He Walked This Earth

He wasn’t the inspiration for the logo – he couldn’t have been, not at that time, nor under those circumstances. That was inevitably going to be the territory of less outspoken, likely fairer-skinned players, the kind who bowed knee to the ownership class and played into media narratives about themselves at a time when the league needed characters.

Even after eleven championships as a player, including two as the first Black head coach of a team in the four major North American men’s sports, Bill Russell was never destined to be what the league wanted the logo to be. By the time of its introduction in 1969, Russ, who passed away Sunday at the age of 88, was already so much more.

Despite dominating the game at a time when teams had only just figured out its first real, collective stylistic approach – in a post-Mikan world, the center had become the alpha and omega of any serious coach at most levels of basketball – the league decided to use the silhouette of a player dribbling, despite that act not even being legal in James Naismith’s original rules of Basket Ball in 1892[1]. Eleven championships in thirteen years: Russell was the greatest champion in the history of the game, his only peer being Henri Richard in rings totals as a player, and that is strictly on a professional level. Everywhere Russell went, he won: at the University of San Francisco, he was twice an NCAA champion, playing alongside future Boston Celtics teammate K.C. Jones, where the two helped popularize the alley-oop. He was the equivalent of an Olympic-level high jumper. Sure enough, at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, he captained the winning men’s basketball squad.

John Wooden said he was the best defensive player he’d ever seen. He famously frustrated Wilt Chamberlain, the single most dominant force in the history of basketball, at a time when the two would share in-season family dinners and holiday invitations. Imagine eating your mother’s turkey and laughing alongside a guy whose team routinely wins five-game playoff series against you.

Russell came up at a crucial time for the game of basketball: Mikan had retired, and while there was now a blueprint for what consistent excellence could mean, no one had yet produced a team built specifically for a player like that (*keeps tapping the sign* Read FreeDarko’s The Undisputed Guide To Pro Basketball on this, preferably from an independent bookshop). Just after the formal introduction of the shot clock, Russell’s arrival in Boston unlocked everyone around him in Red Auerbach’s meritocratic utopia. His defensive prowess meant that opponents’ offensive possessions would end sooner, and Russell could operate out of the fast break going the other way, often leaving Jones or Bob Cousy in charge of dishing to open teammates in mismatched situations.

In that sense, when you watch Nikola Jokic or Joel Embiid corral a rebound and jump start action the other way, you’re seeing some of Russell with the Celtics. When Knicks fans look in awe and hope at a Mitchell Robinson blocked shot kept in bounds, they are seeing Russell’s greatest on-court contribution in influence, his point of pride.

Russell took ownership of *heavy sigh* grit in basketball, ruling in the realms of the game that had often been left to Black players: defense and rebounding. At the same time, he was using those skills to spark creativity in the context of a generational Celtics team, leading with outlet passes and blocks kept in bounds long enough to knock a recovering defense off course. In so doing, he turned the idea that “defense wins championships” in basketball[2] into a catch-all for helping the team in any way possible, setting the stage for subsequent dynastic tendencies in the NBA: the Lakers, the Bulls, the Lakers (again), the Spurs, the Warriors.

At a time when stats were limited to basic newspaper-style boxes (which, not for nothing, were not counting blocks at a time when Russell was stacking those up at a rate parallel to his championships), and despite five league MVP trophies, Russell still didn’t get the credit he deserves for maximizing the teams around him. Every year he was on the Celtics, mind you, he was second on the team in assists. Of course, it didn’t help his public profile at the time that he was openly (and correctly) disdainful of many of the systems surrounding his circumstances.

That he was framed as “the winner” against Wilt Chamberlain felt like a consolation prize for the first Black MVP, among many other things[3]; Russell’s forthright progressivism during the Civil Rights movement rubbed a lot of his own team’s fans the wrong way, already uncomfortable with the idea of a southern-born, Bay Area-raised man of color being, hilariously for a team with that name, the face of the franchise. His defiance to that ostracized him even more, up to and including the time he set the price (a low one, for the kids) of his own line of shoes when negotiating endorsement rights with a distressed Rhode Island manufacturing company. Yet his talent commanded attention, always.

To have been that outspoken and that unprecedentedly great on that team in that city with that complexion at that time: Bill Russell was one of one, and so the eleven titles are canny. In later years, along with many of his generation, he loosened up a bit, became an ambassador of the game – the one he always should’ve been – and never lost the streak of hellfire that carried him for so long. Here’s to Russ, a teacher at heart and in practice, even if most of his pupils missed it the first time.

[1] Amendments: what a concept!

[2] The kind of philosophy that, it should be noted, colleges like Duke have adopted without much acknowledgment of who was able to put those pieces together in the first place.

[3] And indeed, Russell did limit Chamberlain to below his insane career averages when they met in the playoffs, per StatMuse


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