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Bill Russell is one of the most successful and decorated athletes in North American sports history. His awards and achievements include eleven NBA championships as a player with the Boston Celtics in 13 seasons (including two NBA championships as player/head coach), and he is credited with having raised defensive play in the NBA to a new level. By winning the 1956 NCAA Championship with USF and the 1957 NBA title with the Celtics, Russell became the first of only four players in basketball history to win an NCAA championship and an NBA Championship back-to-back (the others being Henry Bibby, Magic Johnson, and Billy Thompson). In the interim, Russell collected an Olympic gold medal in 1956. His stint as coach of the Celtics was also of historical significance, as he became the first black head coach in major U.S. professional sports when he succeeded Red Auerbach.
In his first NBA full season (1957–58), Russell became the first player in NBA history to average more than 20 rebounds per game for an entire season, a feat he accomplished 10 times in his 13 seasons. Russell's 51 rebounds in a single game is the second highest performance ever, only trailing Chamberlain's all-time record of 55. He still holds the NBA record for rebounds in one half with 32 (vs. Philadelphia, on November 16 1957). Career-wise, Russell ranks second only to Wilt Chamberlain in regular season total (21,620) and average (22.5) rebounds per game. Russell is the all-time playoff leader in total (4,104) and average (24.9) rebounds per game, he grabbed 40 rebounds in three separate playoff games (twice in the NBA Finals), and he never failed to average at least 20 rebounds per game in any of his 13 post-season campaigns. Russell also had seven regular season games with 40 or more rebounds, and holds the career playoff record for most rebounds (4,104, 24.9 rpg) in 165 games, the NBA Finals record for highest rebound per game average (29.5 rpg, 1959) and by a rookie (22.9 rpg, 1957). In addition, Russell holds the NBA Finals single-game record for most rebounds (40, March 29 1960 vs. St. Louis and April 18 1962 vs. Los Angeles), most rebounds in a quarter (19, April 18 1962 vs. Los Angeles), and most consecutive games with 20 or more rebounds (15 from April 9 1960–April 16 1963).
Bill Russell led the NBA in rebounds per game four times, recorded 21,620 career rebounds, and averaged 22.5 per game for his career. He also had 51 in one game, 49 in two others, and twelve straight seasons of 1,000 or more rebounds. Bill Russell was known as one of the most clutch players in the NBA. He played in 11 deciding games (10 times in Game 7s, once in a Game 5), and ended with a flawless 11–0 record. In these eleven games, Russell averaged 18 points and 29.45 rebounds.
Russell was considered the consummate defensive center, noted for his unmatched defensive intensity, his stellar basketball IQ and his sheer will to win. Bill Russell excelled at playing man-to-man defense, blocking shots, and grabbing defensive and offensive rebounds. He also could score with putbacks and made mid-air outlet passes to point guard Bob Cousy for easy fast break points. He also was known as a fine passer and pick-setter, featured a decent left-handed hook shot and finished strong on alley oops. However, on offense, Bill Russell's output was limited. His NBA career personal averages show him to be an average scorer (15.1 points career average), a poor free throw shooter (56.1%), and average overall shooter from the field (44%, not exceptional for a center). In his 13 years, he averaged a relatively low 13.4 field goals attempted (normally, top scorers average 20 and more), illustrating that he was never the focal point of the Celtics offense, instead focusing on his tremendous defense.
In his career, Bill Russell won five regular season MVP awards (1959, 1961–63, 1965)—tied with Michael Jordan for second all-time behind Kareem Abdul Jabbar's six awards. He was selected three times to the All-NBA First Teams (1959, 1963, 1965) and eight Second Teams (1958, 1960–62, 1964, 1966–68), and was a twelve-time NBA All-Star (1958–1969). Russell was elected to one NBA All-Defensive First Team. This took place during his last season (1969), and was the first season the NBA All-Defensive Teams were selected. In 1970, The Sporting News named Russell the "Athlete of the Decade". Russell is universally seen as one of the best NBA players ever, and was declared "Greatest Player in the History of the NBA" by the Professional Basketball Writers Association of America in 1980. For his achievements, Russell was named "Sportsman of the Year" by Sports Illustrated in 1968. He also made all three NBA Anniversary Teams: the NBA 25th Anniversary All-Time Team (1970), the NBA 35th Anniversary All-Time Team (1980) and the NBA 50th Anniversary All-Time Team (1996). Russell ranked #18 on ESPN's 50 Greatest Athletes of the 20th Century in 1999. In 2003, SLAM Magazine named Russell the #4 player of all time behind Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson.