Russell is widely considered one of the best players in NBA history. Listed as between 6’9″ (2.06 m) and 6’10” (2.08 m), Russell’s shot-blocking and man-to-man defense were major reasons for the Celtics’ success. He also inspired his teammates to elevate their own defensive play. Russell was equally notable for his rebounding abilities. He led the NBA in rebounds four times and tallied 21,620 total rebounds in his career. He is one of just two NBA players (the other being prominent rival Wilt Chamberlain) to have grabbed more than fifty rebounds in a game. Though never the focal point of the Celtics’ offense, Russell also scored 14,522 career points and provided effective passing.
Bill Russell was born to Charles and Katie Russell in West Monroe, Louisiana. West Monroe was strictly segregated, and the Russells often struggled with racism. Once, Russell’s father was refused service at a gasoline station until the staff had taken care of all the white customers. When his father attempted to leave and find a different station, the attendant stuck a shotgun in his face, threatening to kill him unless he stayed and waited his turn. At another time, Russell’s mother was walking outside in a fancy dress when a policeman accosted her. He told her to go home and remove the dress, which he described as “white woman’s clothing”. Because large numbers of blacks were moving to Oakland, California during WWII to look for work there, Russell’s father moved the family out of Louisiana when Russell was eight years old and settled them in Oakland. While there the family fell into poverty, and Russell spent his childhood living in a series of project homes.
Charlie Russell is described as a “stern, hard man” who was initially a janitor in a paper factory (a typical low paid, intellectually unchallenging “Negro Job”, as sports journalist John Taylor commented), but later became a trucker when World War II broke out. Being closer to his mother Katie than to his father, Russell received a major emotional blow when she suddenly died when he was 12. His father gave up his trucking job and became a steel worker to be closer to his semi-orphaned children. Russell has stated that his father became his childhood hero, later followed up by Minneapolis Lakers superstar George “Mr. Basketball” Mikan, whom he met when he was in high school.
In his early years, Russell struggled to develop his skills as a basketball player. Although Russell was a good runner and jumper and had extremely large hands, he simply did not understand the game and was cut from the team in junior high school. As a sophomore at McClymonds High School, Russell was almost cut again. However, coach George Powles saw Russell’s raw athletic potential and encouraged him to work on his fundamentals. Russell, who was used to racist abuse, was delighted by the warm words of his white coach. He worked hard and used the benefits of a growth spurt to become a decent basketball player, but it was not until his junior and senior years that he began to excel. Russell soon became noted for his unusual style of defense. He later recalled, “To play good defense… it was told back then that you had to stay flatfooted at all times to react quickly. When I started to jump to make defensive plays and to block shots, I was initially corrected, but I stuck with it, and it paid off.”
One of Russell’s high school teammates was future Baseball Hall-of-Famer Frank Robinson.
Russell was ignored by college recruiters and did not receive a single letter of interest until Hal DeJulio from the University of San Francisco (USF) watched him in a high school game. DeJulio was not impressed by Russell’s meager scoring and “atrocious fundamentals”, but sensed that the young center had an extraordinary instinct for the game, especially in clutch situations. When DeJulio offered Russell a scholarship, the latter eagerly accepted. Sports journalist John Taylor described it as a watershed in Russell’s life, because Russell realized that basketball was his one chance to escape poverty and racism; as a consequence, Russell swore to make the best of it.
At USF, Russell became the new starting center for coach Phil Woolpert. Woolpert emphasized defense and deliberate half-court play, concepts that favored defensive standout Russell. Woolpert was unaffected by issues of skin color. In 1954, he became the first coach of a major college basketball squad to start three African American players: Russell, K.C. Jones and Hal Perry. In his USF years, Russell used his relative lack of bulk to develop a unique style of defense: instead of purely guarding the opposing center, he used his quickness and speed to play help defense against opposing forwards and aggressively challenge their shots. Combining the stature and shot-blocking skills of a center with the foot speed of a guard, Russell became the centerpiece of a USF team that soon became a force in college basketball. After USF kept Holy Cross star Tom Heinsohn scoreless in an entire half, Sports Illustrated wrote, “If [Russell] ever learns to hit the basket, they’re going to have to rewrite the rules.”
However, the games were often difficult for the USF squad. Russell and his African American teammates became targets of racist jeers, particularly on the road. In one notable incident, hotels in Oklahoma City refused to admit Russell and his black teammates while they were in town for the 1954 All-College Tournament. In protest, the whole team decided to camp out in a closed college dorm, which was later called an important bonding experience for the group. Decades later, Russell explained that his experiences hardened him against abuse of all kinds. “I never permitted myself to be a victim,” he said.
Racism also shaped his lifelong paradigm as a team player. “At that time,” he has said, “it was never acceptable that a black player was the best. That did not happen…My junior year in college, I had what I thought was the one of the best college seasons ever. We won 28 out of 29 games. We won the National Championship. I was the MVP at the Final Four. I was first team All American. I averaged over 20 points and over 20 rebounds, and I was the only guy in college blocking shots. So after the season was over, they had a Northern California banquet, and they picked another center as Player of the Year in Northern California. Well, that let me know that if I were to accept these as the final judges of my career I would die a bitter old man.” So he made a conscious decision, he said, to put the team first and foremost, and not worry about individual achievements.
On the hardwood, his experiences were far more pleasant. Russell led USF to NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956, including a string of 55 consecutive victories. He became known for his strong defense and shot-blocking skills, once denying 13 shots in a game. UCLA coach John Wooden called Russell “the greatest defensive man I’ve ever seen”. During his college career, Russell averaged 20.7 points per game and 20.3 rebounds per game. Besides basketball, Russell represented USF in track and field events. He competed in the 440 yard (402 m) race, which he could complete in 49.6 seconds. He also participated in the high jump; Track & Field News ranked him as the seventh-best high jumper in the world in 1956. That year, Russell won high jump titles at the Central California AAU meet, the Pacific AAU meet, and the West Coast Relays. One of his highest jumps occurred at the West Coast Relays, where he achieved a mark of 6 feet 9¼ inches (2.06 m).
After his years at USF, the Harlem Globetrotters invited Russell to join their exhibition basketball squad. Russell, who was sensitive to any racial prejudice, was enraged by the fact that owner Abe Saperstein would only discuss the matter with Woolpert. While Saperstein spoke to Woolpert in a meeting, Globetrotters assistant coach Harry Hanna tried to entertain Russell with jokes. The USF center was livid after this snub and declined the offer: he reasoned that if Saperstein was too smart to speak with him, then he was too smart to play for Saperstein. Instead, Russell made himself eligible for the 1956 NBA Draft.