BOSTON – Bill Russell redefined the way basketball is played and then changed the way sports are viewed in a racially divided country.
The most prolific winner in NBA history, Russell marched with Martin Luther King Jr., supported Muhammad Ali, and received President Barack Obama’s Presidential Medal of Freedom. The centerpiece of the Boston Celtics dynasty that won 11 championships in 13 years, Russell earned his last two NBA titles as a player-coach – the first black coach in a major American sport.
Russell died Sunday at the age of 88. His family posted the news on social media, saying his wife, Jeannine, was by his side. The statement did not specify the cause of death, but Russell was not well enough to award the NBA Finals MVP trophy in June due to a long illness.
“Bill’s wife, Jeannine, and his many friends and family, thank you for keeping Bill in your prayers. You may relive one or two of the golden moments he gave us, or remember his signature smile when he was delighted to explain the real story behind how those moments unfolded,” the family statement said. “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 the principle.
“That would be a final and lasting victory for our beloved #6.”
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement that Russell was “the greatest champion in all team sports.”
“Bill stood for something much bigger than sport: the values of equality, respect and inclusion that he instilled in the DNA of our league. At the height of his athletic career, Bill vigorously advocated civil rights and social justice, a legacy he passed on. to generations of NBA players who have followed in his footsteps,” said Silver. “Through the taunts, threats and unimaginable adversity, Bill rose above it all and remained true to his belief that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity.”
A Hall of Famer, five-time Most Valuable Player, and twelve-time All-Star, Russell was named the greatest player in NBA history by basketball writers in 1980. He remains the sport’s most decorated champion—he also won two college titles and an Olympic gold medal—and an archetype of altruism who won on defense and rebound, while others took showy scores.
Often that meant Wilt Chamberlain, the only worthy rival of Russell’s time and his primary competition for rebounds, MVP trophies and pub discussions about who was better. Chamberlain, who died in 1999 at age 63, had twice as many points, four MVP trophies of his own and is the only person in league history to grab more rebounds than Russell: 23,924 to 21,620.
But Russell dominated in the one stat he cared about: 11 championships against two.
The Louisiana native has also left a lasting impression as a black athlete in a city — and country — where racing is often a flashpoint. He was at the Washington March in 1963 when King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, and he supported Muhammad Ali when the boxer was pilloried for refusing to enlist in the military.
“Being the greatest champion in your sport, revolutionizing the way the game is played, and being a civic leader at the same time seems unthinkable, but that’s who Bill Russell was,” the Boston Celtics said in a statement.
In 2011, Obama awarded Russell the Medal of Freedom, along with Congressman John Lewis, billionaire investor Warren Buffett, then-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 behind Ali. When a restaurant refused to serve the Black Celtics, he refused to play in the scheduled game. He tolerated insults and vandalism, but he remained focused on making the teammates he wanted. kept better players and enabled the success of so many to follow.”
Russell said growing up in the segregated South and later California, his parents instilled in him the calm confidence that allowed him to fend off racist taunts.
“Years later people asked me what I was going through,” Russell said in 2008. “Unfortunately, or fortunately, I’ve never experienced anything. From the first moment I lived, the idea that my mom and dad loved was me.” It was Russell’s mother who told him not to reckon with comments from those who would see him play in the yard.
“Whatever they say, good or bad, they don’t know you,” he recalled what she’d said. “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 behaved like a man. He showed me the way to be a man in the professional world. sport.”
The feeling was mutual, Russell discovered when Robinson’s widow, Rachel, called and asked him to be a carrier at her husband’s funeral in 1972.
“She hung up the phone and I asked myself, ‘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 child 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 NCAA Championships in 1955 and 1956 and won a gold medal in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics in Australia.
Celtics coach and general manager Red Auerbach so coveted Russell that he worked out a trade with the St. Louis Hawks for second-choice in the draft. He promised the Rochester Royals, who owned the No. 1 crop, a lucrative visit from the Ice Capades, also run by Celtics owner Walter Brown.
Still, Russell arrived in Boston with complaints that he was not so good. “People said it was a design choice wasted, money wasted,” he recalls. “They said, ‘He’s not good. All he can do is block shots and bounce back.’ And Red said, ‘That’s enough.'”
The Celtics also picked up Tommy Heinsohn and KC Jones, Russell’s college teammate, in the same draft. Though Russell joined the team late as he led the US 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 double overtime of game 7 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, kicking off an unprecedented streak of eight consecutive NBA crowns.
A 6-foot-10 center, Russell never averaged more than 18.9 points during his 13 seasons, averaging more rebounds per game than points each year. Over 10 seasons, he averaged more than 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 the Cleveland Indians over from baseball. Boston finished with the second-best regular season record in the NBA, and the title run ended with a loss to Chamberlain and the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Division Finals.
Russell led the Celtics back to the titles in 1968 and ’69, winning seven games each in the playoffs against Chamberlain. Russell retired after the ’69 Finals and returned for a relatively successful – but unsatisfactory – four-year stint as coach and GM of the Seattle SuperSonics and a less fruitful half-season as coach of the Sacramento Kings.
Russell’s No. 6 shirt was retired by the Celtics in 1972. He earned spots on the NBA’s 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 NBA’s 50 Greatest Players.
In 2009, the NBA Finals MVP trophy was named after him—although Russell himself never won, as it was not first awarded until 1969. However, Russell traditionally presented the trophy for many years, most recently in 2019 to Kawhi Leonard; Russell was not there in 2020 because of the NBA bubble, nor in 2021 because of concerns about COVID-19.
In 2013, a statue was unveiled in Boston’s City Hall Plaza of Russell, 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 because he should not have been the first African American to be elected. (Chuck Cooper, the NBA’s first black player, was his choice.)
In 2019, Russell accepted his Hall of Fame ring in a private meeting.
“I felt that others before me should have been given that credit,” he tweeted. “Good to see progress.”
Silver said he “often called (Russell) basketball player Babe Ruth because he crossed time.”
“Bill was the ultimate winner and perfect teammate, and his influence on the NBA will be felt forever,” Silver added. “We extend our deepest condolences to his wife, Jeannine, his family and his many friends.”
Russell’s family said arrangements for the memorial service will be announced in the coming days.
More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/hub/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports