Bill Russell led the Boston Celtics to victory in 11 championship games, but only after throwing up first.
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. His coach and friend, Red Auerbach, called him “the single most devastating force in the history of the game.”
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 Cousy, Tommy Heinsohn, K.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.
In 1966, when the Celtics named him player-coach, Bill Russell became the first black coach in North American professional sports. He then won a championship, the first black coach to do so.
After his final championship with the Celtics in 1969, Russell cut all ties with the team and went to work as a color commentator for ABC Sports. In 1973 he went to work as head coach for the Seattle SuperSonics for four years. He then retired as a coach, took up golf, became a vegetarian and worked as a color commentator for CBS and TBS until the mid-1980s. He served briefly as head coach of the Sacramento Kings.
Russell won many awards during his lifetime, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010 for his civil rights leadership. He wrote several books, gave motivational speeches and even starred in commercials.
“There are two societies in this country, and I have to recognize it, to see life for what it is and not go stark, raving mad,” he said in 1963. “I don’t work for acceptance. I am what I am. If you like it, that’s nice. If not, I couldn’t care less.”
Bill Russell died on July 31, 2022.
With thanks to Bill Russell: A Biography by Murry Nelson. This story was updated in 2022.