When Russell was 10, his father, Charlie, fed up with trying to navigate a racially charged South, moved his family across the country to Oakland, California, where he found work at a shipyard.
In California, life for the Russell family proved rocky. While Charlie found good work, in 1946 his wife, Katie, became quite sick with the flu and died. Russell was grief-stricken by the death of his mother, who’d been his biggest advocate and pushed him to work hard in school. In the wake of her passing he committed himself to his studies.
Outside the classroom, Russell began playing basketball. His talent did not immediately shine through. Athletically awkward at first, Russell struggled to find playing time on the team at McClymonds High School in Oakland. But by his senior year, his game had picked up enough to earn him a starting spot.
His 6'9" frame earned attention, however. And in the fall of 1952, he tried out as a walk-on at the University of San Francisco and earned a scholarship.
It wasn’t long before the defensively adept Russell proved to be dominating presence, with a scorer’s touch and uncanny ability to rebound. During his three-year varsity career, in which he led the team to consecutive NCAA titles in 1955 and 1956, he averaged 20.7 points per game and 20.3 rebounds.
Russell capped his amateur career by leading the U.S. men’s basketball team to the gold medal at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.
With Russell anchoring the middle of the floor, the Celtics finished with the best record in the league in 1957, and went on to win the title over the Hawks in a tense seven-game series. It was the start of an unprecedented championship run for Russell and the Celtics. Over 12 years, the team played in 11 NBA finals, winning 10 of them.
Even against more physically imposing centers, like Wilt Chamberlain, Russell was a defensive and rebounding force. Five times he was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player, and his 21,620 rebounds are second only to Chamberlain’s career mark.
Following 1966 season, in which Russell led the Celtics to an eighth consecutive title, Auerbach retired from coaching. Rather than play for somebody else, Russell took over as a player-coach, steering the team to two more titles in 1968 and 1969.
Following the 1969 season,
Russell was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975.
Russell has been married three times. With his first wife, Rose, to whom he was married for 17 years, he had three children: a daughter, Karen, and two sons, Buddha and Jacob.
In 2010 Russell received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civil honor, from President Obama.