Those 11 titles — the first in 1957, the last in 1969 — remain one of the NBA’s most unbreakable and unimaginable records. Russell owns as many rings as Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson combined, and more than LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant put together. Wilt Chamberlain, his chief rival, won only one on Russell’s watch and another after his retirement. To match Russell’s consistent excellence, a 2022 lottery pick such as Paolo Banchero or Chet Holmgren would need to win the 2023 title as a rookie, win eight consecutive titles from 2025 to 2032 and then bank two more in 2034 and 2035 before hanging it up.
The Hall of Fame center, who died Sunday at 88, never averaged more than 20 points in a season, but he still ranks second in career rebounds and is regarded as one of the sport’s premier shot-blockers and defenders. “The most important measure of how good a game I played was how much better I’d made my teammates play,” Russell wrote in “Second Wind,” his 1979 memoir.
It’s appropriate, then, that Russell is most often associated with 11, the sum of his team’s achievements, rather than 6, his individual identifier. In that spirit, here are 11 defining moments from Russell’s basketball journey.
Born in Louisiana and raised in Oakland, Calif., Russell was a lightly recruited high school prospect who signed with the University of San Francisco. Before Russell, USF had never won an NCAA title. With Russell, USF won it all in 1955 and 1956. Since Russell’s reign, USF hasn’t won again.
In the 1955 title game, Russell knocked off La Salle, the defending champion, by posting 23 points and 25 rebounds to claim Most Outstanding Player honors. The following year, he completed an undefeated season with 26 points and 27 rebounds in a title game win over Iowa. No wonder UCLA Coach John Wooden called Russell “the greatest defensive man I’ve ever seen.”
Dynasties require good fortune in the draft; look no further than Johnson (coin flip), Jordan (Sam Bowie) and Curry (Jonny Flynn and Ricky Rubio). Boston’s run was no exception.
After the Rochester Royals selected Duquesne’s Si Green with the top selection in 1956, the Celtics traded Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan to the St. Louis Hawks for the rights to select Russell with the second pick. Green posted modest averages of 9.2 points and 4.3 rebounds over a nine-year career, never making an All-Star Game or winning a title. Macauley, a future Hall of Famer, played just three seasons in St. Louis before retiring, while Hagan went on to join him in Springfield.
Macauley and Hagan helped the Hawks win the 1958 title before Russell’s Celtics went on to win the next eight in a row. In addition to Russell, the Celtics added two other Hall of Famers, Heinsohn and K.C. Jones, in the 1956 draft, marking the greatest class in league history.
Decades before the Dream Team, Russell won gold with USA Basketball at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. With Australia as the host, the Summer Games took place in November and December, causing Russell to delay the start of his NBA career. Team USA was never seriously challenged, racking up an 8-0 record and blowing out the Soviet Union in the final to claim its fourth straight gold.
Boston’s reign begins
The Celtics won the 1957 title to cap Russell’s rookie year, but they needed to survive two overtimes in Game 7 of the Finals to beat the Hawks. In the final minute of regulation, Russell, who posted 19 points and 32 rebounds, hit a sweeping left-handed layup and executed a chase-down block of a Jack Coleman transition shot to force overtime.
Heinsohn would later call that Game 7 victory “the greatest game ever.” The NBA Finals has gone into overtime in Game 7 just one other time. The Celtics won that one as well, besting Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and the Los Angeles Lakers in 1962 thanks to Russell’s 30 points and 40 rebounds.
Russell and Chamberlain were quintessential rivals, with the latter averaging a preposterous 29.9 points and 28.1 rebounds in their 94 regular season matchups, according to Basketball-Reference.com. But Russell’s Celtics went 57-37 against Chamberlain’s teams in the regular season and 29-20 in the playoffs, including Finals victories in 1964 against the San Francisco Warriors and 1969 against the Lakers. Boston needed just five games in 1964, with Russell finishing with 14 points, 26 rebounds and six assists in the clincher.
Decades after he retired, Russell summed up his approach to the timeless matchup: “If [Chamberlain] got 62 [points] and we won, it wouldn’t mean anything. If he got 62 and they won the game, that bothered me.”
Perhaps the most famous photograph of Russell was taken in June 1967, when he joined Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and other prominent Black athletes in Cleveland to express solidarity with Muhammad Ali’s decision to refuse to enter the military upon being drafted. Russell, who decried racism during and after his career, boycotted a 1961 game because a Kentucky coffee shop refused to serve Black players.
Over the years, Russell became an icon for civil rights and social justice, lending his support to Colin Kaepernick and to NBA players who protested in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Asked once if he was worried about being killed for his beliefs during a visit to Mississippi, Russell replied, “I’d rather die for something than live for nothing.”
Russell’s reputation as an excellent leader is derived in part from his successful tenure as a player-coach of the Celtics from 1966 to 1969. Though he wasn’t Red Auerbach’s top choice to be his successor, Russell became the first Black coach in major pro sports history and guided Boston to the 1968 and 1969 titles.
Upon his retirement as a player, Russell also left Boston’s bench. Despite less successful coaching stints with the Seattle SuperSonics (1973-1977) and Sacramento Kings (1987-1988), Russell was elected to the Hall of Fame for the second time in recognition of his coaching achievements. His final coaching record was 341-290 (.540).
Going out on top
A generation before Jordan hit his famous “last shot” in the 1998 Finals, Russell capped his career with a memorable Game 7 victory over Chamberlain, West and the rival Lakers in the 1969 Finals. Los Angeles had entered the series as favorites, and West became the only player on a losing team to win Finals MVP honors after posting 42 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists in the finale.
Nevertheless, Russell claimed his 11th ring and preserved his perfect 10-0 record in Game 7s with six points, 21 rebounds and six assists in a 108-106 victory.
“I knew that was my last game,” Russell said later. “I was just so proud of those guys — and myself. Every minute I played for the Celtics was a joy to me. From there, I couldn’t go to heaven. Leaving there and going anywhere else was a step down.”
It’s one of the true oddities of NBA history: Russell, the NBA’s greatest winner and a five-time MVP, was never named Finals MVP. Of course, the NBA didn’t begin handing out the postseason award until 1969, Russell’s final season, and West won that year.
To fill in the historical gap, the NBA decided in 2009 to name the award in Russell’s honor. Russell then became a regular at championship ceremonies, presenting the award to James and Durant, among others.
White House honor
Russell received a major honor of his own in 2011, when President Barack Obama presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of his social justice activism. Smiling widely as he placed the country’s highest civilian honor around Russell’s neck, Obama would later call him a “civil rights trailblazer” who “endured insults and vandalism, but never let it stop him from speaking up for what’s right.”
Grieving Kobe Bryant
Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Russell stopped making appearances at major events such as the Finals and the NBA’s 75th-anniversary celebration. But in February 2020, he sat courtside at Staples Center for a game between the Celtics and Lakers to honor the memory of Kobe Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash.
Putting a lifelong rivalry to the side, Russell traded in his Celtics green for a white Bryant jersey, remarking afterward that he and Bryant shared a “deeper connection” and had “much love and respect for one another.” Russell’s presence was a lasting reminder of his status as basketball’s elder statesman.