Racial scars, a mother lost
William Felton Russell was born on February 12, 1934, in Monroe, La., where his father, Charles, worked in a paper bag factory. He recalls a warm home life, but a childhood plagued by racism. She recalls a police officer once threatening to arrest her mother, Katie, because she was wearing clothes favored by white women. A gas station attendant tries to humiliate his father by refusing service while Bill is with him, which ends with Charles Russell chasing the man down with a tire iron.
When Bill was 9, the family moved to Oakland, California, his mother died when he was 12, and his father started a trucking business and later worked in a foundry, raising Bill and his brother Charles Jr. ., teaching them to work hard and love self-worth and self-reliance, as Russell long remembered.
At McClymonds High School in Oakland, Russell became a starter on the basketball team as a senior, already emphasizing defense and rebounding. A former University of San Francisco basketball player, Hal DiJulio, scouted his alma mater, recognized Russell’s potential and recommended him to coach Bill Wolbert.
Russell was awarded a scholarship and became an All-American, joining the guard K.C. Jones, a future Celtics teammate, led San Francisco to NCAA championships in his final two seasons. Following a loss to UCLA in Russell’s junior year, the team won 55 straight games. He averaged 20 points and 20 rebounds over his three varsity seasons.
“Nobody ever played basketball like I did, or as well,” Russell recalled of his college career to Sport magazine in 1963. “They’ve never seen anyone block shots before. Now I’ll be proud: I’d like to think I’ve invented a new style of play.