BOSTON (AP) — Bill Russell, the NBA great 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 U.S. sport — and marched for civil rights with Martin Luther King Jr., died Sunday. He was 88.
His family posted the news on social media, saying Russell died with his wife, Jeannine, by his side. The statement did not give the cause of death.
“Bill’s wife, Jeannine, and his many friends and family thank you for keeping Bill in your prayers. Perhaps you’ll relive one or two of the golden moments he gave us, or recall his trademark laugh as he delighted in explaining 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 up with Bill’s uncompromising, dignified and always constructive commitment to principle. That would be one last, and lasting, win for our beloved #6.”
Bill Russell, according to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, “was the greatest champion in all of team sports.”
The record 11 titles and five MVP awards that Bill won during his illustrious career with the Boston Celtics merely scratch the surface of his huge influence on our league and society as a whole.
Russell did not become a legend in the 1950s and 1960s by dazzling scoring exploits, but rather through dominant rebounding and fierce defense that changed the way the game was played. Tom Heinsohn, a teammate, described him as having “a neurotic need to win” as well.
But Russell’s rebounding and defense, especially his shot-blocking, were unprecedented and set him apart. Russell, who was spindly compared to opponents at the center position when he came into the NBA, would leap to block opponents’ shots at a time when the prevailing defensive philosophy was that players generally should not leave their feet.
“Russell defended the way Picasso painted, the way Hemingway wrote,” Aram Goudsouzian said in his book King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution. “In time, he changed how people understood the craft. Until Russell, the game stayed close to the floor. No longer.”
Civil rights activist
For his entire career, Russell averaged 22.5 rebounds and 15.1 points. He was a 12-time All-Star and the NBA’s Most Valuable Player in 1958, 1961, 1962, 1963, and 1965.
Despite the individual accolades, Russell held the idea of “team” in high regard.
“For me, it didn’t make any difference who did what as long as we got it done,” Russell said.
Russell was complex and strong off the court. He had a wicked look as well as a charming cackling chuckle. He liked Star Trek and was intelligent. He may be incredibly polite with teammates and opponents yet frequently being sour or indifferent to fans and hostile toward the media. He stated that he liked to have talks rather than signing autographs.
Russell was one of the most prominent civil rights activists in the sports world in the 1950s and 1960s. He frequently criticized Boston, a city with a turbulent history of racial conflict. In Washington in 1963, he was in the front row as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” address.
“Bill stood for something much bigger than sports: the values of equality, respect, and inclusion that he stamped into the DNA of our league,” said Silver.
“At the height of his athletic career, Bill advocated vigorously for civil rights and social justice, a legacy he passed down to generations of NBA players who followed in his footsteps.”
Bill persevered despite the taunts, threats, and unimaginable hardship by holding fast to his conviction that everyone deserves to be treated with respect.
Medal of freedom
When the Celtics retired his No. 6, Russell’s love of privacy and belief in the team concept led him to demand a private ceremony with coaches and teammates in an otherwise empty arena. He declined to attend the 1972 ceremony at which his number was retired in front of fans and also skipped his induction ceremony at the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Russell returned to basketball as general manager and coach of the Seattle SuperSonics from 1973 through 1977 and as coach of the Sacramento Kings for part of the 1987-88 season.
Russell became semi-reclusive after his coaching career, saying, “I wanted to be forgotten.” He took tentative steps back into the public arena beginning in the early 1990s, after becoming a founding board member of MENTOR: the National Mentoring Partnership. He said his mentoring effort was the “proudest accomplishment in life.”
Russell went on to make frequent public speaking appearances and television commercials and even showed up when the Celtics dedicated a statue of him in Boston’s City Hall Plaza in 2013.
In 2011, President Barack Obama cited Russell’s dedication to mentoring when he awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which Russell called the second greatest personal honor of his life. The first, he said, was when his 77-year-old father told him that he was proud of him.
Russell, who lived in Mercer Island, Washington, was married three times and had three children.