Bill Russell’s legacy of NBA championships and cerebral fight for equal rights
NBA legend Bill Russell

Bill Russell, the NBA star who led the Boston Celtics dynasty to 11 championship titles in 13 years, the last two as the first Black coach in any major U.S. sport, died on Sunday at the age of 88.

The news was posted by his family members on social media stating that the NBA star died with his wife, Jeannine, by his side. The cause of the death was not mentioned in the statement.

“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.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement that Russell was “the greatest champion in all of team sports.”

“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,” Mr. Silver said.

He further added, “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 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.”

A Hall of Famer, five-time Most Valuable Player and 12-time All-Star, Bill Russell was voted the greatest player in the NBA history in 1980 by basketball writers. He remains one of the most prolific winner as a player and an archetype of selflessness who won with defense and rebounding while leaving the scoring to others.

The NBA legend has also left a lasting mark as a black athlete in a country where race is often a flash point. He was awarded the ‘Medal of Freedom’ by Barrack Obama in 2011 alongside Congressman John Lewis, billionaire investor Warren Buffett, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and baseball great Stan Musial.

“Bill Russell, the man, is someone who stood up for the rights and dignity of all men. He marched with King; he stood by Ali. When a restaurant refused to serve the Black Celtics, he refused to play in the scheduled game. He endured insults and vandalism, but he kept on focusing on making the teammates who he loved better players and made possible the success of so many who would follow.” Obama said at the ceremony.

A 6-foot-10 center, Russell never averaged more than 18.9 points during his 13 seasons, each year averaging more rebounds per game than points. He averaged more than 20 rebounds in his 10 seasons for ‘The Celtics’.

Russell became the player-coach after Auerbach retired in 1966. He was the first the Black head coach in NBA history, and almost a decade before Frank Robinson took over baseball’s Cleveland Indians. 

A statue of Bill Russell was unveiled on Boston’s City Hall Plaza of Russell surrounded by blocks of granite with quotes on leadership and character in 2013. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975 but refused to attend the ceremony citing that he shouldn’t have been the first African-American to be elected. NBA’s first black player, Chuck Cooper was his choice.

Russell accepted his Hall of Fame ring only in 2019 in a private gathering. He said “I felt others before me should have had that honor, but it’s good to see progress.”

Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner said, “Bill was the ultimate winner and consummate teammate, and his influence on the NBA will be felt forever.” He further added, “We send our deepest condolences to his wife, Jeannine, his family and his many friends.”

Russell’s family members said that the arrangements for Russell’s memorial service will be announced in the coming days.

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