Racial Scars, a Mother Lost
William Felton Russell was born on Feb. 12, 1934, in Monroe, La., where his father, Charles, worked in a paper bag factory. He remembered a warm home life but a childhood seared by racism. He recalled that a police officer once threatened to arrest his mother, Katie, because she was wearing a stylish outfit like those favored by white women. A gas-station attendant sought to humble his father, while Bill was with him, by refusing to provide service, an episode that ended with Charles Russell chasing the man while brandishing a tire iron.
When Bill was 9 years old, the family moved to Oakland, Calif. His mother died when he was 12, leaving his father, who had opened a trucking business and then worked in a foundry, to bring up Bill and his brother, Charles Jr., teaching them, as Russell long remembered, to work hard and covet self-worth and self-reliance.
At McClymonds High School in Oakland, Russell became a starter on the basketball team as a senior, already emphasizing defense and rebounding. A former basketball player for the University of San Francisco, Hal DeJulio, who scouted for his alma mater, recognized Russell’s potential and recommended him to the coach, Phil Woolpert.
Russell was given a scholarship and became an All-American, teaming up with the guard K.C. Jones, a future Celtic teammate, in leading San Francisco to N.C.A.A. championships in his last two seasons. Following a loss to U.C.L.A. in Russell’s junior year, the team won 55 straight games. He averaged more than 20 points and 20 rebounds a game for his three varsity seasons.
“No one had ever played basketball the way I played it, or as well,” Russell told Sport magazine in 1963, recalling his college career. “They had never seen anyone block shots before. Now I’ll be conceited: I like to think I originated a whole new style of play.”