Bill Russell’s team-first approach made him ultimate winner

Bill Russell’s team-first approach made him ultimate winner

In one remarkable instant, all of the elements of Bill Russell’s magnificent life had converged. And in that moment, the most accomplished team athlete in the history of sports was silenced by emotion.

This was late in the evening of May 5, 1969, a Monday night in Inglewood, Calif. Inside the visiting dressing room at the Fabulous Forum, an ABC-TV broadcaster named Jack Twyman was standing in an already champagne-soaked room where the Boston Celtics were celebrating a 108-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

Twyman stood close to Bill Russell as the red light of the camera clicked on.

“Bill,” Twyman said, “this must have been a great win for you.”

Russell’s smile broadened for a second.

“Jack …”

Then the smile vanished. Russell rubbed the top of his head, and then covered his face as tears began to well in his eyes. He took a deep breath, tried to speak, couldn’t. Twyman, who had seen many of his own seasons as a player end at the hand of Russell’s Celtics, put his arm around his old opponent’s shoulder. “I know it’s hard to say what’s in your mind, Bill …”

And it was. That night had been a culmination of so many of the things that had made Russell the most dominant figure in the history of professional basketball. That night he had scored but six points but he’d grabbed 21 rebounds, and he’d set up John Havlicek and Sam Jones enough to secure the Celtics’ 11th championship in 13 years. That was one.

Bill Russell celebrates with Red Auerbach after the Celtics won their eighth straight NBA title.

He’d gotten there, as it seemed he always did, by outfoxing his forever rival, Wilt Chamberlain, who’d outscored him by 12 and outrebounded him by six yet still, for the seventh time, Russell had defeated a Chamberlain team on the way to winning a championship. And this time he’d watched with equal parts shock and anger as Chamberlain removed himself from the game in the fourth quarter when he tweaked his knee.

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