Bill Russell: Winner
The greatest winner in the history of professional team sports is Bill Russell. This can be said with no equivocation, because the evidence is so overwhelming that nobody else has an argument. In comparing him to the NBA greats of recent memory, Michael Jordan and Tim Duncan, between them, have been in twelve NBA Finals with 11 wins (6 for Jordan, 5 for Duncan). This is an impressive stat until looking at Russell’s. Bill Russell played 13 seasons in the NBA and matched that total (Michael Jordan played 15 seasons in the NBA and 19 for Duncan). Before entering the NBA in 1957, Russell had already won two NCAA Basketball Championships for University of San Francisco, 1956 (28-1) and 1957 (29-0). He also led Team USA to a Gold Medal at 1956 Olympics in Rome. His winning ways preceded his dominance in the NBA.
Russell’s Boston Celtics played in 10 Game Sevens in the NBA playoffs during those 11 Championships in 13 years. The Celtics won all of them.
Let’s review these 10 Games 7s:
April 13, 1957 NBA Finals
Boston: 125 St. Louis Hawks: 123 (Double Overtime)
At the time (and even today) many call this the greatest NBA Game ever played. The Hawks were led by the great Bob Pettit, Cliff Hagan and Hall of Famer Ed “Easy Ed” Macauley. Pettit was spectacular with 39 points and 19 rebounds. Russell fouled out trying to stop Pettit at the end of regulation, a physical match-up that defined the series. The Celtics were able to win in a second overtime without Russell. The Hawks would win the NBA Title in the next year over Boston 4 games to 2.
Russell’s Numbers in Game 7: 19 Points, 32 Rebounds.
April 1, 1959 Eastern Conference Finals
Boston: 130 Syracuse Nationals: 125
Celtics trailed by as many as 16 points in the first half before rallying to win.
Russell’s Numbers; 18 Points, 32 Rebounds.
April 9, 1960, NBA Finals
Boston 122 St. Louis Hawks 103
This was the only blowout in all of Russell’s Game 7’s. Again he faced off against the great Bob Pettit.
Russell’s Numbers; 22 Points, 35 Rebounds.
April 5, 1962, Eastern Conference Finals
Boston 109 Philadelphia Warriors 107
This was the first of four meetings between Russell and Wilt Chamberlain in Game 7s. Chamberlain along with Russell deserve to be in the discussion of all-time greats in basketball. Their numbers and records are far superior than that of Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird who are all discussed too regularly as the greats. Chamberlain and Russell belong above them (if interested, read here of our greatest basketball players of all time).
The Celtics led late in this Game 7, but Chamberlain scored 5 straight points to tie the game at 107 with only seconds remaining. Celtics Sam Jones hit a jumper in the final seconds to secure an advance to the NBA Final. They would then have a 7 game series against the LA Lakers.
Russell’s Numbers: 19 Points, 22 Rebounds.
Chamberlain’s Numbers: 22 Points, 22 Rebounds.
April 18, 1962, NBA Finals
Boston: 110 Los Angeles Lakers: 107 (OT)
After defeating their Easter Conference foes in a dramatic Game 7, they would have to fight the impressive LA Lakers and their star, Elign Baylor. The series would go to yet another Game 7, Elgin Baylor scored 40 Points and had 22 Rebounds in this game. The Lakers Frank Selvy’s 15-foot shot at the end of regulation bounced in and then out, forcing the game into overtime that Boston would win, barely. In 2 weeks, Russell and the Celtics would take out two of the best teams and players of that generation all in impressive Game 7’s.
(If you’d like to read more about what we have to say about Elgin Baylor, read here.)
Bill Russell was a monster: 30 Points, 40 Rebounds (that’s right…40 Rebounds).
April 10, 1963, Eastern Conference Finals
Boston: 142 Cincinnati Royals: 131
The Celtics grabbed the early lead and were in control most of game. The great Oscar Robertson of the Royals scored 43 Points, but he was outscored by Sam Jones who poured in 47 for Boston.
Russell’s Numbers: 20 Points, 24 Rebounds.
April 15, 1965, Eastern Conference Finals:
Boston: 110 Philadelphia 76ers: 109.
Another match up of two of the greatest, Russell vs Chamberlain. The two Centers played to a standoff, but Sam Jones scored 37 to lead the Celtics to a victory. This was the game famous for “Havlicek Stole the Ball” call by Johnny Most.
Russell’s Numbers: 15 Points 29 Rebounds, and 8 Assists.
Chamberlain: 30 Points 32 Rebounds.
April 28, 1966, NBA Finals:
Boston: 95 Los Angeles Lakers: 93
This was Boston’s Coach Red Auerbach’s last game. The Celtics scored the first 10 points and were in total control for most of the game, but the Lakers behind Jerry West’s 36 Points made a frantic charge at the end. It would not be enough. Bill Russell would win his 9th title.
Russell was magnificent: 25 Points 32 Rebounds
April 19, 1968, Eastern Conference Finals:
Boston: 100 Philadelphia 76ers: 96
76ers were defending NBA Champions with the best record in league that season. The Celtics rallied from being down 3 games to 1 in the series, winning Game 5 in Philadelphia, Game 6 in Boston, before closing it out in Game 7 in Philadelphia.
Russell had one of his poorest performances: 12 Points, 26 Rebounds,
Wilt Chamberlain to 14 Points 34 Rebounds.
May 5, 1969, NBA Finals:
Boston: 108 Los Angeles Lakers: 106
This was Bill Russell’s last game at 35 years old. The Celtics were only 48-34 during regular season. The Lakers had traded for Wilt Chamberlain at the beginning of the season. With Wilt, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor this was the first of the Superstar Teams that have now become so popular. The Lakers were big favorites and for only the second time the Celtics were playing away from Boston in Game 7. It would be one of the most famous games in NBA History. The Celtics took a 15-point lead into the 4th Quarter. The Lakers began a furious comeback led by Jerry West (42 points). Chamberlain went down with a hurt knee midway through the 4th Quarter. Mel Counts came into replace him. The Lakers continued their rally. Chamberlain begged to re-enter the game, but Lakers Coach Butch van Breda Kolff refused to insert him. Lakers fell two points short! In the last minute of the game Don Nelson would hit his famous “Lucky Shot“.
Russell’s Numbers: 5 Points, 21 Rebounds.
Bill Russell had a career of 10 Game 7s. 8 were played in Boston. Only two of the games were decided by more than 5 points. Six games were decided by two points or less or in overtime. His average for the ten Game 7’s was 18.8 points and 29.3 rebounds. His victims were all the greatest players of his era, Wilt Chamberlain, Bob Pettit, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Oscar Robertson. He won when it mattered along with changing the game.