With his 11 championships, Bill Russell will always be at the top of the list. He will always be compared to Wilt and the consensus is the main separating line was Bill’s commitment to put the team over self.
While Wilt was the first in a long line of Lakers that saw the game through themselves, Bill Russell always did to help others around him improve even though it was going to damage some of his personal stats. That’s why Wilt has so many individual records and Rusell so many championship rings.
We wrote about Moses Malone accepting to have his number retired only if the names of all of his teammates were on the same banner written as well. Bill Russell did a similar thing with his jersey retirement.
He was a prodigy on the court, but also a forward thinker off it. Russell fought against racism and had a thoughtful public persona. He started the fight that players still have to fight today (Westbrook in Utah for example). Even though he led the team to so many glorious moments, his home in the suburbs of Reading was once broken into and vandalized.
Russell called Boston “a flea market of racism” in his memoir and his teammates understood and supported him. Tommy Heinhson said, “He had animosities toward Boston, as most people know, and they were well-founded animosities, I might add.”
So when Red Auerbach wanted to retire his jersey, he knew that couldn’t be stopped but Russell decided to do it on his own terms. It was important to him all his teammates were there, but not the fans. The retirement happened before a game, in an empty arena. Why?
Russell knew the event would be full of cheers and adoration and he felt it would be an uneven representation of his experience in Boston. Still, even in the matters most important to him, he still had his team and teammates in mind and found a way to honor them as they were honoring him.