Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell, who dominated professional basketball during the turbulent 1960s and stood strong against the era’s virulent racism, died Sunday, according to a statement posted on his verified Twitter page.
Russell was 88 years old.
Russell’s wife, Jeannine, was by his side at the time of his death, the statement said. His family thanked fans for “keeping Bill in your prayers”.
“Maybe you’ll relive one or two of the golden moments he gave us, or remember his signature laugh as he was delighted to tell the real story behind how those moments unfolded,” the statement said. “And we hope that each of us can find a new way to act or speak in Bill’s uncompromising, dignified and always constructive commitment to principles.”
Russell led the Celtics to 11 NBA titles, two as a player-coach, on a winning resume considered one of the most unsurpassed records in professional sports.
He competes Henri “Pocket Rocket” Richard, who lifted the Stanley Cup 11 times with the Montreal Canadiens, and Yogi Berra, a member of 10 World Series-winning New York Yankees teams.
No modern player holds a candle to Russell’s achievements. The award to the most valuable player of the The NBA Finals is named after him.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver called Russell the “greatest champion of all team sports” in a tribute chronicling the player’s career. Silver said he cherished his personal friendship with Russell as he offered his condolences.
“Bill represented something much bigger than sports: the values of equality, respect and inclusion that he branded into the DNA of our league,” Silver said. “At the height of his athletic career, Bill was a strong advocate for civil rights and social justice, a legacy he passed on to generations of NBA players who followed in his footsteps.
ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith tweeted a tribute to Russell Sundaysaying the center made the world “better for all”.
“My deepest condolences to the family, loved ones and the @NBA community on the loss of the greatest champion we’ve ever known – BILL RUSSELL,” Smith wrote. “An activist, a pioneer, a humanitarian.”
Retired player “Magic” Johnson, whose legal name is Earvin Johnson Jr., called Russell his idol.
“I watched him on and off the court,” Johnson said. “His success on the court was undeniable; he was dominant and brilliant, winning 11 NBA championships. Off the court, Bill Russell paved the way for guys like me.”
Russell, a 6-foot-10 center, also won the NBA’s regular-season MVP award five times while averaging 15.1 points, 22.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game over his 13-season career.
Russell’s numbers weren’t as eye-popping as those of contemporary great Wilt Chamberlain, who is the only professional basketball player ever to do so. score 100 points in a game and retired with an average of 30.07 points, second only to Michael Jordan’s 30.12.
But Russell is largely credited with writing the book on modern center defense. He perfected the art of blocking shots, beating would-be scorers with brutal efficiency, never missing and keeping the ball in play, so one of his teammates could win possession.
The NBA didn’t recognize the blocked shot until 1973-74, so Russell’s prowess here has largely been lost to history.
What has been completely chronicled is Russell’s will to win, as he led Boston to NBA titles in 1957, 1959 and every year of the 1960s except 1967.
Legendary Celtics coach Red Auerbach retired in 1966 and handed the keys to Russell, who led Boston to two more titles as a player-coach.
He was first black head coach in professional basketballno small feat at the time in racially divided Boston.
Russell’s professional basketball career spanned a particularly difficult time in civil rights history. He never backed down from a challenge.
When the Celtics were set to play an exhibition game against the St. Louis Hawks in Lexington, Kentucky in 1961, he and his fellow blacks were refused service at a coffee shop. In protest, Russell and his teammates left town without playing.
He refused to sign autographs, fearing that doing so would show acceptance of the white establishment of the time, which largely prevented African Americans from advancing in fields not directly tied to baskets, touchdowns, and home runs.
“I remember one time, this businessman asked for an autograph,” said the Golden State Warriors broadcaster and former Celtics player. Jim Barnett fondly remembered Russell. “He said, ‘If he wasn’t Bill Russell from the Boston Celtics, it would be another N-word for him.’
Russell was supported by Muhammad Ali when Ali refused to serve in the Vietnam War. Russell and UCLA basketball star Lew Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, went to Cleveland in 1967 for a summitorganized by Jim Brown, to show his support for Ali.
Although he brought Boston titles, Russell endured the ugly racial resentment of the era.
In 1963, vandals broke into his home in Reading, Massachusetts, wrote racist epithets on the walls and defecated on his bed.
“Russ was the ultimate angry black man,” said his teammate and Celtics legend Bob Cousy told WBUR in 2018 interview. “And I didn’t blame him then, and I blame him even less now.”
While Russell has spoken fondly of Cousy, the point guard said he has long regretted not doing more to comfort his teammate over the years.
“‘Let’s go get a beer, go to the movie together,’ whatever, or socialize outside the unit,” said Cousy, a roommate of Chuck Cooper, the first black man ever drafted by an NBA team.
“I was the senior member. I had a good relationship with the media. I always have. So I could have reached out and maybe shared his pain with him a little bit, you know? I never did that with Russ.”
“Bill Russell, the man, is someone who stood up for the rights and dignity of all men. He marched with King; he stood with Ali,” said President Barack Obama.
“He put up with insults and vandalism, but he focused on making better players out of the teammates he loved and made possible the success of so many who would follow them. And I hope that one day, on the streets of Boston, kids will look at a statue built not just for Bill Russell the player, but for Bill Russell the man.”
Obama published one series of tweets on Sunday commenting on Russell’s life, on and off the court, saying that society had “lost a giant”.
“Perhaps more than anyone, Bill knew what it took to win and what it took to lead,” Obama said Sunday. “On the court, he was the greatest champion in basketball history. Off it, he was a civil rights pioneer, marching with Dr. King and with Muhammad Ali.”
CSPAN tweeted the clip of Obama presenting the medal to Russell on Sunday.
In 2020, Russell wore the medal in a picture he posted on social media, kneeling and ripping off President Donald Trump to criticize the athletes’ protests for racial justice.
He called Trump “divisive” and a “coward” five months before voters removed Trump from office.
William Felton Russell was born on February 12, 1934 in Monroe, Louisiana, before his family moved west, settling in Oakland, California.
He was a basketball player at McClymonds High School, dominating the hardwood alongside teammate and future Baseball Hall of Famer Frank Robinson.
Russell crossed the San Francisco Bay Area for college, teaming with future Celtics teammate and coach KC Jones to lead the University of San Francisco to NCAA titles in 1955 and 1956, with the Dons with 57-1. in these last two seasons.
He and Jones led Team USA to gold in the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.
Even six decades later, Russell was still making an impact on the sports of his old playground.
The West Coast Conference, which includes USF, in 2020 instituted the “Russell Rule”, require schools to consider “a member of a traditionally underrepresented community in the pool of final candidates” for top coaching and administrative positions.
Russell was married four times, to Rose Swisher, Miss USA 1968 Dorothy “Didi” Anstett, Marilyn Nault and Jeannine Russell.
Nault died in 2009and Swisher died in 2014.