Bill Russell, Celtics center who transformed pro basketball, dies at 88

At McClymonds High School in Oakland, Russell became a starter on the basketball team his senior year, already emphasizing defense and rebounding. A former University of San Francisco basketball player, Hal DeJulio, who sought out his alma mater, recognized Russell’s potential and recommended him to coach Phil Woolpert.

Russell received a scholarship and became an All-American, teaming with guard KC Jones, a future Celtic teammate, to lead San Francisco to NCAA championships in his final two seasons. Following a loss to UCLA in Russell’s junior year, the team won 55 straight games. He averaged more than 20 points and 20 rebounds per game in his three college seasons.

“No one had ever played basketball the way I played it, or as well,” Russell told Sport magazine in 1963, looking back on his college career. “They had never seen anyone block shots before. Now I’ll be smug: I like to think I created a whole new style of play.”

In the mid-1950s, the Celtics had a very talented team with Bob Cousy, the biggest little man in the league, and sharpshooter Bill Sharman at guard and Ed Macauley, an excellent shooter, up front. But lacking a dominant center, they had never won a championship.

The Rochester Royals owned the No. 1 pick in the 1956 NBA draft, but they already had an outstanding big man in Maurice Stokes and were unwilling to wage what owner Les Harrison believed would be a war of offers for Russell with the Harlems. Globetrotters, who were allegedly willing to offer him a lucrative deal. So the Royals recruited Sihugo Green, a guard from Duquesne.

The St. Louis Hawks had the second pick in the draft, but they didn’t think they could afford Russell either. Auerbach convinced them to trade that pick to the Celtics for Macauley, a St. Louis native, and Cliff Hagan, a promising rookie. That allowed Boston to take Russell.

Leave a Comment