Last night, on July 31st, 2022, Bill Russell passed away at the age of 88. In honor of Russ and his mind-blowing 11 rings, we bring you our favorite 11 stories published over the years. From fun facts and anecdotes to historical moments on and off the court, they encapsulate the man, the myth, the legend - Bill Russell.
The Art of War
We covered the unknown friendship between Wilt and Russ years ago. As it turned out, not only were they friendly, but they spent a lot of time together off the court. You only invite the closest of friends for a sleepover, right?
Long before Michael Jordan befriended Charles Barkley to potentially take the edge off in an upcoming Finals (a theory I don’t buy very much), elite players used psychology to gain an advantage. Russell didn’t fake the friendship with Chamberlain - it was genuine. But he did feed his friend’s hunger for stats.
Possibly the biggest psyops maniac of them all, Kobe Bean Bryant, confirmed that to Jackie MacMullan. The Hall of Fame reporter explains how “many suspected that Russell employed Art of War techniques to lull Wilt into a false sense of success,” and then revealed Kobe confirmed the theory.
“During the interview I did with Kobe Bryant during his finals season, the one in which he revealed the nature of his relationship with Michael Jordan, he shared with me a phone conversation he had with Bill in the year 2000. Russell admitted to him he would play Wilt tough while the game was in question but would ease off once the game was in hand so Wil could score and be satisfied with his numbers in defeat.”
Jackie MacMullan, The Icons Club
You don’t win 11 titles by chance, not even in a league that had much less talent compared to the later eras. 11 rings mean you figured out stuff no one else did, and Kobe shared an insight into what made Bill Russell a step in front of his greatest competitor.
“Kobe claimed that Russell believed if he defended Wilt too tightly he would take it as a challenge and would demolish Russell because he was so big and strong.”
Jackie MacMullan, The Icons Club
Wilt got most of the individual accolades and rewards, but it was a price Russell was willing to pay to ensure he had the lead in the one category that meant the most. Championships won - Bill Russell 11, Wilt Chamberlain 2.
Whatever it takes to win
Right after “I’m in the best shape of my life,” heard in media availability every preseason, the biggest lie NBA players consistently tell is that they will “do whatever it takes to win.”
The truth is only a handful of the greatest players actually meant it. Alongside Bill Russell, guys like Tim Duncan and Steph Curry come to mind. Players who actively took a step back, sacrificed their numbers and fame to empower teammates. Rarely mentioned in this category - Isiah Thomas, who consistently sacrificed numbers to prepare his team for Bird’s Celtics and Magic’s Lakers.
The first chapter of Bill Simmons’ “The Book of Basketball” is about The Secret. He tells the story through a fascinating Vegas interaction with Isiah Thomas. Simmons writes how Thomas explained the Pistons won because “they liked each other, knew each other, knew their roles, ignored statistics and valued winning over everything else.”
The solution is most often right in front of our eyes. Thomas explained it to reporters during the ’89 Finals, and his words were captured in Cameron Stauth’s book” The Franchise.”
“Lots of times, on our team, you can't tell who the best player was. 'Cause everybody did something good. That's what makes us so good. The other team has to worry about stopping eight or nine people instead of two or three. It's the only way to win, The only way to win. That's the way the game was invented.”
Isiah Thomas, “The Franchise”
Turns out the point of a team sport is a team victory, not an individual one. Go figure.