Bill Russell, born William Felton Russell on February 12, 1934, in Monroe, Louisiana, was an American basketball player who was the first exceptional defensive centre in NBA history and one of the sport’s most recognisable figures.

He won 11 NBA championships in 13 seasons with the Boston Celtics, and when he was designated player-coach of the Celtics in 1966, he became the first African American coach of a modern major professional sports team in the United States.

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Russell could easily have never picked up a basketball, let alone become one of the sport’s all-time greats. He was born in a small town in Louisiana. Russell’s father relocated the family to Oakland, California, when he was eight years old, since career opportunities were better there. Russell, while no giant, was tall enough to make his high school squad solely on his height.

He was a marginal player until he understood, while on a summer basketball tour he had been selected for as an afterthought, that sprinting and jumping could be used to duplicate and negate the flamboyant, creative scorers who consistently gave teams fits. It was a revelation that would revolutionise not only his life, but also basketball in the long run.

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Russell was not heavily pursued by universities, but Hal DeJulio, a former player at the neighboring University of San Francisco (USF), had seen him play and saw his potential, so he recommended Russell to his alma mater. Russell blossomed in college, providing a defensive specialist that helped lead USF to National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championships in 1955 and 1956.

He was also a standout sprinter and high jumper on USF’s track and field team (Wilt Chamberlain, his future archrival, also excelled at track and field up until his pro basketball career). Red Auerbach, the Celtics’ head coach and general manager, sought Russell in the NBA draft in 1956, seeing him as the answer to his team’s weaknesses.

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Again, there was an element of chance at work: Auerbach had never seen Russell play and had to depend on the word of a close colleague. Furthermore, the Celtics needed to move up in the selection in order to select him; with Russell coming off two consecutive NCAA championships, some team was bound to take the risk.

So the Celtics dealt centre Ed Macauley and the rights to guard-forward Cliff Hagan, who had yet to play in the NBA due to military service, to the St. Louis Hawks shortly after the Hawks selected Russell with the second pick of the draft. Both Macauley and Hagan were inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, demonstrating how highly Auerbach regarded Russell.

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Russell had an instant impact. In his debut season, the Celtics won a championship, and he became the league’s first African American superstar, though not its first Black player (who was Earl Lloyd in 1956). He was denied the NBA Rookie of the Year honour, reportedly because teammate Tom Heinsohn had played the full season, although Russell had lost time due to his participation in the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne (where he helped the United States men’s basketball team win a gold medal).

But there was more to it than that: for many voters, the white Heinsohn was simply a more appealing candidate. Russell, who was vocal and persistently informed on race issues, was not just the NBA’s first Black superstar; as the Celtics soon came to dominate the league, he became an activist on par with Muhammad Ali. Russell would not tolerate racism in athletics, which was odd given Boston’s history in this regard.

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Russell backed the American civil rights movement, protested against the Vietnam War, and engaged in numerous actions that, if done by a lesser sportsman, would have sparked immediate controversy. But the Celtics kept winning, and he was the engine that powered them.

Frustratingly, his basketball prowess made his behavior not only excusable for supporters, but also tolerated in a dismissive manner. His on-court accomplishments did not provide him with a platform; rather, they provided him with a peculiar kind of amnesty—the very grandeur that should have forced people to listen somehow masked any trouble he might have wished to cause.

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Russell, by the end of his career, had come to consider the instability of the 1960s as far more significant than the game he played for a profession. The Celtics continued to make history throughout the decade. They were the first NBA team to field an all-Black lineup in 1964. Auerbach’s lineup arose from necessity; he was notoriously apathetic to social problems and the resulting reaction.

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It was, however, a significant milestone made possible by Russell’s effort. Russell took over as coach after Auerbach retired after the Celtics won the NBA championship in 1965-66. Granted, this was due in part to the fact that no one could cope with the moody Russell save Russell himself, but he was still the first African American coach in NBA history, as well as the first to win a championship when Boston won the 1967-68 season.

Russell won one more championship before retiring from the game for good in 1969. He had made significant progress at basketball, but the restless, conscientious Russell believed that there were bigger fights to fight. Following his retirement, he served as head coach of the Seattle SuperSonics (1973-77) and the Sacramento Kings (1987-88), as a commentator on NBA television broadcasts, and as a social activist.

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Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man, his autobiography (cowritten with Taylor Branch), was published in 1979. Russell received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 after being elected into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975.

Russell won 11 NBA championships in 13 seasons (1957, 1959–66, and 1968–69). He might have had 12 if an ankle ailment hadn’t hampered him early in the 1958 NBA finals. It’s an astonishing rate of success that no other NBA player has come close to matching.

Russell’s Celtics ruled the roost at a time when the NBA’s minuscule number of teams (the league consisted of eight or nine franchises for the majority of his career) created a greatly condensed talent pool, and a mixture of integration and improved scouting resulted in an unprecedented influx of new stars.

Yet, in a sport that has always celebrated scoring and attacking heroics, Russell was an outlier: a dominant player for whom making shots was a secondary concern. His calling card was defence, rebounding, and, most importantly, shot blocking, which he transformed into a flowing athletic art in the same manner that some of his colleagues had changed the image of what was possible on offence. The Celtics had been a shot-happy, practically out-of-control team before to his arrival, led by passing magician Bob Cousy.

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Russell did this by closing the loop, causing turnovers that helped Boston to go back on offence even faster, as well as patrolling the paint with a ferocity that accounted for the Celtics’ imbalance.

Russell’s strategy eventually became the team’s entire mentality as athletic players who regarded defence as a means to emphasise the fast break were added to the roster. Between 1956 and 1969, the Celtics dynasty retooled, but one consistent was Russell. He established the team’s ideology and approach. Above all, Russell was the ultimate winner in basketball.

Russell was married to Rose Swisher, his undergraduate sweetheart, from 1956 till 1973. Karen Russell, a television pundit and lawyer, and sons William Jr. and Jacob were their three children. The couple became emotionally estranged and divorced. He married Dorothy Anstett, Miss USA 1968, in 1977; they divorced in 1980.

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Russell married his third wife, Marilyn Nault, in 1996; they were married until her death in January 2009. Russell is the husband of Jeannine Russell. He had lived on Mercer Island, Washington, for nearly four decades. Charlie L. Russell, a well-known dramatist, was his older brother.

Russell was the first NBA player to visit Africa in 1959. Russell is a Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity member, having been inducted into its Gamma Alpha chapter while attending the University of San Francisco.

Russell was detained on October 16, 2013, for bringing his certified, loaded .38-caliber Smith & Wesson handgun to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. He was issued a ticket and freed, and the Transportation Security Administration suggested that a civil penalty of $3,000 to $7,500 would be imposed.

Russell passed away on July 31, 2022.