Bill Russell, the NBA great who anchored a Boston Celtics dynasty that won 11 championships in 13 years – the last two as the first black head coach in any major American sport – and marched for civil rights with Martin Luther King Jr., died Sunday. He was 88 years old.
His family posted the news on social media, saying Russell died with his wife, Jeannine, by his side. The statement did not give the cause of death.
“Bill’s wife, Jeannine, and his many friends and family thank you for keeping Bill in your prayers. Perhaps you will relive one or two of the golden moments he gave us, or remember his signature laugh as he reveled in explaining the real story behind how those moments unfolded,” said the family statement. “And we hope that each of us can find a new way to act or express ourselves with Bill’s uncompromising, dignified and always constructive commitment to the principles. It would be a last and lasting victory for our beloved No. 6.”
NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement that Russell was “the greatest champion in all of team sports.”
“Bill represented something much bigger than sport: the values of equality, respect and inclusion that he inscribed in our league’s DNA. During the height of his athletic career, Bill was a strong advocate for civil rights and social justice, a legacy he passed on to generations of NBA players who followed in his footsteps,” Silver said. “Through taunts, threats and unthinkable adversity, Bill rose above it all and stayed true to his belief that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity.
A Hall of Famer, five-time Most Valuable Player and 12-time All-Star, Russell was voted the greatest player in NBA history in 1980 by basketball writers. He remains the sport’s most prolific winner and an archetype of selflessness who won with defense and rebounding while leaving the score to others. Often that meant Wilt Chamberlain, the only player at the time who was a worthy rival for Russell.
But Russell dominated in the one stat that mattered to him: 11 championships to two.
The Louisiana native also left a lasting mark as a black athlete in a city — and country — where running is often a flashpoint. He was at the March on Washington in 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his ‘I have a dream’ speech, and he supported Muhammad Ali when the boxer was pilloried for refusing to be inducted into the military service.
In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Russell the Medal of Freedom alongside Congressman John Lewis, billionaire investor Warren Buffett, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and baseball great Stan Musial.
“Bill Russell, the man, is someone who stood up for the rights and dignity of all men,” Obama said at the ceremony. “He walked with King; he was at Ali’s side. When a restaurant refused to serve the Black Celtics, they refused to play in the scheduled game. He endured insults and vandalism, but he continued to focus on making the teammates he loved better players and made success possible for so many who would follow.
Russell said growing up in the segregated South and later in California, his parents instilled in him the calm confidence that allowed him to shrug off racist taunts.
“Years later, people asked me what I had to go through,” Russell said in 2008. “Unfortunately, or fortunately, I never went through anything. From my first moment of life, I had the idea that my mother and my father loved me. It was Russell’s mother telling him to disregard comments from anyone who might see him play in the yard.
“Whatever they say, good or bad, they don’t know you,” he recalls. “They are battling their own demons.”
But it was Jackie Robinson who gave Russell a roadmap for tackling racism in his sport: “Jackie was a hero for us. He always behaved like a man. He showed me how to be a man in professional sports.
The feeling was mutual, Russell learned, when Robinson’s widow Rachel called and asked him to be a pallbearer to her husband’s funeral in 1972.
“She hung up the phone and I was like, ‘How do you become a hero for Jackie Robinson? “, Russell said. “I was so flattered.
William Felton Russell was born on February 12, 1934 in Monroe, Louisiana. He was a child when his family moved to the West Coast and he went to high school in Oakland, California and then to the University of San Francisco. He led the Dons to NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956 and won a gold medal in 1956 at the Melbourne Olympics in Australia.
Celtics coach and general manager Red Auerbach coveted Russell so much that he made a trade to the St. Louis Hawks for the second pick in the draft. He promised the Rochester Royals, who owned the No. 1 pick, a lucrative visit from the Ice Capades, who were also managed by Celtics owner Walter Brown. Still, Russell arrived in Boston to complain that he wasn’t that good.
Still, Russell arrived in Boston to complain that he wasn’t that good. “People were saying it was a useless draft pick, wasted money,” he recalled. “They said, ‘He’s no good. All he can do is block shots and rebound. And Red said, “That’s enough.”
The Celtics also picked up Tommy Heinsohn and KC Jones, Russell’s college teammate, in the same draft. Although Russell joined the team late because he was leading the United States to Olympic gold, Boston finished the regular season with the league’s best record.
The Celtics won the NBA championship — their first of 17 — in Game 7 of double overtime against Bob Pettit’s St. Louis Hawks. Russell won his first MVP award the following season, but the Hawks won the title in a Finals rematch. The Celtics won it all again in 1959, beginning an unprecedented streak of eight consecutive NBA crowns.
A 6-foot-10 center, Russell never averaged more than 18.9 points in his 13 seasons, averaging more rebounds per game than points each year. For 10 seasons, he averaged over 20 rebounds. He once had 51 rebounds in a game; Chamberlain holds the record with 55.
Auerbach retired after winning the 1966 title, and Russell became the player-coach – the first black head coach in NBA history, and nearly a decade before Frank Robinson took control of the Cleveland Indians in baseball. Boston finished with the best regular season record in the NBA, but its title streak ended with a loss to Chamberlain and the Philadelphia 76ers in the East Division Finals.
Russell led the Celtics back to titles in 1968 and 1969, winning a seven-game playoff series each time over Chamberlain. Russell retired after the 1969 Finals, returning for a relatively successful – but unsatisfying – four-year stint as Seattle SuperSonics coach and general manager and a less successful half-season as Sacramento Kings coach. .
Russell’s No. 6 jersey was retired by the Celtics in 1972. He earned spots on the NBA’s 25th Anniversary All-Time Team in 1970 and the 35th Anniversary Team in 1980. In 1996 , he was hailed as one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players. In 2009, the NBA Finals MVP trophy was named in his honor.
In 2013, a statue was unveiled in Russell Town Hall Square in Boston, surrounded by granite blocks with quotes about leadership and character. Russell was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975 but did not attend the ceremony, saying he should not have been the first African-American elected. (Chuck Cooper, the NBA’s first black player, was his pick.)
In 2019, Russell accepted his Hall of Fame ring at a private gathering. “I thought others before me should have had this honor,” he tweeted. “It’s good to see progress.”
“I cherished my friendship with Bill and was thrilled when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom,” Silver said in his statement. “I have often called him Babe Ruth of basketball for how he transcended time. Bill was the ultimate winner and an accomplished teammate, and his influence on the NBA will be felt forever. condolences to his wife, Jeannine, his family and his many friends.
His family said arrangements for Russell’s memorial service will be announced in the coming days.
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