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Bill Russell

A legacy to remember: Honoring Bill Russell on and off the court

This week, the world lost one of the most iconic names in basketball: Bill Russell.

Since the announcement, thousands of tributes dedicated to Bill Russell have illuminated social media, and rightfully so as his person shone beyond his achievements on the court. 

But among the many tributes, these are the ones that remind us of how he started, the foundation he built, and the legacy he created in his 88 years.

The jumping-off point

The University of San Francisco gave Russell something special: a chance. Towards the end of his high school career, universities paid him no mind. Even USF’s recruiter, Hal DeJulio, was underwhelmed by his shooting and fundamentals.

However, DeJulio saw something else: Russell’s instincts for the game. He offered Russell a scholarship to USF, where he earned the reputation of the school’s most impressive player.

Shortly after that, Russell became the team’s starting center and led the Dons to back-to-back NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956.

1955 was USF’s first national championship. And 1956 was their last.

As a college champion, he was drafted by the St. Louis Hawks but eventually found him with the Boston Celtics after a series of trade talks. And it worked in both their favor.

Building a foundation

Bill Russell spent his entire playing career suiting up for the Boston Celtics.

The six-foot-ten center was a key piece in Celtics history. In his first season playing for the team, Boston went on to win their first championship in 1957, Russell contributing largely to their defensive scheme.

Two seasons later, Boston locked in their momentum and went on to win eight consecutive NBA championships from 1958 to 1966. And then he got promoted.

In the 1966-1967 season, Russell became the head coach of the Boston Celtics on top of being a player. In his first year as player-coach, the Celtics were unable to make it past the Eastern Division Finals against Philadelphia. But in the following season, they beat Philadelphia in a seven-game Eastern Division Finals series, then went on to win everything from the LA Lakers.

In his last season in the NBA, he and the Celtics again made it to the NBA finals, winning his 11th championship in game seven against the Lakers.

In his 13-year run with Boston, he became an 11-time NBA champion, a 12-time NBA All-Star, a five-time NBA MVP, and even a two-time NBA champion as a coach. With that, he has one of the most prolific careers.

But, he will largely be remembered for everything he was off the court.

His legacy

Throughout his entire life, Bill Russell was an advocate for civil rights, and his legacy will forever be remembered.

While playing for USF, he became a part of the first college basketball starting lineup to include three black players. For the Celtics, he was part of the first NBA starting lineup to include five black players. And, when he was named the head coach of the Celtics, he became the first black head coach of any professional sports team in the United States.

He did all that in spite of being a minority, and despite the racial abuse and discrimination thrown his way (at times even by his team’s own fans).

And today, Bill Russell is recognized as the player who paved the way for equal opportunity.

As an athlete and coach, he was a legend. And off the court, his legacy will live on.