Bill Russell, who has died aged 88, was one of the most significant sporting figures of the American Century – first as a basketball player who led the country’s greatest sports dynasty, the Boston Celtics, to 11 championships in 13 years, and then as an advocate for civil rights, marching with Dr Martin Luther King. He was also the first black man to coach a major professional sports team in the US.
William Felton Russell was born on February 12 1934 in Monroe, Lousiana. It was the Jim Crow segregation era and his parents left the South behind when Russell was nine and settled in Oakland, California, on the east side of San Francisco Bay.
He attended McClymonds High School there, and grew from a gangling, over-sized kid into a gifted athlete, reaching 6ft 10in in his canvas trainers. He attended the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit institution, on a basketball scholarship.
At USF the three qualities that made him a unique figure quickly emerged and then dovetailed: his innovative way of playing the game; an unwillingness to conform to white ideas of how he should conduct himself; and an implacable will to win.
At that point, basketball’s centre position was played by big, lumbering men who took up positions near the basket to score, and to stop opponents from getting close in shots. Russell, who also competed in the high jump, roamed the entire court, leaping across vast areas of the hardwood to block shots and snare rebounds.
His coach, Phil Woolpert, insisted that defence be played the traditional way with both feet firmly on the floor, balanced. But with his jumping skills, Russell could touch the top of the backboard, and his ability to anticipate where the ball was going was unequalled, so he simply ignored the coach.
In his final two years USF won 55 straight games, including two NCAA collegiate championships. Upon graduating in 1956 he led the US team to the gold medal at the Melbourne Olympics then joined the Boston Celtics, taking the team to their first championship.
When Russell entered the NBA, professional basketball was not as popular as it is today. But two seasons later, another player as gifted, Wilt Chamberlain, entered the league. Playing for the Philadelphia Warriors, Chamberlain, five inches taller and 50lb heavier than Russell, was an unstoppable offensive force.
The pair’s rivalry dominated the league for the next decade, and they met frequently in the play-offs. Chamberlain would score dozens of points but Russell’s Celtics almost always won the tight, exciting games. The contests elevated pro basketball to a new level of popularity.
But for all the championships, there was a dark side to the player’s time in Boston. Despite its liberal reputation, Boston was as segregated as any place in Mississippi, not by law but by racist custom. When Russell joined the Celtics, the Red Sox, the city’s baseball team, still did not have a black player.
Russell endured racist abuse from Boston fans: in 1968, by which time he was the Celtics’ player-coach – and despite leading the team to nine titles in 10 years – he came back from a road trip to find his house had been ransacked. Racial epithets were scrawled on the walls, his trophies were smashed, and human excrement was left in his bed.
By then, Russell had established himself as a public figure in the civil rights movement. He knew Dr Martin Luther King and was invited by him to stand on the podium at the Lincoln Memorial the day he delivered his celebrated “I have a dream” speech. Russell declined, telling King that he had done none of the hard work to create the event.
That year he told Sport magazine, “There are two societies in this country, and I have to recognise it, to see life for what it is and not go stark, raving mad. I don’t work for acceptance. I am what I am. If you like it, that’s nice. If not, I couldn’t care less.”
In 1969, he retired from the Celtics and left the city behind. Twenty years later, in an article in The New York Times, his daughter Karen recalled something her father had told her: “I played for the Celtics, period,” he had said. “I did not play for Boston. I was able to separate the Celtics institution from the city and the fans.”
Russell went on to a moderately successful run coaching the Seattle Supersonics and then a career as a television analyst, dispensing sardonic commentary along with pieces of country wisdom such as: “The first thing out of your mouth should be your second thought.”
A return to coaching with the Sacramento Kings was not successful. But Russell hovered over the game even as the sport changed. The era of the dominant centre came to an end and Michael Jordan took the game to global success. But Russell remained the game’s most revered player, the only man who won more championship rings than he had fingers to wear them on.
In 2005, the NBA dealt with that happy problem by presenting him with a unique ring to symbolise all his championships. He always wore it.
Bill Russell was married four times. He is survived by his fourth wife, Jeannine Fiorito, and by a daughter and son of his first marriage.
Bill Russell, born February 12 1934, died July 31 2022