December 3, 2023

Kobe Bryant didn’t expect to exchange pleasantries with his opponents on Jan. 17, 2006. With the Miami Heat in town, he surely assumed another frosty reception from former teammate-turned-rival Shaquille O’Neal. But when pre-game stretches began, Bryant received a surprise visit from the Big Diesel. He congratulated him on the impending birth of his second daughter and the two shared the sort of pleasant interaction that many assumed after years of public feuding was simply no longer possible. And then, after the game, O’Neal spoke to reporters and it suddenly made sense. 

“I had orders from the great Bill Russell,” O’Neal said. “Me and him were talking in Seattle the other day, and he was telling me how rivalries should be. I asked him if he ever disliked anybody he played against, and he told me, ‘No, never,’ and he told that I should shake Kobe Bryant’s hand and let bygones be bygones and bury the hatchet.”

This was one of Russell’s many superpowers. Few athletes in human history have ever been as revered by their peers as Russell, who died Sunday at 88. That respect gave him the ability to make seemingly impossible things become entirely plausible. And as improbable as the first nine of his championships might have seemed, what he went on to accomplish as a coach absolutely should have been impossible.

When Red Auerbach retired from coaching in 1966, he had a surprisingly difficult time filling his own seat. Frank Ramsey was the first to say no. He had already moved back to Kentucky to take care of his family, and besides, he had a thriving trio of nursing home businesses to oversee. And then, team legends Bob Cousy and Tommy Heinsohn passed as well, but Heinsohn came up with a novel approach: why not let Russell coach the team himself? Auerbach liked the idea, and Russell accepted the job.

In doing so, he became the first Black head coach in a major professional North American sport. As much pressure as that designation brought, Russell would also be doing something few coaches are ever forced to do: lead his own teammates. That is why Cousy, who had retired as a player by that point, turned down the job. Getting players who viewed you as a teammate to treat you as an authority figure would be a seemingly impossible task. Russell not only did it, but he did it while still playing with them.

The Celtics remained an immensely talented team, but the roster itself wasn’t nearly as dominant as it was during the early dynasty period. Cousy, Heinsohn and Bill Sharman were gone. Big-name imports Bailey Howell and Wayne Embry were on the back-nine, and leading scorer Sam Jones was 33 when Russell took over. Russell himself was 32, and his individual numbers were starting to decline. This would not be a walk in the park. The Philadelphia 76ers proved that in the 1967 postseason when they became the first team to beat a healthy Russell in the playoffs, ending Boston’s streak of eight consecutive championships.

That is the sort of loss that would end a typical dynasty, and things only got harder in April of 1968 when Martin Luther King, whom Russell knew personally, was killed in Memphis. The Celtics and 76ers were scheduled to tip off the Eastern Conference Finals a day later, and prior to Game 1, the Celtics privately discussed what they should do. Opinions were split. At one point, Howell, who is white, asked “What was [King’s] title? Why should we call off the game?” This predictably made things even harder, but both teams ultimately wound up playing. The favored 76ers took a 3-1 series lead. 

Russell’s Celtics became the first team in NBA history to overcome such a deficit. They took the last three games against Philadelphia to stun the 76ers and return to the Finals, where they defeated the Los Angeles Lakers. A year later, they found themselves back in the same position. Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke even put plans for the Lakers’ championship celebration in the pre-game leaflets distributed before Game 7. But Boston won it again, giving Russell championship No. 11. By the last one, he was a single-digit scorer playing in his final NBA game. To this day, he is the only player-coach ever to win an NBA championship.

It didn’t matter, because by that point, Bill Russell the leader was far more important than Bill Russell, the basketball player. Whether he was pioneering the concept of bulletin board material as a motivational tactic or guiding a racially divided locker room through the assassination of a civil rights leader, Russell could bring out the best in anyone and everyone around him. He did it with his own teammates. He did it with players who born long after his career ended.

Circumstances prevented Russell from building a lengthier coaching resume. He left the Seattle Supersonics in 1977. Months later, they’d sign Gus Williams and draft Jack Sikma, and suddenly Lenny Wilkens had talent to work with that Russell did not. The Sonics won the championship in 1979 with many players Russell largely helped develop. One of those players, Dennis Johnson, went on to become a Celtic legend in his own right. His last stab at coaching came a decade later in 1987, when he spent less than a season leading a lottery-bound Sacramento Kings team to just 17 wins in 58 tries. After that, his coaching career was largely forgotten. When you’re among the greatest players and activists in NBA history, it’s easy for certain things to slip through the cracks.

But in 2021, the Basketball Hall of Fame finally recognized Russell’s leadership by making him just the fifth person ever to be enshrined as both a player and a coach. A number of luminaries spoke on his behalf to celebrate the well-deserved honor, including former president Barack Obama. One of his presenters was Charles Barkley, a man he’d once jokingly flipped off at a different awards show. 

When the time came for Russell to speak, he revealed the simple question he asked himself when Auerbach offered him the job. “Can I coach Bill Russell?” Yes, he could. And whether it was his own teammates, his future players in Seattle, or a new generation following in footsteps, it turns out he could coach pretty much everyone else as well.

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