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Bill Russell: Basketball's greatest ambassador

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bill_russell1Sport is all about reaching pinnacles following a long, arduous journey peppered with moments of glory. Its artists are filled with innocence as they embark on their careers, with a simplistic view of enjoying their beloved game rather than collecting trophies. But then every sport is also blessed with compulsive winners (players partaking in the trophy collection business). The likes of Pele, Muhammad Ali, Jack Nicklaus, Wayne Gretzky and Pete Sampras all stand as irreplaceable pillars in their respective sport, leaving indelible marks during long illustrious careers. Basketball has its share of giants too, from Wilt Chamberlain to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson to Michael Jordan. Jordan was clearly the game's biggest showman, elevating the sport to unimaginable levels. But when it comes down to trophy collection, there is no one in the same strata as Bill Russell.

The most successful athlete in a North American League accumulated a mind-boggling 11 NBA titles in a span of 13 years with the Boston Celtics. Russell was the star of Red Auerbach 's Boston Celtics reign in the 60s and eventually went on to win two titles as a player-manager. Russell's life began in inauspicious surroundings as he grew up in the midst of black poverty at the height of the segregation in America in the 50s. He began his professional career in San Francisco after moving from the American South due to rabid racism. He was never possessed with natural ability and was always derided for his unorthodox technique. He was ignored by most colleges until the University of San Francisco (USF) gave him an unlikely scholarship. He thus became a part of the 1st major college team to play three African-American players as he accompanied K.C.Jones & Hal Perry through two glorious seasons.

USF went on an amazing 55 game winning streak as they claimed back-to-back NCAA Championships in 1955 & 1956. Russell's defensive might was the talk of the town as NBA sides hovered around the 22 year-old as the famed 1956 NBA Draft fast approached. Celtics were down in the draft picks after finishing 2nd the previous season and thus had very slim hopes of getting their target Russell. 1st picks, Rochester Royals failed to agree personal terms with Russell and he went to 2nd picks St.Louis Hawks instead. But Auerbach wasn't about let his man go and he struck a deal with the Hawks that saw Ed Macauley & Cliff Hagan move the other way. Auerbach also signed K.C.Jones and Tom Heinsohn in the draft, thus bringing in three future Hall-of-Famers.

Russell had further medals to garner before joining up with the Celtics as he captained the US National side to Olympic gold in the Melbourne Olympics. He was the top scorer for the Americans in the tournament, averaging 14.1 points per game. He joined the Celtics squad in December 1956 and thus began the great Celtics dynasty. Celtics grabbed their first title a few months later as they beat the St. Louis Hawks in one of the most memorable finals in the history of the game. The series was tied after six games and a nerve-racking game 7 beckoned. Moments like Russell's block on Jack Coleman from an unlikely position, Bob Pettit's attempt in the last second of 2nd over-time rolling on the edge of the rim for eternity as the Celtics led 125-123 has been immortalized in the annals of basketball.

Celtics faced the Hawks yet again in the 57/58 season finals, but the Hawks extracted revenge for last season's loss. The teams went into Game 3 after sharing the spoils over the first two games. Russell then broke down in game 3 with a foot injury, which ruled him out for the rest of the finals. Pettit lead the way for the Hawks as they won the series 4-2 while Russell received scant consolation in the form the NBA's MVP award.

But the Celtics had the last laugh in their rivalry with the Hawks as they claimed the next eight NBA titles. That period also saw the birth of the one of the most fiercest rivalries in sport. A young Wilt Chamberlain was making waves down in Philadelphia, averaging an impressive 37.6 points per game in his rookie season. The Warriors were dealt with unceremoniously by the Celtics in the Conference finals as they ran away 4-2 winners despite Chamberlain comfortably outscoring Russell. It was to be the story of the decade as Celtics collected the trophies while Chamberlain had points alone.

The Boston juggernaut trampled everything in its path in the 60s as record-setting turned into a weekly exercise. In 61/62 they became the 1st side to win 60 games in the regular season, a record they broke in 64//65 by winning 62 games. The decade also the rise of the great Celtics-Lakers rivalry as the two faced off in five NBA finals, all of which were won by the Celtics. Auerbach stepped down as head coach in 1966 and appointed Russell as the player-manager. Thus, Russell became the first African-American Coach in the NBA. His first season in-charge ended in bitter disappointment as the Philadelphia 76ers thrashed the Celtics 4-1 in the Eastern finals, thus bringing Boston's eight year hold on the title to an end.

But the next season, Celtics beat the 76ers in the Conference finals as they became the 1st team to come back from a 3-1 series deficit. The assassination of Martin Luther King a day before the series began provided a poignant backdrop for the entire series. A colossal performance by Russell in game 7 saw Chamberlain restricted to just 2 shots in the 2nd half. The Celtics then proceeded to hand Lakers their customary hammering as they won the finals 4-2. By the 68/69 season, the 35 year old Russell was rapidly approaching the end of his career. But he still had deep reserves of energy to guide the team to one more NBA Championship ring.

11 titles in 13 seasons, five MVP awards, 12-time NBA All-Star, 2nd highest career total rebounds, only one of two players to have grabbed 50 or more rebounds in a game, only one of four players to have won the NCAA Championship and NBA title back-to-back, the list is endless. But his influence on the game extends beyond mere statistics. Russell is responsible for single-handedly changing the defensive style of play in basketball. His aggressive approach in defence has become the standard in the game. He popularized the fast-break with aggressive blocks and incisive passing. But above all, his story is a classic tale of man overcoming his obstacles. Pulled down by poverty and stifled by racism, he grew to become the greatest ambassador for the sport around the world. He might not have enthralled viewers with free-scoring feats like Chamberlain or Magic Johnson or fixated fans with audacity like Jordan. But his sheer will to win and single-mindedness have set him apart as the consummate professional, the likes of which the sport has never seen since.

File Photograph Copyright: New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer