Arts and Leisure

Bill Russell Tosses His Cookies

Bill Russell led the Boston Celtics to victory in 11 championship games, but only after throwing up first.

Bill Russell at Fenway Park in 1962. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Bill Russell at Fenway Park in 1962. Photo courtesy Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

He was born on Feb. 12, 1934 to poor parents in West Monroe, La., the Jim Crow South. He became the first African-American superstar in basketball.

Before the Celtics drafted him, he led San Francisco University to two NCAA championships and won a gold medal as captain of the U.S. Olympic team in 1956. He quickly became the centerpiece of the Celtics’ dynasty in the late ‘50s and throughout the ‘60s with Bob CousyTommy HeinsohnK.C. Jones and John Havlicek.

He was the NBA’s Most Valuable Player five times and an All-Star 12 times in the 13 seasons he played for the Celtics. Russell scored 14,522 points, had 12 consecutive seasons of 1,000 or more rebounds and led the NBA in rebounds four times. He and his rival Wilt Chamberlain are the only two players in NBA history to have had more than 50 rebounds in a game.


Russell’s intensity was unrelenting, as were his expectations of his teammates. He would get so worked up before games that he would vomit – explosively. The sound reassured his teammates. Havlicek called it ‘a tremendous sound, almost as loud as his laugh.’ And, said Havlicek, “It’s a welcome sound, too, because it means he’s keyed up for the game and around  the locker room we grin and say, ‘Man, we’re going to be all right tonight’.”

During one final playoff game against Philadelphia in the 1960s, the Celtics coach Red Auerbach hadn’t heard Russell throw up. Auerbach ordered the team off the court during warm-ups and wouldn’t let them back until Russell threw up.

Russell performed as expected and the Celtics won the game.

Maybe Wilt should have tried vomiting instead of chasing all those women.

With thanks to Bill Russell: A Biography by Murry Nelson. This story was updated in 2020.

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