Boston Celtic coach Bill Russell with Art Heyman, left, and newcomer Bailey Howell, right, at kickoff dinner, Sept. 11, 1966 on eve of teams starting practice for the 66-67 season. Location unknown. (AP Photo/Frank Curtin)

Most impressive sports statistic of all-time? In my mind, Bill Russell owns it.

Get this: Russell played in 21 winner-take-all basketball games in his career. Those include college, NBA and Olympic championship games. In those games, Russell’s team was 21-0.

Rick Cleveland

“Bill Russell was the greatest basketball player who ever stepped onto the court,” Bailey Howell, Russell’s teammate for three seasons with the Boston Celtics, said Tuesday morning, two days after Russell’s death at age 88. “He was a winner. He was all about winning. In my mind, Russ was the Most Valuable Player of all-time. I think the record bears that out.”

The record does: Russell led the Celtics to 11 NBA Championships – two of those as a player-coach. In those 11 championship-deciding games, Russell averaged 29 rebounds.

Speaking from his home in Starkville, Howell continued, “There were other players who were bigger, could shoot it better or had more basketball skills. But there was nobody who made his team better than Russ. He made everyone around him better. He was the leader of 11 championship teams. Without him, the Celtics would not have won a single one of those.”

Today, most fans argue between Michael Jordan and LeBron James as the greatest-ever basketball player. Jordan won six championships, James has won four. Again, Russell won 11. Eleven!

Russell stood 6 feet, 9 inches tall but played much taller. Said Howell, “His arms were so long that he had to find shirt sleeves that were 41 inches long. Plus, he could jump so high and his timing as a jumper was unbelievable. That’s why he was such a great shot blocker and rebounder. When he blocked a shot, he didn’t swat it out of bounds or up in the stands like so many do. He blocked it and then controlled it, and usually started a fast break that ended up with a bucket on the other end.”

Howell knew Russell as an opponent before they were teammates. Howell went to the Detroit Pistons as the NBA’s second overall draft choice out of Mississippi State in 1959. Russell played against Russell for seven seasons, both as a Detroit Piston and a Baltimore Bullet.

“A couple times I heard Russell tell his teammates to keep me off his back,” said Howell, who averaged 12 rebounds per game in those seven pre-Celtics season. “I’d battle him as best I could. I didn’t get as many as he did, but I battled him.”

For sure, Howell earned Russell’s respect. Red Auerbach, the Celtics’ Hall of Fame coach and general manager, retired as a coach after 1966 season and promoted Russell to the role of player/head coach. The Celtics then traded Russell’s back-up center, Mel Counts, to the Bullets for Howell.

“I was told that Russ had his choice of Gus Johnson (another Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer) or me, and he chose me,” Howell said. “I guess he had some respect for me or he wouldn’t have taken me over Gus Johnson, who was a Hall of Famer.”

Howell’s rebounding average dropped by two per game over his time with the Celtics. That figures. Said Howell, “I remember Russ told me one time that with him and me on the same team, there weren’t any rebounds left for anyone else,” Howell said.

When promoted, Russell became the first Black head coach of any professional sports franchise. That first season (1966-67), the Celtics were beaten by Wilt Chamberlain and the Philadelphia 76ers in the championship series.

Bailey Howell

“Most people don’t know this but Russ had some sort of leg or ankle injury in that series,” Howell said. “The Sixers were a great team and might have beaten us anyway but it would have been tougher for them. Russ played hurt.”

The next season with Russell healthy, the Celtics were back on top beating the Sixers in a seven-game championship series. Boston won again the next season as well, before Russell retired

NBA fans of a certain age –  and I am one – will remember the age-old argument: Who’s better? Wilt or Russell?

“You might not know this but Wilt and Russ were good friends,” Howell continued. “They often shared a pre-game meal when they played against each other.”

As for who was better, Howell said, “I think you just look at the championships. Wilt averaged a lot more points and a few more rebounds, but look at who won the championships. Russ made the game easier for his teammates. He made us all better.”

No doubt about it: Twenty-one winner-take-all games, 21 victories. It does not get any better than that.


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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.