Hoops Legend Bill Russell's Final Shot (1934-2022)
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
My first knowledge of basketball legend Bill Russell came in 1979 when he served as host for an episode of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, then in its fifth season.
Russell’s gig had been announced earlier in the week and I remember asking my father if he was familiar with him.
“You don’t know who Bill Russell is?” was my father’s startled response. “You should.”
And within a week, I did—from watching him on the show (he was lively and looked like he was having a lot of fun!) and seeing remarkable clips of him in basketball mode during the sports segments of various news programs that chatted about how “the legend” was going to be on SNL.
By then, Russell was already regarded by experts as one of the greatest basketball players of all time, largely due to his defensive playing. His shot-blocking, man-to-man defense and strong rebounding abilities made him one of the sport’s dominant players during his 13-year NBA career (1956-1969) as a center for the Boston Celtics. (He is one of only two NBA players to have grabbed more than 50 rebounds in a game, the other being his frequent rival Wilt Chamberlain.)
For those 13 years, he was the cornerstone of the Celtics dynasty under the pioneering coach Red Auerbach, who turned the game into one dominated by coordinated team play. At the center was Russell, who during those years was a five-time NBA Most Valuable Player and a 12-time NBA All-Star on a storied team that chalked up 11 NBA championship during that period.
Sports statistics diehards will eagerly point out to you that Russell and Henri Richard of the National Hockey League (NHL) are tied for the record of the most championships won by an athlete in a North American Sports League.
Russell served as a player-coach for three seasons, from 1966-69, becoming the first Black coach in North American professional sport and the first to win a championship. He retired in 1969 and later took on coaching duties for the Seattle SuperSonics (1973-77) and the Sacramento Kings (1987-88).
Among Russell’s many honors, he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player (in 1975) and a coach (2021).
Born in the harshly segregated town of West Monroe, La. and later raised in Oakland, Calif. after the family moved west when he was seven, Russell’s winning streak began when he accepted a scholarship to attend and play basketball at the University of San Francisco. During his USF years, Russell developed a unique style of aggressive and speedy defensive play, quickly become the centerpiece of his college team and leading them to consecutive NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956.
In the 1956 NBA draft, the Celtics’ Auerbach set his sights on Russell and his defensive talents and snatched him up. And the rest is slam-dunk history—but only after Russell had served as captain of the 1956 U.S. Olympic basketball team (just a few months before the start of his rookie career) and helped to bring home a Gold Medal at that year’s Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.
Russell was actively engaged in the upheavals of the Civil Rights era in the Sixties, as committed to the issues of the day as he was to his vocation. Indeed, the civil rights movement thrust Black athletes—at the time, some of the most visible Blacks in America—directly into the political spotlight. Through it all, Russell was both thoughtful and outspoken.
Before the 1961 season, the Celtics were scheduled to play an exhibition game in Lexington, Ky. when Russell and two Black teammates were refused service at a local restaurant. The three refused to play in the game and flew home. Coach Red Auerbach argued they should stay, but ultimately agreed to drive them to the airport.
Upon arrival in Boston, Russell stated to the media, “Negroes are in a fight for their rights—a fight for survival in a changing world. I am with these Negroes.”
In August, 1963, he participated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which culminated in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Russell was seated in the front row.
He also traveled to Mississippi after the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers that same year and worked with Evers’ brother Charles to open an integrated basketball camp in Jackson. And Russell was among a group of Black athletes who stood by Muhammad Ali when the celebrated boxer refused induction into the Army during the Vietnam War.
"It is the first time in four centuries that the American Negro can create his own history," Russell said in the 1960s, according to sports site Bleacher Report. “To be part of this is one of the most significant things that can happen.”
In 2011, Russell was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama, who laughed as he described how the 6’10” Russell responds to the frequent question, “Are you a basketball player?”
“No, that’s what I do, that’s not what I am. I’m not a basketball player—I am a man who plays basketball,” Obama recounted.
“He is someone who stood up for the rights and dignity of all men,” said Obama, before bestowing the medal on Russell.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.