Beyond the court, Russell could appear aloof. He was bruised by the humiliations his family had faced when he was young in segregated Louisiana and by widespread racism in Boston. When he joined the Celtics in 1956, he was their only Black player. Early in the 1960s, his home in Reading, Mass., was vandalized.
Russell’s primary allegiance was always to his teammates, not to the city of Boston or to the fans. Guarding his privacy and shunning displays of adulation, he refused to sign autographs for fans or even as keepsakes for his teammates. When the Celtics retired his No. 6 in March 1972, the event, at his insistence, was a private ceremony in Boston Garden. He ignored his election to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame — situated squarely in Celtics country, in Springfield, Mass. — and refused to attend the induction.
“In each case, my intention was to separate myself from the star’s idea about fans, and fans’ ideas about stars,” Russell said in “Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man (1979),” written with Taylor Branch. “I have very little faith in cheers, what they mean and how long they will last, compared with the faith I have in my own love for the game.”
Racial Scars, a Mother Lost
William Felton Russell was born on Feb. 12, 1934, in Monroe, La., where his father, Charles, worked in a paper bag factory. He remembered a warm home life but a childhood seared by racism. He recalled that a police officer once threatened to arrest his mother, Katie, because she was wearing a stylish outfit like those favored by white women. A gas-station attendant sought to humble his father, while Bill was with him, by refusing to provide service, an episode that ended with Charles Russell chasing the man while brandishing a tire iron.
When Bill was 9 years old, the family moved to Oakland, Calif. His mother died when he was 12, leaving his father, who had opened a trucking business and then worked in a foundry, to bring up Bill and his brother, Charles Jr., teaching them, as Russell long remembered, to work hard and covet self-worth and self-reliance.
At McClymonds High School in Oakland, Russell became a starter on the basketball team as a senior, already emphasizing defense and rebounding. A former basketball player for the University of San Francisco, Hal DeJulio, who scouted for his alma mater, recognized Russell’s potential and recommended him to the coach, Phil Woolpert.