Russell Retires as the Celtics Take an Eleventh NBA Title

Bill Russell, perhaps the greatest U.S. professional basketball player of all time, retired after thirteen seasons, eleven of which his Celtic teams won the league championship. He also was the team’s head coach from 1966 to 1969, making him the first African American head coach in U.S. professional sports history.

Summary of Event

On May 5, 1969, Bill Russell played his last game as a professional basketball player, helping the Boston Celtics to its eleventh National Basketball Association (NBA) championship in thirteen years. Many basketball historians believe that the seven-game championship series between the Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers Los Angeles Lakers in 1969 was one of the greatest in the history of the league. During the 1969 season, Russell was also the team’s head coach. Significantly, when he became the Celtics coach in 1966, he also became the first African American head coach in United States major league team sports history. Athletes;Bill Russell[Russell]
African Americans;athletes
Boston Celtics
National Basketball Association championship
[kw]Russell Retires as the Celtics Take An Eleventh NBA Title (May 5, 1969)
[kw]Celtics Take An Eleventh NBA Title, Russell Retires as the (May 5, 1969)
[kw]NBA Title, Russell Retires as the Celtics Take An Eleventh (May 5, 1969)
Athletes;Bill Russell[Russell]
African Americans;athletes
Boston Celtics
National Basketball Association championship
[g]North America;May 5, 1969: Russell Retires as the Celtics Take An Eleventh NBA Title[10260]
[g]United States;May 5, 1969: Russell Retires as the Celtics Take An Eleventh NBA Title[10260]
[c]Sports;May 5, 1969: Russell Retires as the Celtics Take An Eleventh NBA Title[10260]
Russell, Bill
Chamberlain, Wilt
West, Jerry
Havlicek, John
Baylor, Elgin
Jones, Sam

The 1969 championship series between the Celtics and Lakers was remarkable for several reasons. In six previous finals between the Celtics and Lakers, the Celtics had won six times. At the end of the regular season schedule, the Celtics had finished in fourth place in the NBA’s eastern division; the Lakers had finished in first place in the western division. The Lakers had obtained Russell’s most difficult opponent, Wilt Chamberlain, in a trade with the Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers, and the team also had Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, two future Hall of Fame players. The Lakers were heavily favored to win.

The final championship playoff between the Celtics and the Lakers was a best-of-seven-games series. The first two games were played in the Los Angeles-area community of Inglewood, California, at the Forum, games the Lakers won. The series began as an offensive showcase for West of the Lakers and John Havlicek of the Celtics. In game one, West scored fifty-three points and Havlicek had thirty-nine points, leading the Lakers to a 120-118 win. In game two, West had forty-one points and Havlicek forty-three points as the Lakers won 118-112. Baylor had scored the last twelve points for the Lakers. The series was also noteworthy for the battle between the two great centers Russell and Wilt Chamberlain.

Games three and four were played at the Boston Garden and were won by the Celtics. Game three featured Havlicek’s thirty-four points, and Boston won 111-105. The Celtics narrowly won game four (89-88), a game that featured a basket in the last few seconds by Sam Jones of the Celtics. Game five returned to the Forum, and the Lakers won 117-104, putting the team ahead of the Celtics three games to two. In game four, Chamberlain out-dueled Russell (thirteen points to two and thirty-one rebounds to thirteen). Game six of the series was, for several reasons, a decisive turning point in favor of the Celtics. First, Boston was the home team and second, Lakers guard West had injured his hamstring muscle, which limited his mobility. (West would go on to win the most valuable player award for the series. This award for West was notable because all preceding awardees have come from teams that won the championship. Also, he had been injured in an earlier game and still managed to outperform other players.) Third, Russell held Chamberlain to only two points. Boston won 99-90, evening the series at three games apiece.

The decisive game seven was played on the Lakers home turf, leading most experts to choose the Lakers to win. Game day started, however, with a costly psychological and strategic mistake by the Lakers’ owner, who had placed hundreds of balloons along the ceiling of the Forum that were to be released after the expected Lakers victory. Celtics players noticed the balloons and were greatly motivated to ruin the Lakers’ anticipated victory. Also, Celtics’ players knew that there was a chance that Russell, their great center and coach, could retire at the end of this season-ending game, and they determined that he would go out a winner.

Game seven, another classic confrontation between Russell and Chamberlain and one that had its share of controversy, also turned out to be a late-in-the-game comeback victory for the Celtics. Chamberlain, who had twenty-seven rebounds to Russell’s twenty-one, had hurt his knee with five minutes and forty-five seconds left in the game and had to sit out the last several minutes. It has been said that during the last two or three minutes of the game, Chamberlain wanted to return to the game, telling his coach that he could play despite his injury. During those last two to three minutes, though, the Lakers lead disappeared and the Celtics came from behind to win.

The teams on which Russell played rarely lost. At the University of San Francisco, his team won the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship in 1955 and 1956 and even had a fifty-five-game winning streak. In the fall of 1956, Russell was captain of the gold-medal-winning U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team. Shortly after, he had joined the Boston Celtics. During his thirteen-year playing career with the Celtics, the team won the NBA league championship eleven times. He was voted the league’s most valuable player five times and in 1975 was voted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. In 1980, Russell was voted the greatest player in the history of the NBA by the Professional Basketball Writers Association of America.


The 1969 championship season was the culmination of a great basketball career for Russell. This successful season had confirmed Russell’s selfless, team-first philosophy, which emphasized a defensive style of play characterized by rebounding, blocking opponents’ shots, and passing the ball to open teammates. His leadership reflected his friendly personality, high level of intelligence, and worthiness as a role model for youth. Making his career even more remarkable is that Russell played during the 1950’s and 1960’s, a troubled time in the United States that saw explicit racism and bigotry, especially against African Americans. Athletes;Bill Russell[Russell]
African Americans;athletes
Boston Celtics
National Basketball Association championship

Further Reading

  • Hayhurst, Chris. Bill Russell. New York: Rosen, 2002. A biography of Russell intended for readers ages nine to twelve. Part of the Basketball Hall of Famers series.
  • NBA Dynasty Series. Boston Celtics: The Complete History. DVD. Warner Home Video, 2004. Contains 1969 NBA finals, game seven, fourth quarter.
  • Nelson, Murry R. Bill Russell: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005. A biography of Russell that emphasizes the personal qualities that made him a great athlete and great leader.
  • Russell, Bill, and David Falkner. Russell Rules: Eleven Lessons on Leadership from the Twentieth Century’s Greatest Winner. New York: Penguin Books, 2001. A Russell memoir that outlines his philosophy of life, his insights, and his thoughts about leadership.
  • Taylor, John. The Rivalry: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and the Golden Age of Basketball. New York: Random House, 2005. A biographical account of one of the greatest and most exciting rivalries in professional sports, basketball or otherwise.
  • Whalen, Thomas J. Dynasty’s End: Bill Russell and the 1968-69 World Champion Boston Celtics. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2004. Examines the legacy of the Russell era in Boston Celtics’ history. Argues that 1969 marked the end of a basketball “dynasty.”

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