There’s lots of talk on Sports Talk television and radio about who is the greatest NBA player of all time.  Namely the arguments are largely about Lebron and Michael Jordan. 

BOSTON, MA – NOVEMBER 1959: Wilt Chamberlain #13 of the Philadelphia 76ers shakes hands with Bill Russell #6 of the Boston Celtics at Boston Garden on November 16, 1959 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Herb Scharfman/Sports Imagery/Getty Images)

Other names you might hear are Kareem Abdul Jabbar who is the all time leader in points scored, and who won championships for the Lakers and with the Milwaukee Bucks.  You’ll also hear the name Kobe Bryant, who won five titles with the Lakers and had one of the most relentless work ethics you’ll ever find in the history of basketball. 

 A name which sometimes gets pushed down the list is Bill Russell.

UNITED STATES – OCTOBER 13: Basketball: Closeup portrait of Boston Celtics Bill Russell, New Haven, CT 10/13/1957 (Photo by John G. Zimmerman/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images/Getty Images) (SetNumber: X4796)

Bill Russell won 11 championships in a 13 year NBA career, which is astounding.  Now,  of course, there were a lot fewer teams in the NBA when he was playing.  Russell was probably several inches taller than most of his contemporaries. 

But nobody has every been that dominant to win a championship almost every year of their career.  Russell was named MVP of the league 5 times.  He was an all-star in almost every single season of his career.

Why Russell does not get more credit, is probably because he was not a prolific scorer as he never averaged 20 points per game his entire career.  But he was a ferocious rebounder and of the game’s best defenders. 

Basketball: NBA Finals: Closeup portrait of (L-R) Boston Celtics Bob Cousy and Bill Russell (6) posing in tunnel before Game 5 vs St. Louis Hawks at Boston Garden. Boston, MA 4/9/1957 CREDIT: Richard Meek (Photo by Richard Meek /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images/Getty Images) (Set Number: X4483 )

The NBA was not a big television sport during Russell’s era, like it is now.  All the way into the late 70’s early 80’s the NBA finals was shown on tape delay. 

Russell also was not known to be media friendly as he didn’t sign a ton of autographs of fans, and thought as an athlete he didn’t owe the fans anything but an all out effort on the court, and absolutely nothing off of it.

Russell was on of the firsts to be vocal about the bigotry and bad treatment of blacks in the Boston area, and more or less.  Boston is still known to have racist fans until this day.  

Russell despite being a hero with the Celtics as they won championship after championship, someone from the Celtics nation broke into his home, sprayed racist language and defecated in the family’s bedroom. 

The age of which Russell became a basketball star, was tumultuous in America.  He saw assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, riots across the country, and experienced a love hate relation with Boston fans.

While he didn’t always smile, and wasn’t as commercially viable as Jordan, and Lebron.  Bill Russell not only won NCAA championships (2 at San Francisco), he won a gold medal, and 11 NBA championships as a player.

 But he also lent his voice to the critical issues including the NBA’s cap on the number of black people it wanted to have in the league, and to the civil rights movement.  Before it was cool to embrace African culture, Bill Russell took a trip to Africa and spent time with famed Ethiopian leader Haile Selassie, visiting countries that were winning their independence from European rule. 

At home in America Russell did not believe in the hero worship of athletes.  “We foolishly lionize athletes and make them heroes because they can hit a ball or catch one,” Russell once said.  “The only athletes we should bother with attaching any particular importance to are those like {Muhammad} Ali, whom we can admire for themselves and not for their incidental athletic abilities.

Bill Russell also won two championships as coach of the Celtics.  The Celtics were a very dominant team with a stacked roster,  he wasn’t exactly Larry Brown coaching the 2004 Pistons that beat a stacked Lakers team. 

Yet, he still deserves his flowers for being one of the first African Americans to get a major coaching opportunity in a Big four (MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL) sport, and definitely the first to win a championship. 

Some athletes and sports figures are before their time, I believe Bill Russell was for his time.  He probably doesn’t win 11 championships playing in another era.

 I also don’t believe there were many others that could take the abuse Russell took from Boston fans and still continue to play and win championships.  The lure of commercials and endorsements and NIL deals of today might have watered down a Bill Russell if he played in today’s era.   So he was built and perfect for his time.

Today we lost a real one. At the time of his death, Bill Russell was married to Jeannine.

Rest in Power Bill Russell. February 12, 1934-July 31, 2022

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