The most successful player in NBA history, basketball player Bill Russell, who died Sunday at age 88, revolutionized his sport by imposing a new weapon on it, the counter, and by showing the way to black Americans whom he has always defended. , passionately, rights.
Russell was champion eleven times with the Boston Celtics, a record that still stands, including eight in a row from 1959 to 1966, and the last two times as a player-coach. He was the first black American named at the head of a franchise of an American professional sport and the first to be crowned, from his second year (1967).
If he was a player with honorable offensive talent (15.1 points on average per game), it was his defense that made his glory. Endowed with a beautiful trigger, he propelled his 208 cm, exceptional size for the time, to a phenomenal height which intimidated all his rivals for thirteen seasons. “The idea was not to counter all their shots, but to convince them that each of them could be,” he explained in a documentary produced by the NBA.
– An airy style –
During his university training in San Francisco, during which he twice won the NCAA title and was Olympic champion in 1956 in Melbourne, he struggled to convert coaches in his way of playing for whom the defense had to be grounded. It was with the legendary Red Auerbach in Boston that this cerebral player was able to perfect an aerial style that has become a school until today.
Born in 1934 in Louisiana, in a Deep South still living under racial discrimination, before moving with his family to California in the 1940s, Russell was not the first black to play in the NBA, but he was the first african american basketball superstar.
He used his notoriety to advance the cause of civil rights. In 1967, he appeared alongside another NBA legend, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, American football star Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali at the « Cleveland Summit » where he supported the boxer, who was being sued for refusing to join the army.
In 1963, he participated in Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, but he refused to be promoted. Because Russell had a singular character, introverted and sometimes considered inaccessible, even arrogant, in particular because he did not willingly sign autographs.
– Rivalry with Chamberlain –
It is above all his ardent stand against racism, including in favor of the leader Malcolm X, which earned him the animosity and even the hatred of some: his house in Boston was one day ransacked and soiled with excrement.
On the field, Russell was an example of selflessness. With his innumerable blocks, literally since the NBA only counted them from 1973, and his rebounds (21,620, the second total in history), he was the launching pad for the Celtics’ rapid game, led by players like Bob Cousy and John Havlicek.
His great rival was the Philadelphia player Wilt Chamberlain, another giant (2.16 m) in the history of basketball with a totally different personality, extroverted and individualistic, who often stole the limelight from him in the media but with whom he s heard very well outside the matches. In the end, the individual records were for Chamberlain (that of 100 points in the same match!) and the collective successes for Russell (eleven titles to two).
Bill Russell involved himself with such intensity in his sport that he almost made himself ill. He vomited before each meeting. His will to win was fierce. « I always wear black suits because I come to bury my opponents, » said the five-time MVP.
By François BONTOUX / Paris (AFP) / © 2022 AFP