More than a basketball player

By Tom Donelson, BASN Staff Reporter
Updated: February 23, 2009

IOWA CITY (BASN) — Bill Russell is the one reason that I am became a Celtic fan. In the 60’s, I lived in the Washington D.C. and rooted for the Senators and the Redskins but I didn’t have a team to root for in the NBA.

Considering that the Washington Senators and the Washington Redskins were bad teams in the 60’s and the closest NBA team were the Baltimore Bullets and they were just as awful.

I read Russell’s book “Go for Glory“, and I found he was not a basketball player but an individual who played basketball. Russell gave America a lesson on what it was like to black in the 60’s and his book was as much a personal journey as a basketball story.

It was book that contains humor but it also contains social commentary of racism and how it affected America.

Maybe what attracted me to the Celtics was they were the ultimate team.

They had stars but what made them great was how they play.

With Russell girding the defense, the Celtics played to their strength. Team played defense with Russell as the final stopgap and they passed the ball to the open shooter.

Russell changed the way the game was play as he brought defense and intimidation to the forefront. He was not a great shooter but he was a great basketball player.

And he was the glue that held the Celtic team together.

Not even the advent of Wilt Chamberlain, the ultimate offensive machine derailed the Celtic championship domination. Chamberlain was unstoppable in the center in an era where the center dominated the offensive.

Chamberlain had a mastery of a variety of offensive moves and in his first match up with Bill Russell, he overwhelmed the smaller Russell. In many ways, Chamberlain provided Russell focus and when these two giants played against each other; it had the feel of a playoff game even if the game was played in December.

And Russell, the team player, often got the best as his Celtics won nearly 65% of their game against Chamberlain-led teams and Chamberlain would only win one NBA title during the Russell era and had to wait until after Russell’s retirement to win his second title.

Bill Russell was also the NBA first African-American coach and began a trend in the NBA long before other leagues followed suit. All he did was win two NBA championship in his three season as Celtic coach.

His post Celtic era was not as successful. He coached the Seattle SuperSonics and took them to two playoff appearance in four years but he did not win an NBA title.

He did set the foundation for the Super Sonic franchise that would win an NBA title at the end of the 70’s, led by another African-American Lenny Wilkins.

Russell’s daughter once relayed a story in which her father asked her to read the paper before breakfast, so they would have something to talk about. Russell was well read and always had keen interest in the world around him.

And while he would never sign an autograph, he would actually invite fans to have a cup of coffee with him instead. What would be worth more?

Russell changed the NBA by changing the way the game was played. He made team play and defense cool, but beyond that he was an agent for social change.

His stint as the first African-American coach led the hiring of other African-American coaches. The NBA has long been more progressive when it came to race as African-Americans get hired, fired and rehired.

Russell became part of the revolving door as he was hired to coach the Super Sonics and then when they fail to win a NBA title, got fired. The Sacramento Kings hired Russell to run their franchise and coach. Coach Russell did not last the season but he stayed on to run the franchise for two more years before getting fired.

In the end, the NBA became a league in which African-Americans can continue their career long after it was over on the hard court as a coach or front office personnel.

And Russell led the way.