From his time as a college player through his success as an NBA player and coach, Bill Russell is considered by nearly everybody to be the greatest winner in basketball history.
Russell was a star for the University of San Francisco, and was also identified as a premier defensive back. For the 1954-55 season, USF had an astonishing 28-1 regular season record and won the 1955 NCAA tournament. Russell was named the 1955 NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player.
In the 1955-56 season, USF would go 29-0 and win the NCAA tournament again. Few college teams have won back to back NCAA tournaments, but this would be a sign of things to come for Russell. Another sign of what was to come, Russell played with future Celtics teammate K.C. Jones at USF.
Russell the Winner
Luckily for the Boston Celtics, the Rochester Royals already had an All-Star center and did not want to draft Russell with their first overall pick. Russell was also not a typical center of the era in that his game was defined more by his defense than his offense.
The Celtics were adamant about drafting Russell. This was largely driven by their visionary coach Red Auerbach. The Celtics traded Cliff Hagan and Ed Macauley for the second overall pick. Ed Macauley was an All-Star and played well with Bob Cousy and Bill Sherman. However, Boston could not make it to the NBA finals and had just lost their third consecutive Eastern Conference final.
In the 1956 draft, the Celtics would also draft Holy Cross forward Tom Heinsohn using a territorial pick and K.C. Jones as the 13th pick. They would both be integral players for the Celtics in their quest for championships.
Auerbach’s moves paid off and the Celtics won the NBA championship in 1957. Russell would win 11 NBA championships and five MVPs in his career. Despite not being the Celtics’ leading scorer, Russell was without a doubt their leader when he played.
Next to his constant winning, Russell's competition with Wilt Chamberlain would also define his career. In Wilt's career, he would win 7 scoring titles. However, in the playoffs, Chamberlain only averaged 25.7 PPG against Russell, well below his usual averages. Chamberlain and the Philadelphia 76ers would lose five times in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Celtics. Russell had a knowledge of the game and of Wilt's game that was unmatched by any of his contemporaries.
While still a player, Russell was also picked as the head coach of the Celtics for his last three seasons.
The best example of Russell’s legendary defense is his matchups against Chamberlain in the NBA finals. Chamberlain went 4-12 and averaged just 19.0 PPG against Russell in the finals. Wilt was known for his scoring prowess and physical dominance against every other player in the league, but was constantly stifled by Russell.
In Russell’s last season, the Celtics and Lakers would meet again in the 1969 NBA finals. This was the last game that Russell played against Chamberlain
1968-69 was the first season that Chamberlain played with the Lakers. In the prior season, the 76ers, led by Chamberlain had lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Celtics in 7 games, with Wilt scoring only 14 points in the final game.
In the 1969 NBA finals, the Lakers had home-court advantage and were up 2-0 at the beginning of the series, looking unbeatable after adding Chamberlain. To many, it felt like the end of the Celtics dynasty. However, Russell’s defense would get the Celtics back into the series and help them win games 3 and 4. Russell would hold Chamberlain to only 12 points in game 3 and 8 points in game 4. In game 4, Chamberlain only made 3 out of his 8 field goal attempts.
The series would go to a game 7, where the Celtics beat the Lakers 108-106. In game 7, Chamberlain attempted only 8 field goals and had 5 fould, while Russell led Boston in assists. Amazingly, Russell played all 48 minutes of all 7 games in the 1969 NBA finals, made all the more impressive by the fact that this was near the end of his career.
After retiring from basketball, Russell would serve as the head coach of the Seattle Supersnonics for four seasons, and for one season with the Sacramento Kings.
The NBA's NBA Finals MVP award is, quite fittingly, still named after Russell.