BOSTON (TBEN) — Bill Russell, the NBA great who anchored a Boston Celtics dynasty who won 11 championships in 13 years — the last two as the first black head coach in a major American sport — and marched for civil rights with Martin Luther King Jr. ., died Sunday. He was 88.
His family posted the news on social mediasaying that Russell died with his wife, Jeannine, by his side. The statement did not state the cause of death.
“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 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 TBEN 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 prolific winner and an archetype of selflessness who won defending and rebounding while leaving the scoring to others. Often that meant Wilt Chamberlain, the only player of the time who was a worthy rival to Russell.
But Russell dominated in the one stat he cared about: 11 championships against two.
Russell led the University of San Francisco to NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956 — at one point, the team led by the powerhouse center won 55 consecutive games — and earned a gold medal in the 1956 Olympics.
Russell’s family moved to Oakland from Louisiana when he was eight years old. Though blessed with size and speed, he initially struggled with basketball and was expelled from the Herbert Hoover Middle School team. It wasn’t until he barely made it to the team as a freshman at McClymonds High that Russell got his coach’s encouragement to work on his foundations. He would eventually earn a spot on the California High School All-Star team.
Still a raw, uneducated talent, Russell was not heavily recruited by colleges, but he was offered a scholarship to the University of San Francisco. He became the starting center and Dons head coach Phil Woolpert, who in 1954 became the first coach of a major college basketball team that started three African Americans with KC Jones, Hal Perry and Russell. It was under Woolpert’s defensive approach that Russell refined his unique style of play, elevating shot blocking to an art form and becoming a dominant force in the paint with his size and speed.
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 March in Washington in 1963 when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, and he supported Muhammad Ali when the boxer was pilloried for refusing to enlist in the military.
Russell said that 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.”
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.
Still, Russell arrived in Boston with complaints that he was not so good. “People said it was a wasted design choice, 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 best regular season record in the NBA, but the title streak 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.
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.”
In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Russell 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 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 loved. kept better players and enabled the success of so many to follow.”
“I cherished my friendship with Bill and was delighted to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom,” Silver said in his statement. “I often called him Basketball Babe Ruth because he crossed the line. Bill was the ultimate winner and consummate teammate, and his influence on the NBA will be felt forever. We extend our deepest condolences to his wife, Jeannine, his family and are many friends.”
His family said arrangements for Russell’s memorial will be announced in the coming days.