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5 Things You Didn’t Know About Bill Russell

Today is NBA Hall of Famer Bill Russell’s 77th birthday. Let’s look at five things you might not know about the legendary Celtics center.

1. He Wasn’t a Blue-Chip Prospect

Most sports fans know the old story about Michael Jordan being cut from his high school’s varsity hoops team as a sophomore, but Russell had to endure an even more ignominious cut. As a junior, he found himself axed from the junior varsity team at McClymonds High School in Oakland.

Yes, the same guy who has five NBA MVP awards and 11 NBA championship rings couldn’t hack it on the JV squad. Granted, there was some athletic talent on McClymonds’ team; the roster also featured future baseball Hall of Famer Frank Robinson. It’s also worth noting that Russell admitted to biographer Murry R. Nelson that he was “clearly the worst” of the players who went out for the team. He could run. He could jump. That was about it, though.

Obviously, Russell didn’t pack it in. He returned for his senior year and led McClymonds’ varsity team to a league title. He still wasn’t an unstoppable force, though. The league only had six teams, and Russell couldn’t even wrangle a spot on the all-league third team.

Russell had shown some promise, though. He graduated from McClymonds after the first semester of his senior year and joined a barnstorming group of California high schoolers. Following the tour, Russell got his lone scholarship offer from San Francisco.

That scholarship offer turned out to be one of the savviest moves in NCAA history. The Dons won 55 straight games to close out Russell’s collegiate career and picked up two NCAA titles along the way.

2. He Was Going to the Olympics One Way or Another

Russell won a gold medal in basketball at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne on a team that also featured future Celtics teammate and Hall of Famer K.C. Jones. Russell would have gone to the Olympics even if he hadn’t become a great basketball player, though. He just would have gone as a high jumper.

It’s not idle boasting on Russell’s part when he says he could have high jumped in the Olympics. He had serious hops; in 1956 Track & Field News even ranked him as the seventh-best high jumper on the planet. Russell later said in an chat session that he was ranked number two in the country when the Olympics rolled around, so if he hadn’t made the basketball team, he would have joined the U.S. track team.

When Sports Illustrated named Russell its Sportsman of the Year in 1968, the great George Plimpton wrote the accompanying profile of Russell and got the big man to open up about high jumping, including his odd motivation for getting into the sport in the first place: “Track was what I was first interested in at college, because the track team had a sweater that buttoned down the front with S.F. on it for San Francisco. The other sports had nothing like that.”

Russell also told Plimpton that he reveled in psyching out other jumpers. “I recall we had one big meet with 34 jumpers. They wanted to start the bar at five-eight. I said, ‘Let’s start it at six-four—let’s get rid of all this garbage.’ I wore a silk scarf, basketball shoes, a track suit and black glasses. I took off the glasses to jump.”

3. He Didn’t Just Endorse a Shoe

Some athletes just slap their name on a sneaker and cash endorsement checks as they roll in. Not Russell. When the Bristol Manufacturing Corp. approached the big man about endorsing a new basketball shoe in 1963, Russell laid out a series of conditions. He had to have a hand in helping design the shoe, and even then he wouldn’t lend his name to the product until he rigorously tested it on the court. (Among Russell’s design demands: the trim on the shoe had to be gold, not yellow.)

Although the design process was a pain for the shoemakers – they later complained to SI, “Why didn’t we go for someone we’d mail off a letter to asking for his endorsement and he’d write back and say it was O.K., just send the money? Oh, no, we had to get Russell” – Russell’s input ended up creating a pretty great shoe with a thicker sole, a scored sole to increase flexibility, and a series of small triangles on the sole to improve traction.

Russell had firm ideas about the business side of things, too. The shoe company wanted to sell his kicks for $10 a pair, but Russell felt that price was too high for most kids. They eventually haggled the price down to $7.95.

4. He’s Got a Whole Slew of Honors and Firsts to His Name

Let’s just run through them quickly. The aforementioned Sportsman of the Year honor was the first ever won by a basketball player. (Russell said he never even read Plimpton’s article.) His 1969 ad campaign for AT&T Long Lines made him the first African-American sports figure to appear in a Fortune 500 ad campaign, and when he took the helm of the Celtics as a player-coach in 1966 he became the first African-American head coach in American professional sports.

All of these honors are nice, but Russell says that his proudest achievement occurred off the court. Russell points to raising his daughter, Karen, as a single parent from the time she was 11 as his biggest accomplishment. Last November Russell told’s Richard Deitsch that he promised Karen two things: “I will love you until I die and when you leave my home to go into the world, you will be better able to take care of yourself than any man you will ever meet anywhere, anytime and anyplace.”

Russell backed up his promises, too. Karen graduated from Georgetown and later got a law degree from Harvard before becoming an attorney, television pundit, and political strategist.

5. He Made Just Slightly More than His Rival Wilt Chamberlain

Wilt Chamberlain and Russell were fierce rivals on the court, and sometimes the animosity bled over into the business side of the game. In 1965 Chamberlain signed a three-year contract that paid him $100,000 to play for the Philadelphia 76ers. Meanwhile, the Celtics were offering Russell $75,000 a season. The discrepancy infuriated Russell so thoroughly that he told the Celtics he was considering retirement unless he earned a dollar more than the Big Dipper. Eventually Russell got his contract, which paid him a cool $100,001.

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