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Bill Russell’s legacy – NBA ambassador, defensive force and leader of the Bay Area’s original dynasty

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Bill Russell lived an unparalleled life.

From his accomplishments on the basketball court to his way more meaningful contributions to society, Russell was a very remarkable man who left an indelible impact on the NBA and beyond.

He’s the best winner in American skilled sports history. He was a champion for civil rights, including having to rise up to abuses even while leading the Boston Celtics to their run of 11 championships in 13 seasons. He became the NBA’s first Black head coach, and his name now adorns the league’s Finals MVP trophy — a fitting tribute to a person who has claimed more championships than any player within the NBA’s 75-year history.

Russell’s legacy, nevertheless, goes far beyond his name being etched on a trophy. He’s considered one of basketball’s foundational stars — greater than a half-century after he played his final game.

Here, then, are a set of anecdotes that, partially, explain why Russell stands tall within the annals of NBA history — and why that might be the case for so long as the league exists.

The final word winner

There are various ways to explain Russell’s dominance on the court. Probably the most impressive, nevertheless, comes from one other legendary basketball figure: longtime Boston Globe scribe Bob Ryan, who covered Russell’s final few seasons with the Celtics:

Between Russell’s time on the University of San Francisco, the Olympics and with the Celtics, he played in 21 different winner-take-all games: single-elimination games in either the NCAA tournament or the Olympics, or a series-deciding Game 5 or 7 through the NBA playoffs.

Russell’s record in those games? A cool 21-0.

In a win-or-go-home game, Russell’s team never went home. That unequaled drive to win separated Russell from everyone within the history of the game — including his best rival, Wilt Chamberlain.

There was no opponent who Russell could be intimidated by, or consider he was lesser than. That is why, greater than 50 years later, he stays the best winner in American skilled sports history. It is a title that, like many other things about Russell’s life, is difficult to assume anyone taking from him.

Just chalk it up to at least one final victory for a person who spent his life racking them up at a record pace.

— Tim Bontemps

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Michael Wilbon discusses Bill Russell’s contributions beyond the basketball court.

A civilian in Alcatraz

In 1956, Russell and the remaining 4 starters from college basketball’s first dynasty sailed across the San Francisco Bay toward Alcatraz, the notorious island federal penitentiary that housed mafia kingpins, serial killers, bank robbers and other violent criminals that the U.S. government believed couldn’t be locked away anywhere else.

They were told civilians weren’t allowed there, but Russell and his University of San Francisco teammates — winners of two straight national championships and a record 55 consecutive games — got unprecedented access to the convicts. Why? Since the prison faced tension between its Black and white inmates, and it was believed that the USF Dons, the primary team to begin three Black players (with Russell, future NBA Hall of Famer and Boston Celtic teammate K.C. Jones, and Hal Perry, a guard), could help.

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In a suit and tie, and with a fedora atop his 6-foot-9 frame, Russell walked through the cellhouse, kitchen, hospital and recreation yard, and joined his teammates alongside one convict who was segregated from all others: Robert Stroud, the famous “Birdman of Alcatraz.”

“In my time, I never saw some other civilians contained in the [cellhouse],” John Hernan, a former correctional officer who was present that day and escorted the players down “Broadway,” the central walkway between C and B blocks, once said. “And now that you simply mention it, they’d be the one civilians who walked down Broadway like they did.”

The convicts worshiped Russell, who averaged 20.6 points and 21 rebounds that season for USF. They shouted his statistics at him. “They checked out Bill Russell like he was God,” Carl Boldt, considered one of his USF teammates, said.

Greater than a half-century later, the Golden State Warriors forged their very own dynasty, becoming probably the most dominant Bay Area basketball team since Russell’s Dons. All told, he played for 21 years and saw his teams win the championship in 18 of them, but his profession by then was within the rearview, left to the history books. But Russell, who grew up blocks from Oakland’s Oracle Arena, and his teammates knew all too well what it was wish to be the toast of the Bay, to steamroller opponents game after game, and have fun at season’s end. And at any time when these Warriors were on, a source near him said, Russell found a television and tuned in.

— Baxter Holmes

The patriarch of the NBA

Amongst all his accolades, we also need to recollect Russell because the NBA’s ultimate elder statesman, our emeritus champion who would all the time lend his unmatched gravitas to raise the league’s most significant ceremonies.

It was on this role that microphones captured his unforgettable conversation with Kobe Bryant on the sidelines of the 2008 All-Star Game.

“See, I watch plenty of your games,” Russell said then. “You see, after I watch your games I try to pick what each player’s agenda is and to see how well he’s carrying that out. That is the best way I watch it. Seriously, I could not be prouder of you when you were my very own son and that is the reality.”

“I got that cause I read your book”

A heartfelt moment from the 2008 All-Star Game between Kobe Bryant & Bill Russell. pic.twitter.com/brGnkJAhO4

— NBA (@NBA) August 1, 2022

Those sorts of fatherly moments capture the impact that Russell had many years after he finished playing and training. He gracefully became the unofficial mentor of the NBA deep into his 80s.

Yes, Russell’s untouchable résumé as a player, coach and civil rights activist all the time made him an ideal ambassador on paper, nevertheless it was his affable presence, his signature smile and that legitimate support for younger players that actually enabled him to thrive because the patriarch for the good league he helped legitimize many years earlier as a superstar and coach.

In February 2009, when former commissioner David Stern announced the NBA would name its Finals MVP trophy after Russell, he said, “Bill inspired a generation not only of basketball fans but Americans in every single place. He’s respected by colleagues, coaches, fans, and his legacy clearly has withstood the test of time.”

Russell used all of his 88 years to construct probably the most comprehensive legacy this sport will ever see.

— Kirk Goldsberry

Defense wins 11 championships

Russell had more impact on basketball — and on his team’s ability to win — than some other NBA player. And it shows up within the numbers.

Every considered one of his 11 titles could be traced on to Russell’s dominance.

Despite all of his Hall of Fame teammates, Russell’s Celtics typically had below-average offenses as measured by team offensive rating. However the defenses … oh my goodness, the defenses!

The Celtics boasted one of the best defense within the NBA in 12 of Russell’s 13 seasons, at times by absurd margins. Through the 1963-64 season, the Celtics’ defensive rating was a whopping 10.8 points per 100 possessions higher than league average. By comparison, one of the best offense that season was only 4.3 points per 100 possessions higher than league average. The Celtics won the championship that season despite ending last within the NBA in offensive rating.

In 1964-65, the Celtics’ defensive rating was 7.4 points per 100 possessions higher than the second-place team. Again, the Celtics won the chip despite having considered one of the worst offenses within the league.

Russell’s arrival in 1956 kicked off that historic run, including five of the top-25 measured defenses in history in five consecutive seasons during Russell’s peak. The Celtics won the championship with one of the best defense within the NBA in Russell’s rookie season, and so they won the championship with one of the best defense within the league in his thirteenth and final season.

The season after Russell retired, the Celtics’ defense plummeted to the underside half of the league.

— André Snellings

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