Legendary NBA Hall of Fame basketball player, civil rights activist, and humanitarian Bill Russell passed away at the age of 88 on Sunday. He was born in Monroe, Louisiana and grew up in Oakland, California. Recruited by the University of San Francisco (USF), Russell was an All-American twice over and led his team to back-to-back NCAA championships. Russell won a gold medal at the 1956 Olympics as captain of the USA basketball team. In his professional career as a Boston Celtic, Russell won a total of 11 titles in 13 seasons. Eight of the title wins were consecutive and two of them were won as both a player and as the NBA’s very first black head coach.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver released a statement saying, “Bill Russell was the greatest champion in all of team sports. The countless accolades that he earned for his storied career with the Boston Celtics – including a record 11 championships and five MVP awards – only begin to tell the story of Bill’s immense impact on our league and broader society.
“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. Through the taunts, threats and unthinkable adversity, Bill rose above it all and remained true to his belief that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity.
“For nearly 35 years since Bill completed his trailblazing career as the league’s first Black head coach, we were fortunate to see him at every major NBA event, including the NBA Finals, where he presented the Bill Russell Trophy to the Finals MVP.
“I cherished my friendship with Bill and was thrilled when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I often called him basketball’s Babe Ruth for 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 his many friends.”
What Russell accomplished as an athlete is nothing short of incredible and he is lauded as having the most incredible career of any player of a team sport. Russell is credited as being one of the pioneers in establishing the vertical aspect of basketball. His defensive prowess was exhibited through his ability to block and rebound. What made him an effective leader on the court was his keen awareness of his own athleticism that made him an even better defender. While his point average remained below 20, he is ranked 2nd overall in career rebounds to this day. He knew his strengths as a player and the strengths of his teammates. “The most important measure of how good a game I played was how much better I’d made my teammates play,” Russell said in his autobiography Second Wind. In addition to those 11 titles, Russell was a 5-time MVP player and a 4-time rebounding champion. On February 14th, 2009, the NBA Finals MVP trophy was renamed as the “Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award.”
“It’s very gratifying to know that your work as a professional has been regarded as a successful professional career.” Russell said of the honor.
Another honor bestowed to Russell was the Presidential Medal of Freedom that he received from President Barack Obama in 2011. In his introductory speech President Obama recalled what Russell would say when someone would see his towering figure and ask if he was ‘a basketball player?’…the President said Russell’s response would be, “It’s what I do, it’s not what I am. I am a man who plays basketball.” Bill Russell the man used his platform to demand respect for himself and the black community from a society that was determined to not.
At the height of Russell’s career, while he was accomplishing great things on the court, his life off the court was filled with adversity. Karen Russell, Bill Russell’s daughter, recalled in an essay titled Growing Up With Privilege and Prejudice (1987), “When he [Bill Russell] first went to Boston in 1956, the Celtics’ only black player, fans and sportswriters subjected him to the worst kind of unbridled bigotry. When he retired from the National Basketball Association in 1969, he moved to the West Coast, where he has remained.” She went on to recall him saying, ‘’I played for the Celtics, period,’’ he said. ‘’I did not play for Boston. I was able to separate the Celtics institution from the city and the fans.” The city of Boston was unkind and volatile to Russell and his family. His house was broken into, slurs and feces were smeared on the walls, and vandals even defecated on his bed. He sometimes got a reprieve during games but was still subjected to racially fueled taunts, threats of violence, and objects being thrown at him in games. While the perpetrators of the break-in were never caught, Russell found himself under FBI surveillance for having the audacity to believe he should be treated with respect. The trauma he endured fueled his performance on the court and he carried himself with grace amid absolute abject racism.
Russell held his ground in demanding that his humanity be acknowledged and supported others as well. He spent time with Dr. King, he boycotted basketball games when necessary, he even took issue with Chuck Cooper not being the first black inductee and boycotted his own election into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975. 45 years later Russell accepted his election and was honored as both a player and a coach by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He was a staunch supporter of Muhammad Ali in his opposition of the war and developed a close friendship with him as they were both key figures of the civil rights movement. Russell laid the groundwork and set the blueprint for players exercising their rights to protest today.
Bill Russell was an ambassador for humanity and a champion for change. He left an indelible mark on the game of basketball, those he mentored, and those who will be inspired by his story. With that, he was one of the greatest champions of all.