This weekend, NBA legend Bill Russell’s family announced that Bill had passed on at the age of 88. Russell won eleven titles in thirteen seasons as an NBA player, two as the first Black coach in major American professional sports, five league MVPs, two NCAA titles at the University of San Francisco, a program that did nothing before and has done nothing since, two NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player awards, and an Olympic gold medal.
Russell managed all this without being a particularly good offensive player. He was a prolific dunker and screen-setter, and a decent foul-shooter, but he brought it hard and cold on the defensive end. He devoured every shot that came into the paint, grabbed rebounds at an obscene percentage—he remains the league’s second all-time leading rebounder, behind lifelong frenemy Wilt Chamberlain—and just blew up the offensive machinations of opponents, who stood dumbstruck and beaten in the face his iron will. Russell was so obsessed with winning that he would vomit before every game out of sheer nerves.
Calling Russell one of the greatest basketball players who ever lived feels, somehow, like you’re selling him short. There are a handful of players whose physical and tactical mindset warped the way the game was played forever. George Mikan, in the ‘50s, invented offensive big man play as we know it. Michael Jordan was the first complete-game ultra-athletic freak. Steph Curry has distorted the size of the court, redefining “shot value.”