Is it possible to be seen as a Top 5 player in NBA history and still be underrated?
If the answer is yes, then Bill Russell is your man.
Russell – who sadly passed away at the age of 88 on Sunday – has a legacy in terms of NBA titles that no one can touch. Russell’s Boston Celtics won 11 NBA championships over the course of his 13 seasons in the league. That 11-ring haul is matched in North American Big Four sports by just one player, Henri Richard of the Montreal Canadiens.
For some perspective, Richard played for 20 years in the NHL or a title in 50% of his seasons. Russell’s end-of-season championship winning percentage is an absurd 84.62%. Unless there is a fundamental shift in how American sports work, Russell’s 11 titles over 13 seasons will never be bettered.
The crazy part about Russell’s legacy is that the 11 NBA titles don’t even paint the whole picture. This premier player was just as dominant as a college player where he led the San Francisco Dons to their only two NCAA titles in 1955 and 1956. He was also the captain of the US Olympic team as they powered to a gold medal at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. This included a 101-38 point win in the semi-final over an Uruguay team that won the bronze medal. Be it college, international, or pro, no opposition team had any idea how to deal with Russell.
It was Russell’s defense that led him to greatness. The 6-foot-10, 215-pounder was never a particularly great scorer. At a time when the best big men were generally unstoppable around the basket, Russell never averaged 20 points per game for a season. It is quite something then that he is even in the conversation when it comes to the Top 5 (or higher) players of all time, but the other side of this premier player’s game was so completely dominant that it offset any supposed offensive limitations that he had.
Russell was a 12-time All-Star and won the NBA MVP award on five different occasions. He was blessed with a wingspan that measured out at 7-foot-4, giving him a presence around the rim that was up there with Wilt Chamberlain as the most dominant premier player in basketball history.
Russell had 1,000 or more rebounds in 12 consecutive seasons, he sits second in NBA history in rebounds per game, and – perhaps most astonishingly – is one of just two players (along with Wilt) to ever have more than 50 rebounds in a single NBA contest. Russell and Wilt were such dominant rebounders that 23 of the 24 highest single-game rebound figures belong to one of the pair.
Russell was not just an NBA legend, he was also a pioneer. He was the league’s first black superstar and paved a trail that thousands of other black players have walked over the 50+ years since his retirement. He was also the first black coach in the history of the league – he coached the Celtics for the last three years of his playing career – and this also led him to become the first black coach to win a championship.
Russell was known throughout his career as having that insatiable drive to win that sets elite athletes apart. Post-playing days, he was seen as an intelligent, dignified man, one who confronted the prejudice of his time. Those traits – plus his on-court dominance – saw Russell awarded the ultimate honor when he was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.
Russell has a timeless legacy, even if his place at the very top of the basketball mountain will always be debated.
Article by Premier Players writer Steve Wright