Bill Russell, the NBA great who led a Boston Celtics dynasty that won 11 championships in 13 years — the last two as the first black head coach in any major U.S. sport — and Martin Luther King for civil rights Jr. passed away on Sunday. He was 88 years old.
His family shared the news on social media, saying Russell died with his wife, Jeannine, by his side. The cause of his death was not given in the statement.
“Bill’s wife, Jeannine, and his many friends and family thank you for keeping Bill in your prayers. Maybe you will relive a golden moment or two he gave us, or remember his famous smile. bring when he was happy to explain the true story of how those moments happened,” the family statement said. “And we hope each of us can find a new way to act or speak to Bill’s uncompromising, honorable and always constructive commitment to principle. It will be one last and lasting victory for our beloved #6.”
NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement that Russell “was the greatest champion in all of team sports.”
“Bill stood for something much bigger than sports: the values of equality, respect and inclusion that he stamped into the DNA of our league. At the peak of his athletic career, Bill strongly advocated for civil rights and social justice, a legacy he left behind. generations of NBA players who followed in his footsteps,” Silver said. “Through taunts, threats and unexpected challenges, Bill rose above it all and stayed true to his belief that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity.
A Hall of Famer, five-time Most Valuable Player and 12-time All-Star, Russell was voted the greatest player in NBA history in 1980 by basketball writers. He remains the sport’s most prolific scorer and an archetype of resilience who thrived on defense and rebounding while leaving the scoring to others. Usually, that means Wilt Chamberlain, the only player of the era who was worthy competition for Russell.
But Russell dominated in the only stat he cared about: 11 championships to two.
The Louisiana native also left a lasting mark as a Black athlete in a city — and a country — where race 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 shot for refusing to be drafted.
In 2011, US 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 a person who stands for the rights and dignity of all people,” Obama said at the ceremony. “He walked with King; He stopped by Eli. He refused to play in a scheduled game when a restaurant refused to serve the Black Celtics. He endured insults and vandalism, but he focused on making friends who loved better players and made possible the success of many who would follow.
Russell said that growing up in the segregated South and later California, his parents instilled in him a calm confidence that allowed him to let go of racist taunts.
Russell said in 2008: “Over the years, people have asked me what I had to go through. From the first moment I was alive I knew my parents loved me.” It was Russell’s mother who told him to ignore the comments of people who might see him playing in the yard.
“Whatever they say, good or bad, they don’t know you,” he recalled her saying. “They are fighting their demons.”
But it was Jackie Robinson who gave Russell a road map for dealing with racism in his sport: “Jackie was a hero to us. He always conducted himself as a human being. He showed me the way to be in professional sports. be a man.”
The feeling was mutual, Russell learned, when Robinson’s widow, Rachel, called and asked him to be a pallbearer at her husband’s funeral in 1972.
“She hung up the phone and I asked myself, ‘How can you be Jackie Robinson’s hero?’ Russell said. “I was very happy.”
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 at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.
Celtics coach and general manager Red Auerbach liked Russell so much that he traded him to the St Louis Hawks for the second pick in the draft. He promised the Rochester Royals, who had the No. 1 pick, a lucrative visit from the Ice Capades, who were also coached by Celtics owner Walter Brown. Still, Russell came to Boston and complained that he wasn’t doing so well.
Still, Russell came to Boston and complained that he wasn’t doing so well. “People said it was a wasted draft pick, a waste of money,” he recalled. “They said, ‘He’s not good. All he can do is block shots and rebound.’ And Red said, “That’s enough.”
The Celtics also took Russell’s college teammate Tommy Heinsohn and KC Jones in the same draft. Although Russell joined the team late as he led the USA 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 the seventh game of a doubleheader against Bob Pettit’s St Louis Hawks. Russell won his first MVP award the following season, but the Hawks won the title in a playoff contest. The Celtics won it all again in 1959, beginning an unprecedented streak of eight consecutive NBA crowns.
A 6ft 10in center, Russell has never averaged more than 18.9 points in his 13 seasons, averaging more rebounds than points per game 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 a player-coach – the first Black head coach in NBA history, and almost 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 with a loss to Chamberlain and the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Division finals.
Russell led the Celtics to back-to-back titles in 1968 and ’69, each time winning seven-game series against Chamberlain. Russell retired after the ’69 finals, for a successful — but incomplete — four-year return as coach and GM of the Seattle Supersonics and a less productive half-season as coach of the Sacramento Kings.
Russell’s No. 6 jersey was retired by the Celtics in 1972. He was named to the NBA’s 25th anniversary team in 1970, the 35th anniversary team in 1980 and the 75th anniversary team. In 1996, he was recognized 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 was unveiled in Boston City Hall Plaza of Russell surrounded by granite blocks with words of 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 inducted. (Chuck Cooper, the NBA’s first black player, was his choice.)
In 2019, Russell accepted his Hall of Fame ring at a private meeting. “I felt that others before me should have that honor,” he tweeted. “It’s good to see progress.”
Silver said he “often called (Russell) the Babe Ruth of basketball because of how he spent his time.”
“Bill was the ultimate winner and teammate, and his impact on the NBA will be felt forever,” Silver added. “Our condolences go out to his wife Jeannine, his family and his many friends.”
Arrangements for Russell’s memorial service will be announced in the coming days, his family said.