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Sports Column | Les Winkeler: Bill Russell's legacy reaches beyond the basketball court

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RIP Bill Russell.

It is not hyperbole to call Russell one of the legends of basketball.

The long, lanky, lefthander was a dominant force in the game for decades, both at as player and coach. After a brilliant playing career, Russell became the first African-American head coach in the NBA. He passed away this weekend at age 88.

Known primarily for his defensive prowess, Russell was never a prolific scorer, yet he averaged 15.1 ppg over his 13 year career. Couple that with 22.7 rebounds per game, and you have a force to be reckoned with. He averaged more than 20 rebounds per game in 10 seasons.

It should be noted that the playoffs brought out the best in Russell – he upped his scoring average to 16.2 ppg and his rebound total to 24.9 in the playoffs.

The Celtics won 11 NBA titles in Russell’s 13-year playing career. THAT is a dynasty. And, those Celtic teams revolved around Russell. Sure, there were other great players on those rosters – Sam Jones, K.C. Jones and John Havlicek come to mind – but, Russell was the foundation.

If that resume isn’t impressive enough, Russell added two more NBA titles as the Celtics’ head coach.

It is fashionable in these times to denigrate players from previous eras. Where Bill Russell is concerned, don’t do it. As an aside, it’s fascinating that the vast majority of people claiming the Bill Russells of the world couldn’t compete in today’s NBA, never watched those players perform.

At 6-foot-10, Russell was fast and mobile. How athletic was Russell? He high-jumped 6-9.5 during his college career at San Francisco. How many basketball players can make that claim?

And, in terms of intensity, he had few peers.

Teammate Tom Heinsohn once said Russell had a “neurotic need to win.” In an interview after his playing career ended, Russell said he “almost had to be in a rage” to play at a level he deemed accessible. Havlicek said Russell was so intense that he would frequently vomit before games.

In fact, the Celtics welcomed the sound of Russell’s pregame vomiting because it meant he came to play that night.

I remember watching Russell play on a grainy black-and-white television when I was a kid. It was rare for basketball games to be televised in those days. I listened to many more games on my mom and dad’s beat up old Philco radio.

Frequently dad would lay on the floor, the radio near his ear, listening to the Celtics battle the St. Louis Hawks. Russell certainly wasn’t a favorite of mine. He and his Celtic teammates made life miserable for the Hawks.

The Hawks did defeat the Celtics in the NBA finals in 1958. But, I was just four years old at the time, and unfortunately have no memory of that triumph.

However, Russell’s legacy extends beyond the basketball floor.

He became a basketball announcer after his career ended. Although he had a poor reputation with the media as a player, Russell was engaging behind the microphone. He had a high-pitched laugh and a quick sense of humor.

One of my favorite memories is Russell questioning a traveling violation, “They was just itty-bitty steps,” he said. That line still makes me chuckle.

Finally, Russell was a civil rights activist.

He was on the stage next to Martin Luther King when King delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. After Medgar Evers was murdered, Russell traveled to Mississippi to conduct an integrated basketball camp. He, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones and Tom Sanders boycotted an exhibition game in Kentucky when K.C. Jones and Sanders were refused service at a restaurant.

America lost a giant, literally and figuratively this weekend.

LES WINKELER is the former sports editor of The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at les@winkelerswingsandwildlife.com, on Twitter @LesWinkeler.

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