Boston Celtics' legend Bill Russell stands with his Presidential Medal of Freedom during the NBA All-Star basketball game in Los Angeles, February 20, 2011. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok/File Photo
Bill Russell, whose defensive prowess as a center made him the cornerstone of the Boston Celtics basketball dynasty in the 1950s and 1960s, has died. He was 88.
He died on Sunday, according to social media posts by his family that didn’t reveal a cause, the Associated Press reported.
Aside from winning 11 National Basketball Association titles in his 13 years with the Celtics, including two as player-coach, Russell’s University of San Francisco teams won two NCAA championships and his high school squad was state champ twice before that. In 1956, as captain of the US basketball team, he also won an Olympic gold medal.
"His record was consistently one of firsts and of being a winner,” Bill Bradley, a New York Knicks Hall of Fame player, wrote in the foreword to Russell’s 2001 book "Russell Rules: 11 Lessons on Leadership from the Twentieth Century’s Greatest Winner.” "Of all the players who ever played the game of basketball, Bill Russell is the first player that I would pick to start a team. He is the greatest winner in basketball history.”
John Wooden, whose UCLA teams won 10 college championships, called Russell "the greatest defensive man I’ve ever seen.”
The 6-foot, 10-inch center averaged more than 20 rebounds per game during his NBA career, which ended in 1969. He had 40 rebounds in two separate NBA Final games and once grabbed 51 rebounds during a regular season contest.
Never the focal point in the Celtics offense, Russell averaged 15 points a game for his career. He was a 12-time NBA All Star and was Most Valuable Player five times, tying Michael Jordan and beaten only by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s six awards. In 1980 he was named the "Greatest Player in the History of the NBA” by the Basketball Writers Association of America.
As player-coach, Russell in 1966 became the first African American to head an NBA team and was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in 1975.
William Felton Russell was born on Feb. 12, 1934, in West Monroe, Louisiana, to Charles and Katie Russell. Russell’s father moved the family out of the segregated southern town when Russell was eight, settling in Oakland, California, where the future superstar grew up in a series of public housing projects.
Russell’s parents worked in a shipyard before his father started a small trucking firm. After his mother died when Russell was 12, his father became a metal worker to be closer to home. His stern father became one of Russell’s heroes, instilling in him habits of discipline and hard work.
"My sole motivation was to play in my career so my father would be proud of me,” he once told a Dutch interviewer. "He was my hero.”
A raw basketball talent in high school, he discarded the traditional role of center as a feet-on-the-ground opponent whose main job was to guard his opposite number. Athletic and fast, he jumped to block shots and would race the length of the court at the speed of a pass to block shots or cause a turnover. His forceful blocks, which often wound up in the face of an opponent were dubbed "Wilsonburgers,” a play on the brand name of the balls used.
In "Russell Rules,” the athlete said winning was "not only a habit but also a way of life for me. I learned from it, used it, incorporated it into my way of seeing the world.”
After being overlooked in college for awards that went to white players with inferior records, Russell said he made a decision to focus on the team and not worry about individual achievement.
His fiercest competitor was the taller center Wilt Chamberlain, who became a good friend later in life. In jest, they would use each other’s middle names in telephone calls. Russell was Felton. Chamberlain was Norman.
At Chamberlain’s memorial service in 1999, Russell said of his one-time competitor: "He sent me through hell so many nights. As we got older, the more we liked each other. We were important to each other.”
In retirement, he played golf and was a color commentator on televised basketball games. He became a vegetarian and lived for a decade as a recluse on an island near Seattle.