NBA great Bill Russell, who anchored a Boston Celtics dynasty that won 11 championships in 13 years — the last two as the first black head coach in any major US sport — and led the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King Jr., died Sunday. He is 88 years old.
Russell’s family posted the news on social media that he died alongside his wife, Jeannine. The cause of death was not announced.
“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 golden moments he gave us or recall his trademark laugh as he delighted in recounting the real story behind how those moments unfolded,” the family statement said.
“And we hope that each of us can find a new way to relate to or talk about Bill’s uncompromising, respectful and always constructive commitment. That was the last and forever for our beloved #6.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement that Russell was “the greatest champion in all of team sports.”
“Bill was bigger than sports: he imprinted the values of equality, respect and inclusion into the DNA of our league. At the height of his athletic career, Bill advocated fiercely for civil rights and social justice, a legacy he passed on to generations of NBA players who followed in his footsteps,” said Mr. Silver. Said. “Through accusations, threats and unimaginable adversity, Bill rose above it all and lived up 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 by the Basketball Writers in 1980. He remains the sport’s most prolific scorer as a player and an archetype of unselfishness who wins with defense and rebounding while leaving the scoring to others. Often, that meant Wilt Chamberlain, the only player who rivaled Russell.
But Russell dominated the only stat he cared about: 11 championships with 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 in Washington at the 1963 March when King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, and he supported Muhammad Ali as a boxer refused to enter the military draft.
In 2011, Russell was awarded the Medal of Freedom along with President Barack Obama, Congressman John Lewis, billionaire investor Warren Buffett, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and baseball great Stan Musial.
“Bill Russell, the man, stood up for the rights and dignity of all men,” Obama said at the ceremony. “He marched with the king; He stood by Ali. When a restaurant refused to serve the Celtics, he refused to play in a scheduled game. He endured humiliation and destruction, but he focused on making teammates who loved him better players and made possible the success of many who followed.
Growing up in the segregated South and later in California, Russell said his parents instilled in him a calm confidence that allowed him to brush aside accusations of racism.
Russell said in 2008, “Years later, people asked me what I wanted to feel. The feeling that my mom and dad loved me from the first moment I was alive. Russell’s mother would tell him not to pay attention to the comments of those who saw him playing in the yard.
“Whatever they say, good or bad, they don’t know you,” he recalled her saying. “They’re wrestling with their own demons.”
But Jackie Robinson gave Russell a roadmap 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.”
When Robinson’s widow, Rachel, called him to be a pallbearer at her husband’s funeral in 1972, the feeling was mutual, Russell learned.
“She hung up the phone and I asked myself, ‘How can you be Jackie Robinson’s hero?'” Russell said. “I’m very flattered.”
William Felton Russell was born on February 12, 1934 in Monroe, Louisiana. He was young 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 Danes 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 respected Russell so much that he traded him to the St. Louis Hawks for the second pick in the draft. He was promised a lucrative visit to the Rochester Royals, who had the No. 1 pick, by the Ice Capades, managed by Celtics owner Walter Brown.
However, Russell arrived in Boston to complain that he wasn’t very good. “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 selected Russell’s college teammate Tommy Heinsohn and KC Jones in the same draft. Russell joined the team late as he was leading the US to Olympic gold, as Boston finished the regular season with the best record in the league.
The Celtics won the NBA championship – their first in 17 – in the seventh game of double overtime 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, beginning an unprecedented streak of eight straight NBA crowns.
A 6-foot-10 center, Russell never averaged more than 18.9 points in his 13 seasons, grabbing more rebounds than points each year. In 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 player-coach — the first black head coach in NBA history, and nearly a decade before Frank Robinson took over baseball’s Cleveland Indians. Boston finished with the second-best regular-season record in the NBA and lost its title streak 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 a seven-game playoff series over Chamberlain. Russell retired after the ’69 Finals, returning for a relatively successful — but unfulfilled — 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 jersey was retired by the Celtics in 1972. He was named to the NBA’s 25th Anniversary All-Time 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 in his honor — although Russell never won it himself, it wasn’t awarded for the first time until 1969.
In 2013, a statue surrounded by granite blocks with quotes on leadership and character was unveiled at Boston City Hall Plaza in Russell. Russell was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975, but did not attend the ceremony, saying he did not want to be the first African American elected. (Chuck Cooper, the NBA’s first black player, was his pick.)
In 2019, Russell accepted his Hall of Fame ring at a private meeting. “I thought others should have that honor before me,” he tweeted. “It’s good to see progress.”
Mr. Silver said he “often called (Russell) the Babe Ruth of basketball, how he passed the time.”
“Bill was the ultimate winner and consummate teammate, and his impact will forever be felt on the NBA,” Mr. Silver added. “We send our deepest condolences to his wife, Jeannine, his family and his many friends.”
Family members said arrangements for Russell’s memorial service would be announced in the coming days.