Former Columbus High School star Bill Russell spent most of his basketball career as “the other Bill Russell.”
Playing around the same time as the Boston Celtics legend and NBA Hall of Famer had its advantages and disadvantages.
“It seems most of my career, maybe most of my life, there’s been another guy named Bill Russell,” Columbus’ Russell said in his speech before a crowd of about 1,000 at Primo Banquet Hall in Indianapolis. “I thought, perhaps, I could have been nicknamed Oscar or Wilt or something like that.”
Wednesday night, the local Bill Russell became a Hall of Famer himself. He was one of 13 athletes, including former Jennings County star Billy Harmon, who were inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.
“Being part of the history of Indiana basketball is very humbling,” Russell said. “I’m honored and proud to not only represent the thousands of past basketball players, but also the city of Columbus for its great heritage of basketball, terrific players and wonderful fans. For those people, I’m proud to receive this recognition.
“Like all teams and players, there are few that receive recognition and many, many more which are very deserving,” he said. “This is a magical moment for us as a team, as a group, as a school and as a community.”
The first freshman to start under legendary coach Bill Stearman, Russell still holds the Columbus/Columbus North scoring record with 1,272 points. He earned Indiana All-Star honors after leading the Bull Dogs to a 25-1 record and a regional championship in 1963.
“Fifty-one years ago seems like yesterday playing for Hall of Fame coach Bill Stearman, finishing up an undefeated season ranked No. 1 in the state for most of the year and playing in front of standing-room-only crowds and enjoying the greatest times of Indiana basketball history,” Russell said.
Russell went on to letter three years at Indiana University and was regarded as one of the best defensive players in the Big Ten. He helped lead the Hoosiers to the 1967 Big Ten championship.
“I was lucky. I played for two Hall of Fame coaches, had some success at the high school level and college level, married my high school sweetheart,” Russell said. “She remains my MVP and captain of my team after 47 years.”
“I’m so proud,” Nan Russell said. “I’m so honored to be here for him. It’s amazing all the people that I’ve talked to tonight that were here for the celebration. It’s a great honor.”
One of those people there for the celebration was former Columbus teammate Tom McKinney. McKinney, who was a longtime coach at Bloomington North and led the Cougars to the final one-class state title in 1997, was a freshman at Columbus when Russell was a senior.
“Everybody wanted to be Bill Russell,” McKinney said. “He was a good person and an awfully good player.”
The same could be said of Harmon, who averaged more than 25 points a game as a senior and finished with 1,537 career points and 1,001 career rebounds. Jennings County averaged a state-record 92.9 points a game his junior year in 1971-72 behind Harmon and current Columbus East girls coach Danny Brown.
“I played with him for four years, and that’s why we scored all those points. That’s also why I got all those rebounds,” Harmon joked.
Harmon and Brown went on to play four years at Louisville, helping the Cardinals to the Final Four in 1975. Their coach at Louisville, Denny Crum, and teammate Junior Bridgeman were on hand Wednesday.
“He was a great young man and a tough, hard-nosed competitor on the basketball court,” Crum said. “He and Danny Brown both came down and played for me, and we had some pretty good years, and they were a big part of it. He was one of those guys that loved to come to practice, and when you were going play against him, you better buckle up because he played as hard as anybody I’ve ever coached.
“He did it all,” he said. “He was a tough, hard-nosed guy that you knew darn well if he was in there, he was going to be giving it his all. He was one of those great competitors, and he’s a heck of a golfer now.”
Harmon, Russell and their fellow inductees began the celebration Wednesday with a luncheon at the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in New Castle.
“It’s a wonderful night, and it’s been a great day,” Russell said. “I was impressed with the reception and the memorabilia they have. I got to meet the other inductees, as well as the fans of basketball.”
“It’s been very exciting all day,” Harmon said. “I’m sort of overwhelmed trying to take it all in with all the people and families. It’s been great.”
Both players felt honored to be inducted into the Hall.
“It’s the epitome of basketball,” Harmon said. “What else could you ask for? It’s been great for me to go in tonight.”
“It’s pretty special,” Russell said. “Indiana is known throughout the U.S. for producing the best basketball players. Coaches from everywhere, every program, come and try to recruit heavy in Indiana, and if they succeed and get a lot of Hoosier basketball players, they know they’re going to have an awfully good team. It’s neat to be included in such a nostalgic, exclusive group. It puts maybe a punctuation mark on 51 years ago playing high school basketball.”