He’s always been here, even when he was no longer blocking shots and firing outlet passes to ignite the fast break.
Bill Russell proudly prowled the Old Garden’s parquet floorboards for 13 seasons, first in 1956-57. In his final three seasons, he had the audacity to coach the Celtics while he was still playing. In retirement, his 11 championship banners and venerable No. 6 flapped gently above the action as the torch was passed to Havlicek, Cowens, Bird, Pierce, Garnett, and Tatum. Every time the Celtics neared the winner’s circle, Russell returned to visit Red, bask in the glory, and hopefully hand off a Finals MVP trophy named in his honor.
Russell died at the age of 88 July 31, and Tuesday night on Causeway Street the Celtics played their first-ever game in a world without William Felton Russell.
Baby Bill was born in West Monroe, La., in 1934, 12 years before the beginning of the National Basketball Association. When the “new” Boston Celtics first laced ‘em up at the old Boston Arena, young Russell was getting cut from his middle school team at Herbert Hoover Junior High in Oakland. Russell was playing hoop with Frank Robinson at McClymonds High School when Red Auerbach came to Boston in 1950.
In 1956, Red famously maneuvered to draft two-time NCAA champion Russell. Boston’s hoop godfather traded Hall of Famers Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagen to St. Louis for the Hawks’ first-round pick (No. 2 overall), then cut a deal with Rochester, promising them the Ice Capades if they agreed not to select Russell with the No. 1 overall pick. Rochester took Sihugo Green and the rest is hardwood history
Russell was not with the Celtics on opening night in 1956. Along with University of San Francisco teammate K.C. Jones, he was prepping for the Melbourne Olympic Games when the Celtics opened their season at Madison Square Garden. Russell didn’t make it to Boston until the Celtics beat the Hawks by 2 points at the Old Garden Dec. 22, two weeks after the birth of Larry Joe Bird.
Coming off the bench, Russell snatched 16 rebounds and scored 6 points in 21 minutes in his NBA debut. League MVP Bob Cousy was impressed.
“I remember coming out of that game thinking, ‘Boy, we got a shot at doing something,’ ” recalled the Cooz.
Led by Cousy and rookies Russell and Tommy Heinsohn, the Celtics beat the Hawks in the 1957 Finals for Boston’s basketball’s first banner. It was the first of Russell’s 11 championships.
Tuesday, the Celtics said thank you with a ceremony/celebration before the nationally televised season opener against Philadelphia. Russell’s widow, Jeannine, and daughter, Karen, were in the house, as was Russell’s longtime teammate, 83-year-old Satch Sanders.
“Bill Russell was a great man for what and who he stood up for,” Celtics veteran Jaylen Brown told the sellout crowd. “He represented a type of nobility and honor that transcended sport . . . ‘’
This won’t be the last Russell tribute of the 2022-23 season. The NBA has taken No. 6 out of circulation forever (like what Major League Baseball did to honor Jackie Robinson) and Russell’s number is stenciled into the lanes at both ends of the parquet. The Celtics wore special City Edition uniforms and Russell’s No. 6 was illuminated in the rafters.
Doc Rivers, who coached the Celtics for nine seasons, was conveniently in the house in his capacity as 76ers coach.
“Bill Russell means a lot,” said Rivers. “He doesn’t get enough credit. I’ll always remember how emotional he was when we won [in 2008]. It was the connection he had to the franchise.”
Brad Stevens, who succeeded Rivers on the bench (eight seasons) said, “I shook [Russell’s] hand a couple of times. The first day I met him was at the unveiling of his statue. I stayed for the ceremony then headed to the Garden. And with the greatest winner of all time sitting in the front row, we blew a 20-point lead and lost my first game as a head coach. He was always very nice. That whole generation of players made me awestruck when I walked into a practice or a game.”
Alas, Joe Mazzulla, the Celtics’ 34-year-old interim coach, never got to meet Russell.
“I met the man,” said Cedric Maxwell. “Every time he approached me he gave me the two-finger salute. I don’t know why, but it was funny. I feel like I heard and read about him more than I really knew him. Jo Jo [White] and Don Chaney would talk about him. John Havlicek. They all knew him, and it never stopped. It was pretty cool. I love what the NBA has done for him and it’s time for the city of Boston to step up and rename Causeway Street Bill Russell Way.’’
Even lowly sportswriters were in awe of Russell. This typist became a sports fan in kindergarten, and I was in high school the first time the Celtics failed to win an NBA championship. It was an April ritual of growing up here in the 1960s: Take down the storm windows, watch the forsythia bloom, catch the Red Sox home opener, watch the Celtics beat the Lakers to win the title.
Five decades have come and gone since Russell last played, but he never seemed far from us. His name is always part of the local sports conversation, and the Russell Celtics forever stand as a model for team sports:
Team above self. Don’t worry about stats. Beat them with your mind. Stand up for what is right.
Thank you, Bill Russell.