamwork in action. I tried to do that, we all tried to do that, on the Celtics. I think we succeeded.”

Russell’s unselfishness is as legendary as his postseason success. “Shooting,” he once said, “is of relatively little importance in a player’s overall game.”

In 1974, Russell was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. In 1980, he was named to the NBA 35th Anniversary All-Time Team. That same year, he was voted Greatest Player in the History of the NBA by the Professional Basketball Writers Association of America.

Although the arrival of Michael Jordan later in the decade may have reopened the debate over who is truly the game’s greatest player of all-time, what remains irrefutable is the fact that Russell drastically changed people’s thinking about how basketball games are won — and in the process became the game’s greatest postseason performer of all-time.

Now that I am thoroughly over the initial shock of my fellow employee’s unknowledgeable comments, I will let this column, Russell’s statistics and most of all, his 11 championship rings speak for themselves — after one final quote by the living legend.

“I played because I enjoyed it,” he said, “but there’s more to it than that. I played because I was dedicated to being the best. I was part of a team, and I dedicated myself to making that team the best.”

Here are Russell’s career statistics. While they are numerous and prestigious, simple statistics will never tell the true story of the impact Russell had on the game of professional basketball — an impact that is still being felt in the league to this very day.

Career highlights:

NBA Most Valuable Player (1958, 1961-63, 1965)

All-NBA First Team (1959, 1963, 1965)

All-NBA Second Team (1958, 1960-62, 1964, 1966-68)

NBA All-Defensive First Team (1969)

12-time NBA All-Star (1958-69)

MVP All-Star Game (1963) after 19 points and 24 rebounds

Holds the NBA single-game record for most rebounds in a half (32) vs. Philadelphia on Nov. 16, 1957

Celtics’s all-time leading rebounder (21,620, 22.5 rpg) in 963 games; second best in history

Holds career playoff record for most rebounds (4,104, 24.9 rpg) in 165 games

Holds NBA Finals record for highest rebound per game average (29.5 rpg, 1959) and by a rookie (22.9 rpg, 1957)

Holds NBA Finals single-game record for most free throws attempted in one half (15, April 11, 1961) vs. St. Louis; most rebounds (40, March 29, 1960 vs. St. Louis and April 18, 1962 vs. Los Angeles); most rebounds by a rookie (32, April 13, 1967 vs. St. Louis); and most rebounds in a quarter (19, April 18, 1962 vs. Los Angeles)

Grabbed a career-high 51 rebounds vs. Syracuse (Feb. 5, 1960), making him one of two players ever (Wilt Chamberlain) to grab more than 50 boards in a game

Had seven games with 40 or more rebounds

Led the NBA in rebounding in first three seasons (19.6, 22.7, 23.0) and five times overall

Led the NBA in minutes played (1959, 42.5 mpg) and in 1965 (44.5 mpg)

Scored 14,522 points (15.1 ppg) in his career and averaged 16.2 ppg in 165 playoff games

Declared Greatest Player in the History of the NBA by the Professional Basketball Writers Association of America (1980)

NBA 25th Anniversary All-Time Team (1970)

NBA 35th Anniversary All-Time Team (1980)

NBA 50th Anniversary All-Time Team (1996)

Celtics retired his jersey number 6

Named “Sportsman of the Year” by Sports Illustrated (1968)

Pro coaching career:

NBA Boston Celtics, player/head coach (1966-69)

NBA Seattle Supersonics (1973-77)

NBA Sacramento Kings (1987-88)

Led Boston to NBA championships (1968, 1969)

Seattle lost to Phoenix in Western Conference semifinals (1976)

Compiled a 341-290 record (.540) in eight seasons

Career Statistics