By Aram Goudsouzian,
On May 1, 1968, Bill Russell led the Boston Celtics to another NBA championship, triumphing over the rival Los Angeles Lakers. But this time Russell was not just the star center, the defensive stalwart, the linchpin of pro basketball’s most extraordinary dynasty. He was also the coach.
During the locker room celebration, reporters marveled at Russell’s legacy of achievement. What else he could possibly achieve? He deflected the question. “To tell you the truth, it’s been a long time since I tried to prove anything to anybody,” he said.
He got quiet for a second. “I know who I am.”
Russell, who died on July 31, had a winning record in basketball that is unmatched.
From 1954 to 1956, he steered the University of San Francisco as a player to two consecutive NCAA championships and a record 55-game winning streak.
At the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, he dominated the court and drove the United States to a gold medal. And during his 13-year professional career with the Boston Celtics, Russell won an astonishing 11 NBA titles – the last two, in 1968 and 1969, as the player-coach.
In my biography of Russell, “King of the Court,” I argued that he spearheaded a “basketball revolution.”
During his athletic reign, the sport transformed from a white man’s game with a small-time, “bush league” reputation into a dynamic, modern, nationally televised sport associated with Black culture.
Russell was also the NBA’s essential barrier-breaker: its first Black superstar, its first Black champion, its first Black coach.
Most fascinating, though, was Russell himself.
As suggested by his proud comment after the 1968 title, he undertook an intellectual and personal journey during his career. He sought to find worth in basketball amid the racial tumult of the civil rights movement.
He emerged from that crucible not only as a stronger man, but also as one of the most potent figures at the intersection of sports and politics.
A reluctant sports hero
As fans crowded him for autographs at Madison Square Garden in December 1962, Russell raised a poignant question.
“What does all this mean?” he asked. “This is without depth. This is a very shallow thing.”
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