Measuring the greatness of Bill Russell, the legendary Boston Celtics center who died Sunday at the age of 88, has always been a challenge in our metric-obsessed modern age of NBA analysis. Russell’s titles – 11 as a player, two of them also as a coach – are unparalleled in the history of professional basketball, of course. But as the loop counting method has fallen in favor of more complex single stats, it can be difficult to contextualize the legacy of a player who averaged 15.1 points per game, and who didn’t have official numbers for his famous blocking ability. And he did most of his NBA wins with less than 10 teams. Even less measurable is the far-reaching social impact of the league’s number one Black Hall of Fame player, a man whose off-court accomplishments rivaled those of the hardwood.
However, in many ways, Russell created the NBA as we know it today. These contrasts—between iconic plays and old movie reels, glowing testimonials and incomplete numbers—make one thing clear: Whatever you thought Bill Russell was great for, he probably was.
Take, for example, the official playing record of his career. Russell’s average score ranked only 30th among his contemporaries. No doubt an astonishing 22.5 rebounds per game, but his old friend and rival Wilt Chamberlain leads with 22.9. On more recent metrics, Russell might seem like a good player but not even a particularly great player: his career player’s efficiency rating of 18.9 is the same as DeMar DeRozan’s, where he is ranked 114th all-time. Basketball-Reference.com stakes he’s won think more of Russell, but even in this category, he barely makes the top 20 (WS total) or top 30 (WS per 48 minutes) in NBA history.
It can be hard to balance that individual with the fact that all of Russell’s teams were winning titles once he joined them. At the University of San Francisco, Russell led a program that was under 0.500 before reaching the National Championships in 1955 and 1956, winning NCAA Player of the Year awards in the first of those efforts and the UPI Honors Player of the Year in second. Russell had hoped to transfer that success to the NBA after finishing second in the 1956 draft and then trading it with the Boston Celtics—a team unparalleled in its history.
The Celtics before him had their share of big names, from coaching Reed Auerbach to a lineup with Bob Cozy, Bill Sharman and Ed McCauley, but Boston had only been six games over 0.500 in the two seasons leading up to Russell’s rookie year. . In 1955-56, the Celtics ranked third out of eight in the NBA in offensive efficiency but only sixth in defense, and they bounced back from the first round of the playoffs. In Auerbach’s first six seasons at the helm of the Celtics, his team had never made the NBA Finals, finishing with an above-average defense only once (1951-52).
Russell changed all of that once he made his NBA debut. With a new starting position clocked at 35.3 minutes per game, the Celtics’ defense improved from the third-worst in the NBA to easily the best, and they achieved the best record in the league. In the playoffs, they swept the Syracuse Nationals to make their first appearance in the NBA Finals, then beat the St. Louis Hawks in seven games to win a championship in Russell’s rookie year. While Cousy won the league’s MVP title, it was clear that Russell was the driving force behind Boston’s transformation into a defensive-minded champion.
This theme would be reinforced year after year over the ensuing decade. With Russell solidifying their squad, the Celtics won 11 of their 13 possible titles from 1956-57 to 1968-69, and finished as the No. 1 defense in the league 12 times in that span. (The only exception was 1967-1968, when Boston finished second behind Chamberlain’s Philadelphia 76ers.) And the secret behind basketball’s greatest dynasty was that it didn’t have a particularly strong attack, despite all the Hall of Fame names in its lineup. Instead, it was the greatest defensive breed the game had ever seen. We once calculated that each of the five players who played for the best defenses in NBA history (relative to the league average) were part of the Celtics dynasty, with the average Russell suppressing attacking at a staggering 6.1 points per 100. ownership relative to the league average.
Then there’s the deep beauty of Russell, a game that no count can capture, only through adorable videos and contemporary accounts of his brilliance. How do you measure Russell’s uncanny ability to strategically block shots so they stay there, quick breaks for his teammates to turn into easy points — or, memorably, to rule and then slide gracefully 94 feet with just a few dribbles?
And long before NBA analytics departments realized that blocking shots didn’t equate to a good defense—the big guys who handle every blocking shot can allow the attack to pump out fake bounces or more easily grab offensive bounces—Russell knew how to maintain his striking powder. dry. To paraphrase the famous Russell-ism story, what mattered wasn’t necessarily blocking the shot – but these defenses thought it would.
“The fact that Russell didn’t try to block everything just led to a salt scrub [opponents’] Injured, Mike Prada wrote in 2020. “Russell has mastered the art of staying grounded, ensuring he is always within sight of the attacking player.”
Other great defenses have come and gone over the years – including the San Antonio Spurs under Tim Duncan, perhaps the only other defender who could challenge Russell’s reputation. Plenty of clubs have won more championships in leagues with more teams than the Celtics had to surpass, a criticism sometimes used to devalue the titles won in the Russell era. You can even shrug that counting the rings is a lazy shortcut to greatness for most players throughout NBA history. But in Russell’s case, such strikes seem hollow.
For example, Russell’s leading influence as a defender is still felt to this day, in the NBA placing a premium on the “multiple” and “interchangeable” big men. Nearly 60 years and countless seismic twists after Russell streaked first on the NBA court, Anthony Davis, then Naismith College Men’s Player of the Year from the University of Kentucky with unpolished offensive game, won praise for his shot-blocking instincts (and instincts Do not block the shooting) reminds us of Russell. As Hall of Fame coach Bob Knight said, “[Anthony Davis is] Young Bill Russell. …and Bill Russell was by far, and always will be, the sport’s most valuable player ever.” That’s a testament to Davis’ incredible talent, sure, but it’s also a testament to Russell’s survival—and a suggestion that he’ll still dominate in the NBA today.
And in Russell’s case, tournaments say more than individual traits. They tell the true story of a player who transformed a franchise in his own image, making it the most prolific dynasty in basketball history.
They also go hand in hand with the propaganda that Russell brought to the struggles of black Americans during the 1950s and 1960s. Russell marched for civil rights on numerous occasions and was in the crowd for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. After teammates Satch Sanders and Sam Jones refused to serve in a coffee shop in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1961, he joined them Russell interrupted a game against the Hawks.
“We have to show our disagreement with this kind of treatment or the status quo will prevail,” Russell then said. “We have the same rights and privileges as everyone else and deserve to be treated accordingly. I hope we will never have to face this violation again… But if it does, we will not hesitate to take the same action again.”
Three years later, Russell was again at the center of a landmark act of protest. Along with Oscar Robertson and a number of other stars, Russell led a faction of players in the 1964 All-Star Game who threatened not to play unless NBA owners officially recognized the players’ union and granted them a pension plan. The strike eventually succeeded, with Commissioner Walter Kennedy reluctantly agreeing to the players’ demands. And Russell opened the floor again in 1966, succeeding Auerbach to become the first black coach in the NBA—all while still hopping at the Boston center.
In all three cases, Russell was ahead of what the game was going, paving the way for future NBA generations. Decades later, the NBA remains the most socially aware of any major North American professional league, continues to push for progress in racial justice, and its league is arguably the strongest of all sports. And while the NBA’s record for racial diversity in coaching lags behind its reputation, Russell’s coaching success forced white front offices to realize that black coaches could win, opening the door to a number of legends. All of these developments can be traced directly to Russell’s outsized influence outside the court, as well as his accomplishments in it.
Russell’s status as a prominent and outspoken black athlete and coach came at an enormous personal cost. He has been subjected to untold abuse by fans, journalists, and basketball organizations dating back to his years in San Francisco, and has developed a reputation as a cold, aloof – not a happy warrior – for his refusal to bow to racist forces within the whole of the USA. The NBA and the wider American community. Sports goers derisively referred to him as “Felton X” for his role in the Black Power movement, and the abuse he received from Boston fans was exemplified in 1971 when a group of thieves broke into his Massachusetts home, spray-painted racial insults, and vandalized his home. Cup case and defecation in his bed.
So, even after his famous self-criticism and aversion to playing his own achievements, it’s not hard to see why Russell chose not to sign fan autographs, skipping his Hall of Fame induction and insisting on a private party to retire his shirt. In Boston: Russell’s commitment in basketball was first and foremost to his teammates and to the game itself.
“I have very little confidence in the chants, and what they mean or how long they will last, compared to the faith I have in my love of the game,” he said in his diary.
In his later years, Russell re-emerged as a prominent face in basketball. After being renamed the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player award, Russell began presenting the trophy that he only had one chance of winning. Perhaps it is fitting that a player who so eschewed solo celebration did not get the ultimate winner’s prize he deserved in all its opulence.
As is often the case when the sport loses a gigantic figure, the temptation is to focus on ratings and numbers to assign a value to Russell’s talent. But it hurts him, perhaps uniquely in basketball history. Statistics collected during his career were simply not equipped to calculate his impact, and we cannot accurately assess his impact on the broader arc of American culture. All we can do is estimate Russell as the preeminent and pioneering winner, in a way that goes beyond mere quantification.