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Bill Russell’s Trailblazing Legacy Is Secure (Even If Stats Can’t Measure It)

Properly measuring the greatness of Bill Russell, the legendary Boston Celtics center who died Sunday at the age of 88, has always been a challenge in our modern, metrics-obsessed era of NBA analysis. Russell’s titles — 11 as a player, two of which also came as a coach — are unparalleled in the history of pro basketball, of course. But as ring-counting has fallen out of style in favor of ever-more-sophisticated individual statistics, it can be hard to contextualize the legacy of a player who averaged 15.1 points per game, had no official numbers for his famous shot-blocking ability and did most of his winning in an NBA with fewer than 10 teams. Even less quantifiable is the far-reaching social impact of the league’s first Black Hall of Fame player, a man whose off-court accomplishments rivaled those on the hardwood.

And yet, in many ways, Russell created the NBA as we know it today. Those mismatches — between the iconic plays and the ancient film reels, the glowing testimonials and the incomplete numbers — make one thing clear: However great you think Bill Russell was, he was probably even greater.


Take the official playing record of his career. Russell’s scoring average ranked just 30th among his contemporaries. His 22.5 rebounds per game are eye-popping, to be sure, but they are topped by longtime friend and rival Wilt Chamberlain’s 22.9. According to more modern metrics, Russell may appear to be a good but not even especially great player: His career player efficiency rating of 18.9 is the same as DeMar DeRozan’s, ranking 114th all-time. Basketball-Reference.com’s win shares think more highly of Russell, but even by that category he either barely makes the top 20 (total WS) or top 30 (WS per 48 minutes) in NBA history.

It can be difficult to square that individual resume with the fact that all Russell’s teams seemed to do was win trophies as soon as he joined them. At the University of San Francisco, Russell led a program that had been below .500 before his arrival to national championships in 1955 and 1956, earning NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player honors in the first of those efforts and UPI Player of the Year honors in the second. Russell hoped to carry over that success into the NBA after being taken second overall in the 1956 draft and then traded to the Boston Celtics — a team with no championships in their history.

The pre-Russell Celtics had their share of big names, from the coaching of Red Auerbach to a lineup with Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman and Ed Macauley, but Boston was just six games over .500 in the two seasons leading up to Russell’s rookie year. In 1955-56, the Celtics ranked third out of eight NBA teams in offensive efficiency but only sixth on defense, and they were bounced out of the first round of the playoffs. In Auerbach’s first six seasons at the Celtics’ helm, his team had never made the NBA Finals, and it finished with an above-average defense just once (1951-52).

Russell changed all of that as soon as he made his NBA debut.1 With their new starting center logging 35.3 minutes per game, the Celtics’ defense improved from the NBA’s third-worst to easily its best, and they produced the league’s best record. In the playoffs, they swept the Syracuse Nationals to make their first NBA Finals appearance, then outlasted the St. Louis Hawks in seven games to win a championship in Russell’s rookie year. While Cousy won league MVP honors, it was clear that Russell was the driving force behind Boston’s transformation into a defensive-minded champion.

That theme would be reinforced year after year over the decade-plus that followed. With Russell anchoring their lineup, the Celtics won 11 out of a possible 13 titles from 1956-57 to 1968-69, finishing with the league’s No. 1 defense an incredible 12 times in that span. (The only exception was 1967-68, when Boston finished second behind Chamberlain’s Philadelphia 76ers.) The secret behind basketball’s greatest dynasty was that it did not have an especially powerful offense, despite all of the Hall of Fame names in its lineup. Instead, it was the greatest defensive dynasty the game has ever seen. We once calculated that each of the five players who’d played for the best defenses in NBA history (relative to league average) were part of the Celtics’ dynasty, with Russell’s average team suppressing offense by a staggering 6.1 points per 100 possessions relative to league average.

Then there’s the visceral beauty of Russell’s game, one that can’t be captured by any statistic, only by grainy videos and contemporaneous accounts of his brilliance. How exactly would you even measure Russell’s preternatural ability to strategically block shots so they stayed inbounds, triggering a fast break for his teammates to turn into easy points — or, more memorably, for him to control and then gracefully glide 94 feet with just a few dribbles? 

And long before NBA analytics departments recognized that shot-blocking didn’t equate to good defense — big men who go for every blocked shot can allow the offense to pump fake or more easily grab offensive rebounds — Russell knew to keep his swatting powder dry. To paraphrase a famous Russell-ism, what mattered wasn’t necessarily blocking the shot — but that defenses thought he would. 

“The fact that Russell didn’t try to block everything only rubbed salt in [opponents’] wound,” wrote Mike Prada in 2020. “Russell mastered the art of staying on the floor, ensuring he was always within an offensive player’s line of sight.”

Other great defenses have come and gone over the years — including the San Antonio Spurs under Tim Duncan, perhaps the only other dynastic defender who could challenge Russell’s reputation. And plenty of clubs have won multiple championships in leagues with more teams than those Celtics had to surpass, a criticism occasionally used to discount the value of titles won in Russell’s era. You could even quibble that ring-counting is a lazy shorthand for greatness for most players throughout NBA history. But in Russell’s case, such knocks ring hollow.

For one, Russell’s pioneering impact as a defender is still felt today, in an NBA that puts a premium on versatile and “switchable” big men. Nearly 60 years and countless seismic shifts after Russell first stepped foot on an NBA court, Anthony Davis, then the Naismith Men’s College Player of the Year out of the University of Kentucky with an unpolished offensive game, drew praise for shot-blocking instincts (and not-shot-blocking instincts) reminiscent of Russell. As Hall of Fame coach Bob Knight put it, “[Anthony Davis is] a young Bill Russell. … And Bill Russell was by far, and will always be, the most valuable player ever in sport.” That’s a testament to Davis’s wunderkind talent, to be sure, but it’s also one to Russell’s staying power — and a suggestion that he would still dominate in today’s NBA.

And in Russell’s case, the championships say even more than the individual attributes. They tell the true story of a player who utterly transformed a franchise in his own image, turning it into the most prolific dynasty in basketball history.

They also run hand in hand with the publicity Russell brought to the struggles of Black Americans during the 1950s and ‘60s. Russell marched for civil rights on numerous occasions and was in the crowd for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech in 1963. After teammates Satch Sanders and Sam Jones were refused service at a coffee shop in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1961, Russell joined them in a boycott of a game against the Hawks.

“We’ve got to show our disapproval of this kind of treatment or else the status quo will prevail,” Russell said afterward. “We have the same rights and privileges as anyone else and deserve to be treated accordingly. I hope we never have to go through this abuse again… But if it happens, we won’t hesitate to take the same action again.”

Three years later, Russell was again at the center of a historic act of protest. Along with Oscar Robertson and a number of other stars, Russell led a faction of players at the 1964 All-Star Game who threatened not to play unless NBA owners formally recognized the players’ union and granted them a pension plan. The strike ultimately worked, as commissioner Walter Kennedy grudgingly acceded to the players’ demands. And Russell broke ground again in 1966, succeeding Auerbach to become the NBA’s first Black head coach — all while still jumping center for Boston.

In all three cases, Russell was ahead of where the game was going, paving the way for future NBA generations. Decades later, the NBA remains the most socially conscious of any major North American men’s pro league, continuing to push for progress on racial justice, and its union has become arguably the most powerful in all of sports. And though the NBA’s record on racial diversity in coaching lags behind its reputation, Russell’s coaching success forced white front offices to realize that Black coaches could win, opening the door for a number of legends. All of these developments can be traced directly back to Russell’s outsize influence off the court, in addition to his accomplishments on it.

Russell’s status as a prominent, outspoken Black athlete and coach came at a tremendous personal cost. He endured untold abuse from fans, journalists and basketball organizations dating back to his years at San Francisco, and he developed a reputation as a cold, aloof person — rather than a happy warrior — because of his refusal to bow to racist forces both within the NBA and broader American society. Sportswriters jeeringly referred to him as “Felton X” for his role in the Black Power movement, and the abuse he received from Boston fans was epitomized in 1971 when a group of burglars broke into his Massachusetts house, spray-painted racist slurs, vandalized his trophy case and defecated in his bed. 

So even beyond his famous self-criticism and aversion to playing up his own accomplishments, it’s not hard to see why Russell chose not to sign autographs for fans, skipped his induction into the Hall of Fame and insisted on a private ceremony for his jersey retirement in Boston: Russell’s commitment in basketball was first and foremost to his teammates and to the game itself.

“I have very little faith in cheers, what they mean or how long they will last, compared with the faith I have in my own love for the game,” he said in his memoir.


In his later years, Russell would reemerge as a prominent face of basketball. After the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player award was renamed for him, Russell started presenting the trophy he only had one chance to win.2 It’s fitting, perhaps, that the player who firmly eschewed individual celebration never received the ultimate winner’s award he so richly deserved. 

As is often the case when a sport loses a titanic figure, the temptation is to dwell on ratings and numbers to assign a value to Russell’s talent. But that does him a disservice, perhaps uniquely so in basketball history. The stats collected during his career were simply not equipped to compute his impact, nor can we ever precisely appraise his influence on the wider arc of American culture. All we can do is appreciate Russell as the consummate winner and trailblazer, in a way that transcends mere quantification.

Footnotes

  1. Which was delayed by several months because Russell was leading the U.S. to gold in the 1956 Summer Olympics (held in November and December because the host country, Australia, is in the Southern Hemisphere).

  2. The award was introduced starting in the 1969 Finals, Russell’s last playoff series as a player.

Santul Nerkar is a copy editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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