Bill Russell

Who Mentored Bill Russell?

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Basketball great Bill Russell was named the 20th Century’s Greatest Team Player by Sports Illustrated. In 1955, he led the University of San Francisco to the NCAA title and was named Most Valuable Player. That same year, he led the Olympic gold medal team to victory and joined the Boston Celtics, winning 9 championships in 10 seasons and receiving 5 MVP awards. In 1966, he made history by becoming the first African American to coach a professional sports team, and coached the Celtics to win two more championships until his retirement in 1969.


In my home, my parents were the rulers, no doubt about it. I did what they wanted me to do. They led, I followed. My mother protected me in this life. She was my shield and my guardian, she made the dangerous world I grew up in appear to be safe. She insisted that I keep distant from those who would harm me physically or verbally; she kindled my imagination, insisted the library was the place for me, as well as the church on Sundays (from eight in the morning till ten at night!). My mother taught me to stand up for myself, to use my brainpower on my behalf. She followed me around from day to day even though she wasn’t there. Wherever I went, she accompanied me even though she was somewhere else.

One day, when I was 12, she became ill and was taken to the hospital. A week later she died, a complete and overwhelming shock. But even then, more strongly than ever, she stayed with me–in my thoughts, my goals, my aspirations. She appeared to me in dreams. Sometimes she was just an image; other times she talked to me as though she were there in the room with me, counseling me, advising me. “Listen to your father,” she would say. “Be aware of how hard he works, how much he cares; try to do the best at whatever you do, respect all people, even ones you don’t like, acknowledge the common humanity you share with everyone.” She could never have done this unless she had consciously set out to influence me in a specific way in her life. Whether she knew it or not, she intended to make sure her presence, her teachings, remained with me when she was not around. Nothing would have worked if I had perceived her as simply an authority, a lawgiver. She got into my life and stayed there because she had the power to make herself invisible so that I might all the while focus on my own life, on what I had to do to become responsible for my success.

I have often wondered what it was that gave her the power of invisibility, and the only meaningful conclusion I have come to is that it was love. The power of her love for me was that strong. And in some way, it was not exceptional in that devoted parents always seem to have this invisible power that follows after their children, helping them do for themselves what they most need to do to be happy and successful.

Excerpted from Russell Rules by Bill Russell with David Falkner.