As a child, Russell’s family moved from Louisiana to California to escape racism in the South. He played center for McClymonds High School in Oakland, California, and earned an athletic scholarship to the University of San Francisco. There, he became known for his strong defense and shot-blocking skills and helped lead the team to two NCAA championships, in 1955 and 1956. Despite his success, Russell experienced racial abuse from spectators and others during his playing career. After college, he captained the U.S. basketball team that won gold by defeating the Soviet Union at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. Following the Olympics, the 6’9” Russell joined the Boston Celtics in December 1956.
Before Russell’s arrival, the Celtics had never won an NBA championship. The team captured their first title in 1957 under the direction of coach Red Auerbach, and Russell and the Celtics were on their way to becoming a basketball dynasty. Russell was named the league’s MVP five times and played in 12 All-Star games during his career. His biggest rival was 7’1” center Wilt Chamberlain, who joined the NBA in 1959. Russell’s career record of 21,620 rebounds was bested only by Chamberlain’s 23,924 rebounds. Outside of basketball, the two became close friends. Russell was known as a strong team player, but off the court, the media considered him aloof and he refused to sign autographs for fans.
When Red Auerbach retired before the 1966-67 season, Russell was named player-coach, making him the first black head coach in all of American professional sports. In the final two seasons of his career, 1967-68 and 1968-69, Russell won his 10th and 11th NBA championships with the Celtics. After ending his career as a player, Russell coached the Seattle SuperSonics (1973-1979) and Sacramento Kings (1988-1989), wrote books and worked as a sports commentator. Russell, who experienced persistent racism throughout his playing career, both at home in Boston and on the road, wasn’t in attendance at the Boston Garden when his Number 6 Celtics jersey number was retired in 1972, nor when he was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975.