Bill Russell hated to lose.
This statement in itself is a bit simplistic. Don’t all professional athletes hate to lose? And don’t all of the truly great ones find something within them in key moments that help them get past their opponents who theoretically should be their equals both physically and in their knowledge of the game?
The answer is yes and no. And everything that goes into what makes the answer ‘no’ is what made Russell unique.
It’s easy to say that Russell sacrificed, that from day one he did the dirty work as the Celtics’ defensive anchor, putting his body at risk against the likes of Wilt Chamberlain to free up his teammates for easier scoring opportunities. Whether igniting fast breaks with sharp outlet passes, hitting cutters with backdoor passes from the post, or just being a presence the opposition had to concern themselves with, Russell did whatever the team needed to maximize their opportunity to win. Russell’s genius is that deep down he knew that everything he was doing was not really an individual sacrifice. Russell redefined the game and how it could be won, becoming the first NBA superstar recognized for his impact and his ability to control the game from the defensive end. He was so revered and his dominance so clear that in 1962 he was voted Most Valuable Player, garnering 51 out of 85 possible 1st place votes, despite his rival Wilt Chamberlain averaging over 50 points and 25 rebounds per game. Russell led the Celtics to a 60-20 record (and eventually their 5th championship in the past 6 seasons) by averaging 18.9 ppg, 23.6 rpg, and 4.5 apg.
It’s easy to give Russell accolades for winning 11 titles in 13 seasons while still soft-pedaling the accomplishment. He had several teammates who also ended being all-time legends, from Bob Cousy to John Havlicek. There were fewer teams and fewer playoff rounds back then. The Celtics often had home court advantage. These are all good points and yet also ultimately fall flat. It’s not easy to win a championship. It’s exponentially difficult to win several. Not only are there the considerations of fate (i.e. injuries, declining performance, and just plain luck), human nature is also a major factor. Maintaining the edge and the hunger a player needs to get him through those few true moments that ultimately make the difference between winning and losing is much more difficult after you’ve already won. Also, a champion becomes target for those who have not yet won, heightening their focus and determination. And yet Russell, the one constant throughout this historic run by the Celtics, almost always prevailed.
There are some that still believe more in the Celtic mystique, that it was key to Russell’s success that he was a part of a first-class organization that was led by the great Red Auerbach. It is true that Auerbach was not only a great coach but also a shrewd general manager, who somehow managed to outmaneuver other teams when conducting trades or identifying talent in the draft. However, those people who are blinded by the leprechaun and his pot of gold are overlooking Russell’s extended run of success pre-Celtics (not to mention that before Russell arrived, the Celtics had not yet won a single championship). Russell led the University of San Francisco, not exactly a known basketball powerhouse, to an astonishing 55 consecutive wins and 2 national championships. In the short time between winning his 2nd college championship and joining the Celtics for his rookie year, Russell led the 1956 Olympic team to a perfect record and a gold medal (and the team’s average margin of victory was an astonishing 53.5 ppg).
It’s easy for great players to dominate games for short stretches. But in clutch moments, how many maintain their poise? How many can consistently do what needs to be done, even when the opposition is focused on stopping them? When the pressure was at its peak, that’s when Russell was at his best. From 1954-1969, Russell played in 21 games that were ‘win or go home’ – 9 NCAA Tournament games, 1 Olympic Gold Medal game, 1 deciding game 5, and 10 game 7s; Russell’s team won all 21 of those games. In the 10 game 7s, he played 488 of the 495 possible minutes and averaged 18.6 ppg, 29.3 rpg, and 3.7 apg.
It’s easy to discount some of Russell’s defensive impact as the embellished stories of an older generation. Defensive metrics like blocked shots and steals weren’t tracked back then. Also, there’s very little game film to rewatch. Now we can go to YouTube and easily pull up key moments of shut-down defense by great players, such as LeBron’s now-famous chase-down block in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals. But the defensive metrics that we do have, notably the ones correlating with winning games, indicate that Russell’s entire career was made up of these types of plays. When we look at career Defensive Win Shares (DWS), Russell laps the field – his total of 133.64 is over 25% more than Tim Duncan, who is next on the list with 106.34. Only 17 other players in the history of the NBA have even half of Russell’s total. Astonishingly, Russell has 10 of the top 16 single-season totals for DWS.
Consider that Ben Wallace was a 4-time Defensive Player of the Year who played during the lowest scoring era in NBA history since the shot clock was invented and whose sole focus was defense, and that at his peak between 2000-2007 recorded 7 seasons where his DWS were between 6.0-9.1. Russell had 8 seasons where his DWS was above anything Wallace posted during his peak.
It’s easy to use Russell’s physical attributes to explain his dominance. He had exceptional height, speed, leaping ability, and hand-eye coordination. But Russell was also a pioneer with regards to the art of psychological warfare. Russell played chess while others played checkers; he out-thought his opponents and often used their own strengths against them. Against Chamberlain, for example, he knew he could not dominate vertically, so his strategy was to win the horizontal game, both by igniting the fast break and beating Chamberlain down the floor. He would also not challenge Chamberlain with the same intensity on every play. This enabled Chamberlain to get his stats while also not pushing him into a more competitive gear, where his physical dominance could become a major problem.
It’s easy to think of Bill Russell as a great basketball player, one of the best to ever play the game. But even in that high regard, we would be selling him short. Russell was a great person whose impact was significant outside the sport, both during and after his career. In everything he did, he was about winning and the values that he felt allowed him to accomplish that, things like integrity, kindness, toughness, curiosity, imagination, and discipline. And amidst all that, the importance of being inclusive, of listening to others, and of recognizing their value. In his book “Russell Rules” these philosophies are succinctly summarized into the following concepts:
— Remember the 5 most important words: “I am proud of you.”
— Remember the 4 most important words: “What is your opinion?”
— Remember the 3 most important words: “I appreciate that.”
— Remember the 2 most important words: “Thank you.”
— Remember the most important word: “You.”
These ideas were applied to every aspect of Russell’s life, not just to basketball. That’s what enabled him to have such an impact on so many people’s lives all the way to the end. With sports, at least some attempt can be made to quantify accomplishments, as shown by some of the statistics shared above. But any attempt to summarize what Bill Russell meant to other important parts of American culture outside of basketball, like the civil rights movement, or to describe the despicable acts of racism he endured (both as a small child and later as a famous athlete) would fall far short. What is important, especially for a new generation of young fans, is that Russell, his achievements, his philosophies, and all that he endured and overcame not be lost to history. He is one of those transcendent figures who should constantly be cycled back into the public’s consciousness. The best way to honor him as we mourn his passing is to make his story known to others who may not be aware. There is a lot to learn from a great man even when he is no longer here to teach us himself, as long as those of us who were here to bear witness do not allow him and his story to be lost in time.
Bill Russell left this Earth as a winner, and it was difficult every step of the way. What helped him along the way was not expecting anything less. In his own words, “It’s hard work being a winner. If it wasn’t, everyone would be doing it.”