Bill Russell was the NBA’s king of championship rings – and far more important matters

The basketball legend, who died Sunday aged 88, was doggedly committed to using his platform to amplify his political actions, setting a template for today’s athlete activists

By Joseph Palmer | The Guardian | August 1, 2022

If a person can somehow be widely adored while being simultaneously underappreciated, they must be truly great. The late NBA legend Bill Russell was a truly great person.

In the time since Russell’s death was announced by his family on Sunday, tributes have poured in from around the world. Among them was an eloquent eulogy from former US president Barack Obama in which he writes, “As tall as Bill Russell stood, his legacy rises far higher –both as a player and as a person.” Obama would know: he presented Russell with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. And yet, despite the outpouring of kind words in his memory, Russell may still be the most underappreciated icon in NBA history.

Before recognizing his wider impact, it’s worth laying out Russell’s basketball credentials. To begin with, Russell is the winningest player in NBA history and it’s not even really close. During his 13 seasons in the league, he led the Boston Celtics to 11 NBA championships, including eight consecutive titles from 1959 to 1966. No other team has ever won more than three consecutively.

Russell, of course, would never claim that he won those championships – the Celtics won them. He was the consummate team player who took pride in performing the glamourless but productive duties which ultimately won games. Russell once wrote, “The most important measure of how good a game I played was how much better I’d made my teammates play.” Even opponents seemed to notice how nice it looked to play with Russell: he was named the regular-season MVP five times during the era in which the award was determined by players’ votes.

Russell’s fortes were his rebounding and (especially) his defense. He played in an era before Defensive Player of the Year awards –they didn’t even record blocks and steals when Russell played – but it’s safe to say he would’ve won several. Hall of Fame point guard Bob Cousy won six championships with Russell and said he played with “animal intensity”. Russell also understood that the mental component of basketball (and of defense, in particular) can be as important as the game’s physical aspects. “Remember that basketball is a game of habits,” he observed. “If you make the other guy deviate from his habits, you’ve got him.”

Bill Russell speaks during a DNC fundraiser attended by then-US president Barack Obama at the Boston Center for the Arts in 2011. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Russell also had a knack for playing at his best when it mattered most. During his first championship run in 1957, Russell blocked Jack Coleman in the final minute of regulation in the deciding Game 7 to keep the Celtics in the game and allow them to eventually win the title. In another Game 7 that also went to overtime, in 1962, Russ