By JIMMY GOLEN
BOSTON — Bill Russell, the NBA great who founded a Boston Celtics dynasty that won 11 championships in 13 years — the last two as the first black coach in any major U.S. sport — and who marched for civil rights with Martin Luther King Jr. ., died. sunday He was 88 years old.
His family posted the news on social media, saying Russell died with his wife, Jeannine, by his side. The statement did not give a cause of death.
“Bill’s wife, Jeannine, and his many friends and family thank you for keeping Bill in your prayers. Perhaps you will relive one or two of the golden moments he gave us, or remember his signature laugh as he delighted in explaining the true story behind how those moments unfolded,” the family’s statement said. “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. That would be one last and lasting victory for our beloved No. 6.”
NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement that Russell was “the greatest champion in all of team sports.”
“Bill represented something much bigger than sports: the values of equality, respect and inclusion that he stamped into the DNA of our league. At the height of his athletic career, Bill strongly advocated for civil rights and social justice, a legacy he passed on to generations of NBA players who followed in his footsteps,” Silver said. “Through taunts, threats and unthinkable adversity, 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 the basketball writers. He remains the sport’s most prolific scorer and an archetype of selflessness who won with defense and rebounding while leaving the scoring to others. Often, that meant Wilt Chamberlain, the only player of the era who was a worthy match for Russell.
But Russell dominated in the only statistic he cared about: 11 championships to two.
The Louisiana native also made a lasting mark as a black athlete in a city — and country — where race is often a sticking point. He was at the March on Washington in 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, and supported Muhammad Ali when the boxer was framed for refusing to join the military draft.
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 defended the rights and dignity of all men,” Obama said at the ceremony. “He left with King; stood next to Ali. When a restaurant refused to serve the Black Celtics, they refused to play in the scheduled game. He put up with insults and vandalism, but he remained focused on making the teammates he loved better players and made possible the success of so many who would follow.”
Russell said that growing up in the segregated South and later in California, his parents instilled in him a quiet confidence that allowed him to avoid racist taunts.
“Years later, people asked me what I had to go through,” Russell said in 2008. “Unfortunately, or fortunately, I never went through anything. From the first moment I was alive it was the idea that my mother and father they loved me.” It was Russell’s mother who would tell him to ignore the comments of those who might see him playing in the yard.
“No matter what they say, good or bad, they don’t know you,” she recalled him saying. “They are fighting their own 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 acted like a man. He showed me the way to be a man in professional sports.”
The feeling was mutual, Russell learned, when Robinson’s widow, Rachel, called him and asked him to be a pallbearer at her husband’s funeral in 1972.
“She hung up the phone and I was like, ‘How do you get to be 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 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 the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.
Celtics coach and general manager Red Auerbach coveted Russell so much that he made a trade with the St. Louis Hawks for the second pick in the draft. He promised the Rochester Royals, owners of the No. 1 pick, a lucrative visit from the Ice Capades, who were also managed by Celtics owner Walter Brown. Still, Russell came to Boston to complain that he wasn’t that good.
Still, Russell came to Boston to complain that he wasn’t that good. “People said it was a wasted draft pick, wasted money,” he recalled. “They said, ‘It’s not good. The only thing he can do is block shots and rebound.” And Red said, “That’s enough.”
The Celtics also picked up Russell’s college teammate Tommy Heinsohn and KC Jones 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 best record in the league.
The Celtics won the NBA championship, the first of 17, in a seventh game in double overtime against the St. Louis Hawks by Bob Pettit. Russell won his first MVP award the next season, but the Hawks won the title in a Finals rematch. The Celtics won it all again in 1959, starting 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. During 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 coach in NBA history, and nearly a decade before Frank Robinson took over baseball’s Cleveland Indians. Boston finished with the NBA’s best regular-season record, but its title streak ended with a loss to Chamberlain and the Philadelphia 76ers in the East Division Finals.
Russell led the Celtics to back-to-back titles in 1968 and ’69, each time winning a seven-game playoff series against Chamberlain. Russell retired after the ’69 Finals, returning for a relatively successful but unsatisfying four-year stint as coach and general manager of the Seattle SuperSonics and a less fruitful half-season as coach of the Sacramento Kings.
Russell’s No. 6 jersey was retired by the Celtics in 1972. He earned spots on the NBA’s All-Time 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 50 best players in the NBA. In 2009, the NBA Finals MVP trophy was named in his honor.
In 2013, a statue was unveiled in Boston’s City Hall Square 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, saying he should not be 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 felt that others before me should have had that honor,” he tweeted. “It’s good to see progress.”
“I cherished my friendship with Bill and was delighted when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom,” Silver said in his statement. “I used to call him the Babe Ruth of basketball because of how he transcended time. Bill was the ultimate winner and consummate teammate, and his influence on the NBA will be felt forever. We send our deepest condolences to his wife, Jeannine, his family and to his many friends.
His family said arrangements for Russell’s memorial service will be announced in the coming days.
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