William "Bill" Russell
National Visionary

Born February 12, 1934 in West Monroe, Louisiana

First African American head coach in any major sport; led the Boston Celtics to 11 NBA world titles in 13 years

Basketball legend, author, and civil rights figure William “Bill” Russell revolutionized pro basketball with new concepts in defense and his philosophy of team play. He led the Boston Celtics to 11 world championships, and is considered one of the NBA’s greatest players.

Born February 12, 1934, in West Monroe, Louisiana, Russell was raised by parents Charles and Katie who instilled in him a strong work ethic and sense of independence. In 1943, the family moved to Oakland, California.

Russell as a young man
When Katie died at age 32, Charles took care of 12- year-old William and his older brother Charlie Jr., instead of letting the boys be raised by an aunt. His mother’s values — good education and rigorous church attendance — endured. Russell graduated from McClymonds High School in 1952, and attended the University of San Francisco. There he led the USF “Dons” to two NCAA championships, a 56-game winning streak, and was named NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player in 1955.

In 1956, Russell and the U.S. Olympic basketball team won a gold medal. That year he joined the Boston Celtics, a progressive team which had hired the NBA’s first African American player in 1950. As a rookie, Russell helped the Celtics win their first NBA title. He would lead them to a total of 11, before retiring in 1969.

Russell became the first African American head coach in NBA history, succeeding the Celtics’ Red Auerbach in 1966. While Russell was player/coach, Boston won the 1968 and 1969 NBA titles. Among his many career highlights, Russell was named Most Valuable Player five times, was a 12-time All-Star and was the first black player elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1974.

Russell was also a proud and powerful figure off-court, who spoke forcefully about race and civil rights. In 1958, he opened doors for African Americans in the NBA when he accused the league of using a quota system. He worked with the NAACP, and went to Mississippi to teach integrated basketball clinics following Medgar Evers’ death. In 1967, he publicly stood by Muhammad Ali’s decision to resist military service.

This interview has
been archived in the
NVLP Collection of
African American
Oral Histories at the
Library of Congress
American Folklife
Russell and his family endured frequent racial harassment while living outside Boston. In 1968, his home was ransacked and vandalized, and in another incident, residents tried to buy a house he wanted, just to keep him out of their neighborhood.

In 1973, Russell moved to Seattle to coach the Supersonics. While there, he rebuilt the franchise and guided them to their first playoff appearance. From 1987 to 1988, he coached the Sacramento Kings. Russell was twice named to NBA All-Time Teams, first in 1970 and again in 1980. That year, he was voted Greatest Player in the History of the NBA by the Professional Basketball Writers Association of America.

Russell still impacts the NBA. In 2006, he persuaded Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant to make peace before their Martin Luther King Day game. That same day, he received the NBA’s National Civil Rights Museum Sports Legacy Award.

The author of three books, Russell currently sits on the board of the National Mentoring Partnership and fundraises for the Foundation for Sarcoidosis Research. He lives with the love of his life, his wife, Marilyn.


Bill Russell's Wikipedia Page

URL (Click to bookmark): http://www.visionaryproject.org/russellwilliam