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Bill Russell Puts NBA History up for Auction in Boston

Bill Russell, the man with more titles than anyone in NBA history, put an impressive collection of personal memorabilia up for bid Friday in Boston. The auction raised more than $5 million.

Hall of Famer Bill Russell’s Olympic gold medal, two of his NBA championship rings, and several other of his most iconic pieces of memorabilia went on the auction block in Boston on Friday. All told, the full list of items was an eye-popping time capsule of basketball history.

But don’t assume that the legendary Boston Celtics center and 11-time NBA champion gave every last thing away.

Some things are just too precious to sell to the highest bidder. Notably, a letter from former President Barack Obama was not included among the more than 400 lots that sold for more than $5 million.

“That letter has an inscription from Obama: ‘You were an inspiration,’ said David Hunt, president of Hunt Auctions, who worked with Russell for several months helping him decide what to keep and what to offer to the highest bidder when the auction takes place at the Legends Club within TD Garden, home of the Celtics.

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Among the items up for sale were Russell’s gold medal from the 1956 Olympics, which sold for $587,500, his first and his 11th (and final) NBA championship rings, which sold for $705,000 and $1.1 million, respectively, five of his league MVP awards, which brought a combined $1.3 million, an honorary degree from Harvard, and a letter from Jackie Robinson alluding to a game in Lexington, Kentucky in 1961 that Russell and his teammates boycotted after he, Sam Jones, and Satch Sanders were refused service at a coffee shop prior to a scheduled game against the St. Louis Hawks.

“There are a few pictures I’ll keep for myself, but the rest I will share with the world,” Russell, 87, said in a video statement.

The gold medal won by Bill Russell with the U.S. men’s basketball team at the 1956 Melbourne, Olympics.

For collectors of sports memorabilia, this is a premier event that effectively exists in its own category — the items up for sale include everything from a golf ball with which Russell made a hole-in-one, a business card identifying him as the coach and general manager of the Seattle Supersonics, a signed photograph from Michael Jordan calling Russell a “true champion,” and letters from the likes of golfer Arnold Palmer, former president Bill Clinton, and former US Senator Ted Kennedy.

A portion of the proceeds from the event will be donated to MENTOR, which leads the movement to ensure young people receive much-needed support through mentoring to provide them with the best possible opportunities to thrive and strive.

An additional auction-related donation will be made to Boston Celtics United for Social Justice with a multi-focus commitment to addressing racial injustice and social inequities in the Greater Boston area.

As Russell said on the occasion:

“At this point in my life, I am happy to share a part of my personal collection with the world and proud that the auction will in part benefit MENTOR. MENTOR aims to close the mentoring gap and drive equity through quality mentoring relationships for young people. Potential is equally distributed; opportunity is not. The work that MENTOR does has a special place in my heart and I am honored to provide support in some small way. I will always cherish the memories I have accumulated over my life and career and I hope that sharing some of these items bring others the same feeling of Celtic Pride that I feel.”

Bill Russell wearing his iconic No. 6 in an NBA Finals game in 1969 (Neil Leifer /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images/Getty Images)

Also among the items are a leather-bound portfolio containing the first-ever issue of Sports Illustrated magazine from 1954, with had Eddie Mathews of the Milwaukee Braves on the cover. Other business cards include one from a production company that Russell once worked for, and another from former Celtics president and coach Red Auerbach.

Russell holds the NBA record with 11 championships, but Hunt said there are not 11 rings because the NBA did not always give a rind to the championship winner. “They won the ring, but that does not mean that they got an actual ring,” he said, noting that former Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas was given a tea set by the NFL after winning an NFL championship in the pre-Super Bowl era.

“All athletes have different reasonings, he said. “These awards are appreciated, but the memories are what’s important,” Hunt said in explaining Russell’s motivation to sell so much memorabilia, noting that Russell also was hanging onto a Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded to him by President Obama in 2011.

“He wants to help other people as well as being iconic,” Hunt explained.

The auction begins at noon EDT Friday. And one of the most sought-after items could be the uniform Russell wore in his final game.

Bill Russell’s 1968-69 NBA championship ring, the last of his career

Hunt Auctions explained the process behind confirming the jersey’s authenticity:

“With internal research, photographic comparison, and full authentication and photo-matching, MeiGray has confirmed that Bill Russell wore the green Celtics jersey in the final game of his NBA career. 

“We are delighted to have conclusively proven that this was the final jersey Mr. Russell ever wore in his incomparable NBA career,” said Barry Meisel, MeiGray’s President and Chief Operating Officer. “Such an historic NBA relic deserves absolute authenticity, and MeiGray stands behind the authenticity of this jersey 100%.”

Russell wore this jersey during a 108-106 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 7 of the 1969 NBA Finals on May 5, 1969 at the Forum in Inglewood, California. The jersey has been photo-matched from two images taken during the game, as well as to a photo of Russell and Red Auerbach sitting in front of lockers in the Celtics’ dressing room.

That victory marked Russell’s 11th and final NBA championship, as well as his second as the Celtics’ player-coach.

“Additionally, the jersey has been photo-matched to the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Philadelphia 76ers. With the jersey coming from Bill Russell’s personal collection and the photographic documentation to Game 7 of the 1969 NBA Finals (Russell’s last NBA game), it is without question one of the most significant game-used NBA jerseys to have ever been offered to the public,” Meisel said.

Highlighted items from the Bill Russell collection include, with prices according to Hunt Auctions:

  • 1956 US men’s basketball Olympic gold medal (Estimate price upon Request)
  • 1969 Boston Celtics NBA Finals Game 7 professional model jersey (Est. upon Request)
  • 1957-58 NBA MVP award (Est. $100,000-$300,000)
  • 1961-62 NBA MVP award (Est. $100,000-$300,000) 
  • 1962-63 NBA MVP award (Est. $100,000-$300,000)
  • 1964-65 NBA MVP award (Est. $100,000-$300,000)
  • 1957 Boston Celtics NBA championship ring — first title (Est. upon Request)
  • 1969 Boston Celtics NBA championship ring — 11th and final title (Est. $200,000-$400,000)
  • NBA 50 Greatest Players ring (Est. $50,000-$100,000)
  • Boston Celtics (11) Championships NBA presentational ring (Est. $150,000-$300,000)
  • 1964 USA State Department NBA Tour Professional Model Jersey (Est. $100,000-$200,000)
  • 1968 20,000th rebound presentational game basketball (Est. $50,000-$100,000)
  • 1964 10,000th point presentational game basketball (Est. $50,000-$100,000)
  • Boston Celtics Professional Model Jacket, 1960s (Est. $50,000-$100,000)
  • Russell’s Personal 1957 Topps Rookie card #77, PSA 7 (Est. $75,000-$125,000)
  • 1961 Lexington Boycott Game scrapbook page with Jackie Robinson letter (Est. $25,000-$50,000)
  • 1964-65 Boston Celtics NBA championship trophy (Est. $150,000-$300,000)
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