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Bob Ryan

Bill Russell was unparalleled on the basketball court, uncompromising off it

Even the great Wilt Chamberlain (right) had his hands full with the formidable Bill Russell (left).George Silk/Getty

It was the creed by which he lived, and I am proud to say I heard it from his own lips.

“My citizenship,” declared Bill Russell, “was not a gift. It was a birthright.”

By that Bill Russell meant that he did not need nor seek the validity of White America to dine, sleep, work, or vote whenever he chose. He was born an American on Feb. 12, 1934, and that alone should have been sufficient to grant him his rights.

He lived his life in a relentlessly straightforward manner. He basically gave the racism he encountered the back of his hand. “Proud” does not begin to describe the forthright nature by which he lived his life. He was a role model and an inspiration. He was a truly Great American.


Oh, and he could play a little basketball, too.

His résumé is unmatched in North American professional sport. From 1955 through 1969, his teams competed for 16 championships. That includes two NCAAs in 1955 and 1956, the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, and 13 NBA Finals. His teams won 14 of those 16 with him as the focal point, and it very likely would have been 15 (sorry, St. Louis) had he not been injured in 1958.

In addition, his University of San Francisco team had a 55-game winning streak, and in 21 winner-take-all games — which encompasses every NCAA Tournament game, each Olympic medal-round game, and all NBA Game 5 and Game 7 climactic games — his teams were 21-0.

Discussions in which we attempt to compare players of different eras usually end up as irresolvable shouting affairs, and I realize it will be impossible to convince many modern fans that were Bill Russell air-lifted into the 2022-23 NBA, he would flourish.

But something must be said.


Bill Russell was an athlete far ahead of his time. “I could kick the net and jump up and touch the top of the backboard,” he told me in a 1999 session. Notice he said “kick, k-i-c-k” the net, not touch. “I introduced the vertical game to basketball.”

That is the gospel truth. There had been occasional blocked shots prior to Bill Russell, but he and he alone made the blocked shot an art form and formidable weapon. And unlike the thousands of big men who have followed him, he had a very specific purpose with those blocks. So many people knock a shot into the 10th row. The other team regains possession and scores a basket. So what did it prove?

Russell’s goal was to destroy a shot and keep it in play in order to launch a fast break. He had the physical dexterity to do so — the late Tom Heinsohn referred to it as “popping” the ball — and he did it better than anyone in the history of the game. This is irrefutable.

His extraordinary combination of leaping skill and lateral mobility would have made him the ideal pick-and-roll defender in the modern game. Throw in the fact that, at 6-9, he was also the fastest man on his team. It was not unusual for him to start and finish the same fast break.

Both Heinsohn and the great Bob Cousy maintained for more than 60 years that Russell made the greatest defensive play they had ever seen. It was a game-saving block on Jack Coleman of the Hawks in the epic double-overtime 1957 Game 7. Russell started from practically halfway to Worcester in order to catch up with Coleman, a very decent athlete, to block the shot. Heinsohn said it was if a freight train had whizzed by him.


He was the roadblock to a championship for all the great players of his time, the list including Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson, Rick Barry and, well, everybody. They all revered and respected him, and one foe, the erudite Tom Meschery, expressed his feelings in a 1970 poem titled “To Bill Russell”:

I have never seen
an eagle with a beard
but if there is
in some strange
corner of the world
and the Hindu
belief is true,
you will return
and beat your wings
over my grave.

Russell’s problems living in the Boston of the day once the game ended have been well-documented. Suffice it to say that Boston was never going to be his favorite place. But do not confuse that with his fidelity to the Celtics as an organization. He loved Red Auerbach and he loved his teammates. He was once introduced by Hannah Storm on NBC as “Hall of Famer Bill Russell” and he corrected her. “No, Hannah,” he said, “make that Boston Celtic Bill Russell.”

As for the NBA, the league should borrow from baseball. No one will ever wear 42 (Jackie Robinson) again. Nor should any professional basketball player ever wear 6.

Boston has been uniquely blessed with an unbroken succession of first-ballot Hall of Famers. It started with Eddie Shore in 1925 and will continue with Patrice Bergeron, whenever he decides to hang ‘em up. Were all those megastars lined up for a parade, the flag bearer would be Bill Russell.


Bill Russell lived to be 88, and 13 of those years were spent enhancing the city of Boston. Here’s the question: Did we deserve him?

Bob Ryan can be reached at robert.ryan@globe.com.