Bill Russell, an NBA legend who led the Boston Celtics to a record 11 championships and is widely regarded as one of the greatest basketball players of all time, died Sunday. He was 88.
Russell’s family announced his death in a expression, who said he died peacefully with his wife Jeannine by his side. The family did not provide any information on the cause of death.
The 6’10” former center dominated the NBA during his 13-year career as a defensive and rebounding force, winning five Most Valuable Player Awards and becoming a 12-time All-Star between 1956 and 1969. He also coached the Celtics through recent years three years of his playing career and led the team to two more titles in addition to the nine titles he clinched as a player. He was the first Blacks head coach in the league.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said Russell “represented something much bigger than the sport: the values of equality, respect and inclusion that he inculcated into our league’s DNA.”
“In the nearly 35 years since Bill ended his groundbreaking career as the league’s first black head coach, we’ve been fortunate to see him at every major NBA event, including the NBA Finals, where he named Finals MVP Bill Russell Trophy presented,” Silver said in a statement Sunday. “Bill was the ultimate winner and consummate teammate, and his impact on the NBA will be felt forever.”
Russell’s family also cited his long history as an activist and social justice activist, saying his “understanding of the struggle is what has lit his life.”
“Bill called out injustice with an unforgiving candor he intended would upset the status quo and with a powerful example that, though never his humble intention, will forever inspire teamwork, selflessness and thoughtful change ‘ said the family. “You may experience one or two of the golden moments he gave us, or remember his trademark laugh as he was delighted to explain the true story behind those moments. And we hope each of us can find a new way to act or speak with Bill’s uncompromising, dignified, and always constructive commitment to principles. That would be a final and lasting win for our beloved #6.
In 1980, Russell was voted the greatest player in NBA history by basketball writers. He remains the sport’s most prolific winner and an archetype of selflessness, winning on defense and rebound while letting others do the scoring. Often that meant Wilt Chamberlain, the only player of the era who was a worthy rival for Russell.
But Russell dominated in the only stat he cared about: 11 championships to two.
Boston Celtics player-coach Bill Russell and guard Emmette Bryant take a shower after the Celtics defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 108-106 on May 5, 1969 to win their eleventh NBA championship. bedman
A Louisiana native, he also left an indelible mark as a black athlete in a city — and country — where racing is often a focal point. 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 draft to be included.
In 2011, President Barack Obama presented Russell with the Medal of Freedom along with 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 marched with King; he stood by Ali. When a restaurant refused to serve the Black Celtics, he refused to attend the scheduled game. He endured insults and vandalism, but his focus remained on supporting the teammates he loved making them better players and enabled the success of so many who would follow.”
President Barack Obama presents Bill Russell with the Medal of Freedom. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
On Sunday, Obama said in one expression that, “as great as Bill Russell stood, his legacy rises far higher – both as a player and as a person.
“Perhaps more than anyone, Bill knew what it takes to win and what it takes to lead. On the court, he was the greatest champion in basketball history. Aside from that, he was a pioneer of civil rights,” Obama wrote.
Russell said growing up in the segregated South and later in California, his parents instilled in him the quiet confidence that enabled him to shrug off racial taunts.
“Years later, people would ask me what I was going through,” Russell said in 2008. “Unfortunately or fortunately, I never went through anything. From my first moment, the idea was that my mother and father loved me.” It was Russell’s mother who told him to ignore comments from those who might see him play in the yard.
“Whatever they say, good or bad, they don’t know you,” he recalled her words. “They wrestle with their own demons.”
But it was Jackie Robinson who gave Russell a roadmap for dealing with racism in his sport: “Jackie was a hero to us. He always acted like a man. He showed me how to be a man in professional sport. “
The feeling was mutual, Russell learned when Robinson’s widow Rachel called and asked him to be pallbearer at her husband’s funeral in 1972.
“She hung up and I was like, ‘How do you become a hero to Jackie Robinson?'” Russell said. “I was so flattered.”
William Felton Russell was born on February 12, 1934 in Monroe, Louisiana. He was a kid when his family moved to the West Coast and he attended high school in Oakland, California and then the University of San Francisco. He led the Dons to the NCAA Championships in 1955 and 1956 and won a gold medal at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics in Australia.
Celtics coach and general manager Red Auerbach was so popular that Russell worked out a trade with the St. Louis Hawks for a second draft pick. He promised the Rochester Royals, who owned the No. 1, a lucrative visit from the Ice Capades, also run by Celtics owner Walter Brown. Still, Russell came to Boston to complain that he wasn’t that good.
“People said it was a wasted election, wasted money,” he recalled. “They said, ‘He’s not good. All he can do is block and deflect shots.’ And Red said, ‘That’s enough.'”
The Celtics also drafted Tommy Heinsohn and KC Jones, Russell’s collegiate teammates, in the same draft. Though Russell joined the team late for leading the U.S. 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 a seventh game of double overtime against Bob Pettit’s St. Louis Hawks. Russell won his first MVP award the next season, but the Hawks won the title in a Finals rematch. The Celtics won it all again in 1959, embarking on an unprecedented streak of eight straight NBA crowns.
The towering Russell has never averaged more than 18.9 points in his 13 seasons, averaging more rebounds per game than points each year. He averaged more than 20 rebounds in 10 seasons. He once had 51 rebounds in a game; Chamberlain holds the record at 55.
Auerbach retired after winning the 1966 title, and Russell became a player-coach — the first black head coach in NBA history and nearly a decade before Frank Robinson took over baseball’s Cleveland Indians. Boston finished with the best regular-season record in the NBA, but its title streak ended in defeats to Chamberlain and the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Division Finals.
Russell led the Celtics back to the titles in 1968 and 1969, winning a seven-game playoff series against Chamberlain each time. Russell retired after the 1969 Finals, returning for a relatively successful—but unfulfilling—four-year stint as coach and GM of the Seattle SuperSonics and a less than successful half-season as coach of the Sacramento Kings.
Russell’s #6 jersey was retired by the Celtics in 1972. He earned spots on the all-time NBA 25th Anniversary team in 1970, the 35th Anniversary team in 1980, and the 75th Anniversary team. In 1996 he was hailed as one of the 50 Greatest Players in the NBA. In 2009, the NBA Finals MVP trophy was named in his honor.
In 2013, a statue of Russell surrounded by granite blocks with quotes on leadership and character was unveiled in Boston’s City Hall Square. 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 in a private gathering. “I felt that others before me should have had that honor,” he tweeted. “Good to see progress.”