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This Week in Sports History: Bill Russell breaks NBA rebounding record

Before Wilt Chamberlain made a career out of grabbing rebounds and scoring near the hoop, Boston’s own Bill Russell was the rebound king in the newly-founded NBA around 60 years ago. On Nov. 16, 1957, in a game against the Philadelphia Warriors Russell managed to set two league rebounding records, one of which still stands to this day. 

While the Celtics had a roster at the time that featured six hall of fame players and Red Auerbach at the helm, their opponents had a star of their own in Paul Arizin who was attempting to lead the charge. The visiting Warriors actually had control of the lead at the end of the first quarter, up 31-30. Boston did what they could to fight back, taking a slim two-point advantage at the halftime break. 

In the process, Russell set the very first record of the night thanks to his unmatched size. “Big Bill” managed to haul in 32 rebounds in the first half of the matchup, a number that still has not been beaten to this day. The domineering play from Russell and guard Bill Sharman helped the Celtics pull away in the second half, extending their lead by 22 before the conclusion of the contest.

As a team the win was Boston’s eleventh straight of the season, en route to an NBA Finals appearance later that season against the St. Louis Hawks primarily on the back of Russell. 

When all was said and done, Russell managed to grab a grand total of 49 rebounds, shattering the previous record of 39. What makes the accomplishment even more impressive is when you consider that the Warriors starting center, Neil Johnston, was the former record holder for rebounds. Russell took it personally against his opponent, as Johnston shot 1-12 that night and scored his only points of the night when Russel was sitting on the bench. 

Never being fully satisfied, Russell went back out three years later and broke his own record, setting the new rebounding standard at 51 total in a game against the Syracuse Nationals. That new number only lasted until Nov. 24, 1960, when Russell took on Wilt Chamberlain and the Warriors again. Chamberlain nearly broke Russell’s record for rebounds in a half, falling one short, but at the end of the game Chamberlain claimed sole possession of the record for most rebounds in one game with 55. 

Though Russell’s record was lost, the game was not, with the Celtics coming away victorious with a score of 132-129. These two giants were battling for the rebound title and putting up averages in the twenties, numbers that are unlikely to ever surface again due to a significant jump in both the average height and athleticism of most NBA players. With that being said, the rebounding totals respectively stand as all-time NBA records.

After Chamberlain and Russell’s battle, the only player to even come close to breaking their records was Jerry Lucas of the Cincinnati Royals in 1964 during his rookie season. The New York Knicks legend was able to snag 40 rebounds on the night to go along with Oscar Robertson’s 43 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds in a 117-114 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers. 


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