Bill Russell, an 11-time NBA champion player and coach for the Boston Celtics and one of the most important figures in NBA history, has died at the age of 88, his family announced Sunday. Russell died peacefully with his wife Jeannine at his side. His family released the following statement.
“It is with a heavy heart that we want to share the following with all of Bill’s friends, fans and followers:
Bill Russell, the most prolific winner in American sports history, passed away peacefully today at the age of 88, with his wife Jeannine at his side. Arrangements for his memorial service will be announced shortly.
Bill’s two state championships in high school provided a taste of the unparalleled streak of pure team effort that was yet to come: two-time NCAA champion; captain of a gold medal-winning US Olympic team; 11-time NBA champion; and topped two NBA championships as the first black head coach of a North American professional sports team.
Along the way, Bill received a number of individual awards that are unparalleled as they were not mentioned by him. In 2009, the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player award was renamed the Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award, after the two-time Hall of Famer.
But despite all the victories, Bill’s understanding of the fight brightened his life. From boycotting a 1961 exhibition game to exposing discrimination that had been tolerated for too long, to running the first integrated basketball camp in Mississippi after the inflammable assassination of Medgar Evans, to decades of activism finally recognized by his receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010. Bill called out injustice with an unforgiving frankness that he intended would upset the status quo, and with a powerful example that, though it was never his humble intention, will forever inspire teamwork, selflessness, and thoughtful change.
Bill’s wife Jeannine and his many friends and family thank you for keeping Bill in your prayers. You may experience one or two of the golden moments he gave us, or remember his signature laugh as he happily explained the true story behind those moments. And we hope that with Bill’s uncompromising, dignified, and always constructive commitment to principle, each of us can find a new way to act or speak out. It would be a final and lasting win for our beloved #6.”
Born in Louisiana in 1934, Russell was not initially considered a top basketball player. His first scholarship offer came from the University of San Francisco, a school little known for its basketball prowess but which Russell carried to back-to-back national championships in 1955 and 1956. In addition to basketball, Russell was a San Francisco track and field star, particularly in the high jump. He won an Olympic gold medal in basketball as captain of Team USA in 1956 before turning pro.
Despite his collegiate excellence, Russell was not the first pick in the 1956 NBA draft. That honor went to Duquesne wing Si Green. This kept Russell available at #2 where the St. Louis Hawks drew. However, circumstances worked in Russell’s favor. Boston Celtics star Ed Macauley’s son was being treated for spinal meningitis in St. Louis, so he asked the team to send him there as a favor. They did so, and Boston landed the No. 2 pick in exchange for Macauley and fellow Hall of Famer Cliff Hagan. The deal didn’t exactly blow up St. Louis. Despite losing the Finals to Boston in 1957, the Hawks returned and won it all in a 1958 rematch with the Celtics. But that would be the last championship they would ever win. Russell won 10 more, including the next eight in a row.
Trade was just as important to Russell as it was to the Celtics. “If I had been drafted by St. Louis, I wouldn’t have been in the NBA,” Russell said in an interview with NBATV. “St. Louis was overwhelmingly racist.” Unfortunately, Russell faced racism throughout his early life in the South and his entire career in Boston, becoming one of the most socially conscious athletes in American history. He personally attended Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech and was one of several black athletes and leaders who attended the 1967 Cleveland Summit in support of Muhammad Ali. In 1966, Russell became the first black head coach in American sports history when he replaced Red Auerbach in Boston. He retained his role as the team’s starting center while coaching the team on its journey to the last two championships.
Russell left the Celtics after his playing career ended. He then worked as a television host before returning to the Seattle Supersonics. He went four games under .500 in four seasons in Seattle before leaving. A decade later, he coached for another season with the Sacramento Kings, but otherwise remained largely out of the public eye for the next several decades, living out of his Washington home.
In the last years of his life, however, he made more public appearances and was often honored for his notable achievements as a player and activist. In 2009, the NBA renamed the Finals MVP award after Russell, and he attended the 2009 Finals to personally present the trophy to Kobe Bryant. He would do this a few more times, but it was especially meaningful for Bryant given the friendship they had forged. When Bryant died in a helicopter accident in 2020, Russell penned an emotional social media post recalling the legend. Bryant may have played for the rival Lakers, but Russell frequently made himself available to modern players seeking advice.
Many sought him out because Russell was first and foremost on the court, he was the sport’s biggest winner. He only lost two playoff series in his entire career. He’s never lost a winner-take-all game. Not in college. Not at the Olympics. Not in the NBA. He won all 21 such games he played. Russell made it big when it mattered, both on and off the pitch, and he will always be remembered for that.