fb-pixel Skip to main content
christopher l. gasper

We can’t help but compare athletes. But no one compared to Bill Russell.

Bill Russell was applauded with a standing ovation at a Celtics game in 2012.Elise Amendola/Associated Press

The nature of sports discussion and debate is comparison. We’re always comparing players, teams, eras, and accomplishments. In a field where comparison is oxygen, William Felton Russell stood out as incomparable. He has no analogue or equal.

The unparalleled Celtics legend, who died Sunday at age 88, towered above it all as a sui generis talent, competitor, winner, and personality. He changed the course of Boston sports forever.

At the retirement ceremony of Larry Bird in 1993, rival Magic Johnson said there will never ever be another Larry Bird. There certainly will never ever be another Bill Russell, who won 11 NBA titles in 13 seasons while turning back shots and racism. He was a champion on the court who turned defensive dominance into a high art form, and a civil rights champion off it who in unvarnished terms highlighted America’s hypocrisy and racist social hierarchy.


Russell’s singularity is his legacy.

Among major North American athletes, Russell displayed a peerless impact on winning, both in style and substance. He won titles at every level: From high school in Oakland, Calif., to college at the University of San Francisco, to the Olympics, to the NBA. He was 21-0 in winner-take-all contests.

Russ didn’t need the ball to dominate games and win five NBA MVPs. He never launched more than 16.6 shots per game in a season; Michael Jordan never took fewer than 18.6. Russell won more consecutive titles with the Celtics (eight) than Tom Brady, the greatest winner of this generation, has won total.

The provenance of the Celtics dynasty traces directly back to Russell. It doesn’t exist without him.

Red Auerbach arrived as coach in 1950. The Progeny of the Parquet didn’t reach the NBA Finals until the 1956-57 season, Russell’s first in the NBA (joined by fellow rookie and Hall of Famer Tommy Heinsohn).


Here is what Auerbach said in his book, “Let Me Tell You a Story: A Lifetime in the Game,” with John Feinstein: “My goal was to get one player every year that would make the team better. Or one guy who was going to be able to step in when another guy retired. The only guy who was completely irreplaceable was Russell.”

That’s also why Auerbach anointed Russell as player-coach after the parquet patriarch’s retirement in 1966. Russell became the first Black head coach in the modern major North American pro sports.

The decision was based on pragmatism, not racial progress. Russell told Red he didn’t want to play for anyone but Auerbach.

Russell and Auerbach were as formidable a duo as any pairing in the history of North American professional sports.Bill Chaplis/Associated Press

Despite insulting questions about his ability to oversee his white teammates, Russell won two titles as player-coach, getting the last cackle. His player-coach hardware haul includes the legendary 1969 NBA Finals against a loaded Lakers team that was left with Russell’s archrival Wilt Chamberlain sitting on the bench and 5,000 celebratory balloons sitting in the ceiling of the Forum as the Celtics prevailed in Russell’s final game.

Despite his peerless success as an athlete, Russell refused to be solely defined by it. Tellingly, the first line of Russell’s Twitter profile reads, “Civil rights activist.”

No matter how high he jumped or how much championship jewelry he accumulated, Russell remained grounded in who and what he was — a Black man in America — and what that meant.

He attended the 1963 March on Washington. He conducted an integrated basketball camp in Mississippi after the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers by a white supremacist. He was part of the famous Cleveland Summit in 1967 to show support for Muhammad Ali, stripped of his heavyweight title after refusing to serve in the Vietnam War.


As was the case for many prominent Blacks who advocated and agitated for civil rights in that era, the FBI surveilled Russell. FBI files referred to him as “an arrogant Negro who wouldn’t sign autographs for white children.”

This is a far cry from Jordan’s “Republicans buy sneakers too” stance when asked to lend his celebrity to defeating virulent segregationist North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms in 1990.

It would be nice to say Boston backed Russell wholeheartedly in his civil rights pursuits. It also would be grossly inaccurate.

Russell was never idolized or beloved during his playing days like Ted Williams, Bobby Orr, Bird, or Brady. It remains a stain on this city that it had the greatest winner ever to grace American professional sports, and it couldn’t see past his race to embrace him commensurately.

No overdue statue can erase that.

There was a Russell rapprochement toward the later years of his life, but part of Russell’s story will always be his uneasy relationship with the city he transformed into the city of champions, but also referred to as a “flea market of racism.”

Russell demanded Boston’s respect as a man and rejected its tardy and insipid adulation as an icon.


The defecation in and desecration of his Reading home remains one of the most disgraceful episodes in Boston sports history.

“I played for the Celtics, period. I did not play for Boston,” Russell told his daughter, Karen Kenyatta Russell, as relayed in a 1987 piece for the New York Times Magazine.

In the same piece, Karen said she was afraid to return to Boston to attend Harvard Law School, recalling harassment her family received and a time she was called the n-word in Marblehead.

Russell, by then a player/coach, watches from the bench during a 1968 game.Dan Goshtigian/Globe Staff/file

Russell refused to have his original 1972 number retirement ceremony conducted in front of Celtics fans. It happened in an empty arena. A second ceremony was held in 1999 with fans and with the proceeds going to charity.

Auerbach said in the Feinstein book, “Russ was always conscious of the fact that he was a Black man in Boston.”

Standing a reedy 6 feet 10 inches, Russell was a literal and figurative American giant, both David and Goliath.

You hear people say so-and-so is the Babe Ruth of this or the Jordan of that, but not the Russell.

It’s apropos that Russell isn’t used as a universal point of comparison because he was truly incomparable.

Rest in Power, Russ.

Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at christopher.gasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.