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“As trophies are concerned, that was the highlight of my career.” — the heartwarming story behind Bill Russell's favorite trophy

The NBA will retire the No. 6 league-wide honoring Bill Russell. The story of his favorite trophy makes it clear why he's the first person ever to receive that honor.
Bill Russell

Bill Russell

11x NBA champion, 5x MVP, 4x NBA rebounding champion, 2x NCAA champion, NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player, NBA Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom - there are a lot of trophies and awards in Bill Russell’s house, and each meant a lot to him.” It’s hard to explain, each one of those things have a story.” But his favorite one is not on this list - it’s arguably the least impressive one. Until you hear the story behind it.

Bill Russell’s promise to his father

Russell was always about the team. He was voted to the All-NBA First Team only three times in his illustrious career. Bill gladly let Wilt win the individual accolades, while he was winning championships. So for a guy like that, an exhibition game in the middle of the season meant little to nothing. Winning an individual trophy meant even less, right? Yes and no. 

The 1963 All-Star game was played in Los Angeles, and Russell invited his father Charles to come to see the game. Chick Hearn, the famous Lakers play-by-play guy said Los Angeles was the basketball capital of the world. Red Auerbach “subtly” mentioned they’d need to win at least one title before claiming that title. While the fact Red felt annoyed by the comment was no surprise, Russell’s father being annoyed by it was. On the way home from dinner, he made his feelings known.

  • Charles:” They need to shut up about that!
  • Bill:” What are you talking about?
  • Charles:” I hope you guys kick their asses.
  • Bill:” You feel that way?
  • Charles:” Yeah.
  • Bill:” OK, I’ll tell you what. We’ll win the game tomorrow. I’ll make sure of that. And I’ll get the MVP.
  • Charles:” You could do that??
  • Bill:” Yeah!” 

And I did it.” proudly said Bill.” After the game, they gave me the trophy for the MVP, which I promised my father I would do. For as trophies are concerned, that was the highlight of my career. ’Cause I could keep my word to my father.

Charles’ promise to Katie

We all want to make our parents proud, but an All-Star MVP meaning more than all those rings and MVPs? I’m sure those made Charles Russell proud too. Well, when you learn about Charles Russell’s character and the promise he made to Bill’s mother before she passed away, it all makes sense. 

My father was my hero. When my mother got sick and she knew she was dying, she asked him to promise her that he would send her boys to college.

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Bill was a lot closer to his mother Katie than his father who was described as a “stern, hard man.” Katie had five sisters, so after the burial, they were discussing which of the sisters is going to take Bill, and which his brother. 

My father said ‘I’m gonna take them both to California with me.’ And they said ‘Men can’t raise kids.’ He said ‘I promised their mother I would try.’”

Charles Russell started his career working as a janitor and worked his way up to owning a successful trucking business. To keep his promise to his wife, Charles sold the business and got a job at a local steel foundry” for $42 a week, which was about half of what he was making before in his business. He sacrificed so he could be home every night, to be a good parent.

I’ll give you a moment to find some tissues. 

After he signed his first big contract, Bill called his father to tell him he didn’t have to work in the foundry anymore.” I don’t want your damn money,” replied Charles.” I got my own money!” Bill was confused; why work at a steel foundry at such an old age if you don’t have to? Charles’ answer explains where Bill got his sense of humor.” Listen, son, I gave these people 30 of the best years of my life. Now, I’mma give them a few of the bad ones.” 

In 1963, Bill Russell was a five-time NBA champion. Yet, when he said to his dad he’ll win an All-Star game for him, Charles replied,” You could do that??” I don’t know about you, but I had a few of those moments when my parents were surprised and impressed by something about my job that shouldn’t be a surprise. (They still don’t get how you can make a living writing about basketball online.) 

So the 1963 All-Star game wasn’t just about Bill finally making it undoubtedly clear to Charles that he was the best basketball player in the world. Winning that trophy was a chance to make his dad proud, and do something his father always did. Keep his word. 

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