In one remarkable instant, all of the elements of Bill Russell’s magnificent life had converged. And in that moment, the most accomplished team athlete in the history of sports was silenced by emotion.
This was late in the evening of May 5, 1969, a Monday night in Inglewood, Calif. Inside the visiting dressing room at the Fabulous Forum, an ABC-TV broadcaster named Jack Twyman was standing in an already champagne-soaked room where the Boston Celtics were celebrating a 108-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
Twyman stood close to Bill Russell as the red light of the camera clicked on.
“Bill,” Twyman said, “this must have been a great win for you.”
Russell’s smile broadened for a second.
Then the smile vanished. Russell rubbed the top of his head, and then covered his face as tears began to well in his eyes. He took a deep breath, tried to speak, couldn’t. Twyman, who had seen many of his own seasons as a player end at the hand of Russell’s Celtics, put his arm around his old opponent’s shoulder. “I know it’s hard to say what’s in your mind, Bill …”
And it was. That night had been a culmination of so many of the things that had made Russell the most dominant figure in the history of professional basketball. That night he had scored but six points but he’d grabbed 21 rebounds, and he’d set up John Havlicek and Sam Jones enough to secure the Celtics’ 11th championship in 13 years. That was one.
He’d gotten there, as it seemed he always did, by outfoxing his forever rival, Wilt Chamberlain, who’d outscored him by 12 and outrebounded him by six yet still, for the seventh time, Russell had defeated a Chamberlain team on the way to winning a championship. And this time he’d watched with equal parts shock and anger as Chamberlain removed himself from the game in the fourth quarter when he tweaked his knee.
“Wilt copped out,” Russell would say a few months later, his voice dripping contempt. “Any injury short of a broken leg or a broken back isn’t good enough.”
Forcing Chamberlain to tap out again. That was two.
But as Russell talked to Twyman, it wasn’t just as the Celtics’ star center. He was also their coach — the first African-American head coach in the history of American professional sports when he was named player-coach in 1966, getting the job nine years before Frank Robinson broke the color ceiling in baseball, 23 years before Art Shell in football. For a man who’d survived Boston’s rugged racial relations all through the ’60s, that was number three.
Russell died at age 88 Sunday afternoon, and this marked the end not just of a great American life but of an honored American sporting ideal. To Russell, the fact that Chamberlain broke records — and made twice as many all-NBA teams as he did — was always beside the point. For him, winning wasn’t just something that sounded good in a sound bite. It was an essential chromosome. It allowed him to breathe.
“Every ounce of him burned to win,” his old teammate, Bob Cousy, said in 2018. “It was impossible for that not to rub off on everyone he played with. He didn’t care about personal glory, never spent a second even thinking about that. Everything was team. Team, team, team.”
It was that way in college, at the University of San Francisco, where he led the Dons to back-to-back championships in 1955 and ’56, going 57-1. It was that way in Melbourne, Australia, during the 1956 Olympics, where he led the U.S. to seven wins by an average score of 99-52. And it was that way in Boston. Eleven titles in 13 years. Even now it doesn’t seem real.
But Russell, he was real. He was tough. He had a contagious laugh that was more of a cackle but he was a serious man — about basketball, about civil rights, about justice. He suffered no fools. And he wasn’t above mind games, especially when it came to basketball. He once hosted Chamberlain to four straight Thanksgiving dinners, cultivating a friendship that many of Wilt’s other friends were convinced was entirely designed to soften him up.
When Chamberlain became the NBA’s first $100,000 player in 1965, Russell visited the Celtics’ offices and made his own salary demand: $100,001.
That was Russell. He wanted to be paid because of winning. He wanted to be exulted because of winning. And he wanted to be remembered because of winning. He will be. We throw around the word “great” a lot in sports. Sometimes it’s hyperbole.
With Russell, it was mere fact. Nobody ever won quite the way he did. He was great.
He was, indeed, the greatest.