Bill Russell, an NBA legend who led the Boston Celtics to a record 11 championships and is widely considered one of the greatest basketball players of all time, died Sunday. He was 88 years old.
Russell’s family announced his death in a statement, saying he died peacefully with his wife Jeannine by his side. The family has not released the cause of death.
The 6’10” former center dominated the NBA as a defensive and rebounding force during his 13-year career, winning five Most Valuable Player awards and becoming All-Star 12 times between 1956 and 1969. He also coached the Celtics in the last three years of his playing career, leading the team to two more titles in addition to the nine he won as a player He was the league’s first black head coach .
NBA commissioner Adam Silver said Russell “represented something much bigger than sport: the values of equality, respect and inclusion that he inscribed in our league’s DNA.” .
“For nearly 35 years since Bill ended his pioneering career as the league’s first black head coach, we’ve been blessed to see him at every major NBA event, including the NBA Finals. NBA, where he presented the Bill Russell Trophy to Finals MVP,” Silver said in a statement Sunday. “Bill was the ultimate winner and an accomplished teammate, and his influence on the NBA will be felt forever.”
Russell’s family also highlighted his long history of activism and social justice, saying “his understanding of struggle is what has illuminated his life.”
“Bill spoke out against injustice with a callous candor that he believed would disrupt the status quo, and with a powerful example that, though never his humble intention, will forever inspire teamwork, selflessness and change. thoughtful,” the family said. “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. And we hope that each of us can find a new way to act or speak with Bill’s uncompromising, dignified and always constructive commitment to principles. It would be a final and lasting victory for our beloved No. 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 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 draft induction military.
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 stood with Ali. When a restaurant refused to serve the Black Celtics, he 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 possible the success of so many who would follow.”
On Sunday, Obama said in a statement that, “as great as Bill Russell is, his legacy soars much higher – both as a player and as a person.
“Perhaps more than anyone, Bill knew what it took to win and what it took to lead. On the court, he was the greatest champion in basketball history. Other than that, he was a civil rights pioneer,” Obama wrote.
President Biden on Sunday called Russell a “great champion of freedom, equality and justice.”
“From a childhood in segregated Louisiana to a career on the biggest sporting stages at the height of the civil rights movement, Bill faced hostility and hatred of racism ingrained in every aspect of life. Yet he never gave up,” Biden wrote. “Throughout his life, he forced us to face hard truths. And on that day, there are generations of Americans who reflect on what he meant to them as someone who played for the essential truth that every person has the right to be treated with dignity and respect.”
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 experienced anything. From my first moment of life, I thought my mom and dad 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.
“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.
The towering 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, 35th Anniversary Team in 1980, and Team of the 75th anniversary. 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 choice.)
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.”