BOSTON (WHDH) - Bill Russell, an 11-time NBA champion with the Boston Celtics and civil rights activist, passed away peacefully at the age of 88 on Sunday, his family announced.
Russell was drafted by the Celtics in 1956 and proceeded to help them capture 11 of the next 13 NBA titles, winning five MVPs along the way.
When the Celtics won the NBA title over the St Louis Hawks in 1957, it completed a 13-month stretch where the young center also won an NCAA Championship with the University of San Francisco and a gold medal as part of the US Olympic Team.
In a year in which Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50 points per game and Oscar Robertson averaged a triple-double, it was number six that took home MVP honors with averages of 18.9 points per game and 23.6 rebounds per game in 1962.
When Russell finally hung up the jersey in 1969, he did so with a 10-0 record in NBA Game 7’s and a 21-0 record in winner-take-all games in his professional, Olympic, and collegiate career.
Although renowned for his defensive prowess and his ability to bend blocked shots to his will, the center was an underrated offensive talent. A gifted passer, archival footage often shows the center orchestrating the Celtics’ offense with precision.
Russell was known as the ultimate teammate in Boston. When Bailey Howell, a deeply religious man, landed in Boston in 1967, Russell took to leading the team in prayer in an effort to make the veteran more comfortable in the locker room.
In 1967, Russell made history as the NBA’s first Black head coach. As a player-coach, Russell coached the Celtics to back-to-back titles in 1968 and 1969. He remains the only player-coach to win a title in that role.
Russell made his mark as a champion of civil rights off the court as well. Russell participated in the 1963 March on Washington and was seated at the same desk as Muhammad Ali when the boxer announced his refusal to serve in Vietnam due to his religious beliefs.
Despite his team’s success, Russell often found himself at odds with a city fraught with racial turmoil.
In his memoir, Second Wind, Russell recalled the time he returned to his Reading family home to find burglars had spray painted all over his wall, smashed his trophies and defecated in his bed.
During a 1987 editorial to the New York Times, Russell’s daughter Karen stated: “Every time the Celtics went out on the road, vandals would come and tip over our garbage cans. My father went to the police station to complain. The police told him that raccoons were responsible, so he asked where he could apply for a gun permit. The raccoons never came back.”
In 1961, the Black members of the Celtics were excluded from eating with their white teammates prior to an exhibition game in Lexington, Kentucky. Russell and his black teammates refused to play in the game.
Russell was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, the highest civilian honor possible.
“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,” said President Obama at the time. “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. And I hope that one day, in the streets of Boston, children will look up at a statue built not only to Bill Russell the player, but Bill Russell the man.”
That statue for Russell was erected in 2013 and currently sits at City Hall Plaza.
“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 NBA commissioner Adam Silver in a statement. “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.”
Several Celtics shared their thoughts of the departed legend on social media.
Rest in peace thank you for paving the way and inspiring so many,” said Jaylen Brown on Twitter. “Today is a sad day but also great day to celebrate his legacy and what he stood for.”
“Thank you for everything! R.I.P Legend” posted Jayson Tatum.
“R.I.P Bill Russell. You allowed me to be in the position I am in today and you changed not only the league but the world. Forever 6,” added Grant Williams.
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