One of the greatest defensive players in league history, William Felton Russell had 12 All-Star appearances and an Olympic gold medal in 1956. In 30 elimination games at the college, pro and Olympic levels, Russell was a staggering 28-2.
Russell was born on Feb. 12, 1934, in Monroe, Louisiana. His family moved to Oakland, Calif. in the 1940s, which is where Russell discovered basketball. His skills were not appreciated at first – he didn’t start in high school until his senior year, and had few scholarship offers. The nearby University of San Francisco was the only college to offer him a scholarship.
Under the guidance of coach Phil Woolpert and assistant coach Ross Giudice, he became one of college basketball’s most dominant players. The Dons won two college basketball championships and strung together a winning streak of 55 straight games.
Through a trade, the Boston Celtics acquired the right to draft Russell in a trade. It was the start of a run that saw Russell’s shot-blocking skills ignite the rest of the team’s talents.
His ability to alter shots, said Celtics coach Red Auerbach, “put a whole new sound in game. The sound of footsteps.”
Russell was never just a basketball player; in airports, he often replied, “No,” when asked if he was. Everywhere, Russell stood up against inequality. Once, in Marion, Indiana, Russell was presented with the key to the city. Later that same night, Russell was refused service at a local restaurant. He immediately drove to the mayor’s house and gave back the key.
Russell was also an activist, an outspoken critic on racism at a time when speaking out was rare by athletes. He criticized the NBA for what he saw as quotas on the number of black players in the league. In 1961, after a restaurant in Lexington, Kentucky, refused to serve some of the Celtics’ black players before an exhibition game, Russell organized a boycott of the game. In 1975, he declined to attend his Hall of Fame induction, later calling it insulting to all the black players who were not inducted before him.
On the court, Russell’s career was highlighted by his rivalry with Wilt Chamberlain. At 7-1, 275 pounds, Chamberlain was significantly bigger than Russell and arguably just as quick. But while Chamberlain had the statistical edge against Russell — 28.7 points and 28.7 rebounds in a whopping 142 matchups — Russell’s teams routinely came out on top. Russell’s Celtics were 85-57 against Wilt; in eight playoff series against Chamberlain, Russell only lost once.Russell retired in 1969, serving the last three seasons as Boston’s player-coach. He returned to the coaching ranks in 1973, in Seattle, where he stayed for four seasons. In 1987, he took over the Sacramento Kings, but lasted just 58 games before moving to the front office. He was fired in 1989. He didn’t return to the NBA again.
He was named one of the NBA’s 50 greatest players in 1996 and had the Finals MVP trophy named after him in 1999. In 2011, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 2013, Boston unveiled a statue in his honor.