Honoring the great Bill Russell: 5 fun facts from Russell's battles with the Rockets
The entire NBA community is mourning the loss of Bill Russell. The Celtics legend peacefully passed away at 88 on July 31, and the tributes have been pouring in ever since. Russell set a standard of excellence on and off the court in a way that may never truly be matched.
His 11 NBA championships in 13 seasons are the headline grabber on his resume, but Russell also won five MVPs, made 11 All-NBA teams, and was a four-time rebounding champ. His list of personal accolades would be far longer if those accolades had existed during his playing career. In his final season, he was named to the first team All-Defense in its inaugural season, and the Defensive Player of the Year was introduced after the 1982-83 season.
An entire book could be written and has been on Russell's basketball exploits, but his social justice activism is a far more important chapter in his life. Russell, even as a star athlete, endured racism wherever he went and even in his adopted home of Boston. Through it all, he pushed for equality for all and left a standard for activism that the NBA still looks to uphold.
Bill Russell began his NBA career in 1956 and retired following the 1968-69, and the San Diego Rockets joined the NBA as an expansion franchise in 1967. Russell faced the Rockets 12 times in his career and unsurprisingly posted a sterling record against the new franchise. These are five fun facts from Russell's battles with the Rockets.
1. Bill Russell was 11-1 Against the Rockets
The San Diego Rockets only got the best of Bill Russell once. On March 6, 1969, the Rockets bested the Boston Celtics 110-97. Russell had an uncharacteristically poor scoring night, scoring only 8 points, but chipped in 16 rebounds and 7 assists. 11-1 equates to a 91.6% win percentage, which coincidentally was Russell's record in the NBA Finals. In other words, Russell dealt with an NBA expansion franchise as easily as he dealt with the opposition in the Finals.
2. 3 of Russell's rumbles with the Rockets were at neutral sites
There was a time when the NBA would routinely play regular season games at neutral sites. Three of Russell's contests against the San Diego Rockets were played at neutral sites. His record in those contests was 3-0. Boston, the most northeast city in the NBA, and San Diego, the most southwest city, meant the cities were separated by nearly 3,000 miles.
NBA travel back in the 60s was much less comfortable than it is today. Planes were a luxury, and trains and buses were the most common means of interstate travel. As Celtics legend Bob Cousy once said, “It was much easier to play the games than to get there.”
3. Pat Riley played in 10 of Russell's 11 games against the Rockets
Pat Riley is one of the greatest coaches and executives in NBA history. However, before he became a legend with the Lakers, he was your run-of-the-mill NBA player, and like every player of that era, he had to take his lumps against Bill Russell. Riley lost nine of the ten games he played against Russell and the Celtics.
Riley has a long-running feud with the Celtics as his Lakers clashed with them in the 80s, and his Miami Heat teams have squared off against great Celtics teams in the 2010s. Perhaps that feud goes even farther back than we thought because 1-9 is enough to sour any competitor.
4. Bill Russell's best game against the Rockets
On February 26th, 1968, Bill Russell had his best game against the Rockets. He scored 26 points on 10 of 18 shooting and grabbed 24 rebounds. Unfortunately, that's the depth of the box score. Blocks, steals, assists, and turnovers were not recorded. The game was an exceptional scoring night for Russell, as he only averaged 12.5 points per game in the 1967-68 season, as Sam Jones, John Havlicek, and Bailey Howell were the Celtics' primary scoring threats.
5. Bill Russell's career averages against the Rockets
The Rockets "held" Bill Russell to 12.8 points and 17.3 rebounds per game. Russell faced the Rockets in the final two seasons of his career. While he remained a defensive force, his offensive load had lessened considerably. Over those final two seasons, he averaged 11.2 and 18.9 rebounds per game. The Rockets essentially held him to his averages on the court and in the win column.