Russell won 11 NBA championships in 13 seasons with the Boston Celtics, being the most prolific winner in major U.S. team sports. Russell was honored with a special tribute at the Legends Brunch, pegged to his 80th birthday Wednesday.
A big cake in the shape of “80″ (green icing, naturally) was wheeled out at the end and the crowd stood to sing “Happy Birthday,” accompanying a trumpet player on the tune.
An 81-year old NBA great, Bob Pettit, referencing a video clip of his old-school game from the 1950s and ’60s that was shown on multiple screens in the vast ballroom, Pettit poked a little fun at himself. “You saw that hook shot? The first time I shot my hook shot against Boston, Bill Russell caught it,” Pettit said. “I retired that shot after that.”
A panel of other NBA greats – Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson and Clyde Drexler – also shared impressions and tales about Russell. Abdul-Jabbar, for instance, said that through studying Russell’s style of play he realized how it was possible for someone to dominate from the defensive end of the court.
Johnson said he chased Russell in terms of championships won (he fell six short) and now chases him for impact away from the game. And Erving spoke of the friendship the two have had dating back to 1970 or so, when the man later known as Dr. J still was at the University of Massachusetts.
At 19, Erving said, “I sat down and talked with him for three or four hours about everything but basketball.”
The two eventually stayed at each other’s homes and became golf buddies.
Russell admitted that he never much enjoyed participating in All-Star Games because, in his heart, he only played basketball for the Celtics. But in 1963 in Los Angeles, he invited his father to the game and told him, “We’re going to win and I’m going to win MVP.” The next day, Russell did just that with 19 points and 24 rebounds in a 115-108 East victory.
His father’s reaction? “I didn’t know you were that good.”
“I never talked about basketball with my family,” Russell said. “But my father was my hero. He taught me to be a man by being one.”
And now, when Russell sits in the stands to watch the game’s current elite performers in the All-Star Game? “I hate to admit it,” he said, revving up for another cackle. “My thought is, I can kick his ass.’ “
Russell played center from 1956 to 1969, also serving as player-coach for three seasons. He was a five-time MVP, 11-time NBA champion and 12-time All-Star in his 13 seasons with the Celtics.
Russell was also a pioneer for African-American professional athletes, serving as a key voice and figure during the civil rights era. He played in 963 NBA games and holds career averages of 15.1 ppg and 22.5 rpg and 4.3 apg in 42.3 minutes of playing time.
He never averaged below 18.6 rebounds per game in his career, and did not average double figures in scoring in only his last season as a pro. He also led the NBA in rebounds per game five times in his career. Russell was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975.
In the video below, Russell gets the former and current NBA stars (along with the whole arena!) sing “Happy Birthday” to Bill Russell.
Magic Johnson went out to half court, accompanied by Julius Erving, Clyde Drexler, Hakeem Olajuwon and Karl Malone, and led the crowd in song. Then, at the end, Johnson asked the players on each team to go and shake Russell’s hand.Follow @exnbadotcom
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