Bill Russell was a towering figure whose dominant yet team-oriented play was the foundation for the Boston Celtics dynasty. The 11-time champion also was the first Black coach in major sports and a voice for social justice, earning him the Presidential Medal of Freedom to go along with his reputation as one of the greatest basketball players (and winners) who ever lived.
He died Sunday at age 88. His family posted the news on social media, saying his wife, Jeannine, was by his side. The statement did not give the cause of death, but Russell was not well enough to present the NBA Finals MVP trophy in June because of a long illness.
“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.”
No. 6 left behind a legacy so rich in titles that the NBA named its Finals Most Valuable Player award after him. When LeBron James won it in 2016, he repeatedly told Russell, “You paved the way.”
Russell’s way included an unprecedented run of triumphs: two California high school state titles, two NCAA crowns at the University of San Francisco and an Olympic gold medal before he endowed the Celtics with their mystique. With Russell, the Celtics won 11 titles in 13 years, including eight in a row (1959-66).
After finishing as a player-coach (with titles in 1968 and ’69), he became a popular analyst on ABC’s NBA Game of the Week, punctuating his insights with an infectious laugh.
Russell was outspoken about racism wherever he saw it, particularly in Boston, a city with which he had a contentious relationship before a thaw that resulted in a statue erected in his honor.
Russell’s family said in its statement: “But for all the winning, Bill’s understanding of the struggle is what illuminated his life. From boycotting a 1961 exhibition game to unmask too-long-tolerated discrimination, to leading Mississippi’s first integrated basketball camp in the combustible wake of Medgar Evers’ assassination, to decades of activism ultimately recognized by his receipt of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Bill called out injustice with an unforgiving candor that he intended would disrupt the status quo, and with a powerful example that, though never his humble intention, will forever inspire teamwork, selflessness and thoughtful change.”
Russell’s high-profile low-post rivalry (and friendship) with fellow center Wilt Chamberlain gave professional basketball its identity in the 1960s. Russell revolutionized the sport with his emphasis on defense, rebounding and reading plays before they happened. At 6-9, he was not quite the physical specimen that the 7-1 Chamberlain was, and he never came close to scoring 100 points in a game, as Chamberlain did. But most often, Russell’s teams prevailed.
Team success was the ultimate measuring stick for Russell. It came up in a memorable comment aimed at James in 2014, when the current superstar revealed his own candidates for a basketball Mount Rushmore and did not include the Celtics legend. In a quote read at the time by broadcaster Craig Sager, Russell replied: “Hey, thank you for leaving me off your Mount Rushmore. I’m glad you did. Basketball is a team game, it’s not for individual honors. I won back-to-back championships in high school, back-to-back NCAA championships. I won an NBA championship my first year in the league, an NBA championship in my last year and nine in between. That, Mr. James, is etched in stone.”
Sports history is engraved with Russell’s achievements. He was a five-time MVP and is tied with Henri Richard of the Montreal Canadiens for the most championship rings in North American sports. Russell also was a 12-time All-Star and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a player in 1975. He also won an Olympic gold medal in 1956.
What further set Russell apart was his insistence on speaking out against injustice, even when he knew his stand was going to be unpopular. He once said he did not need the adulation of thousands of fans telling him he was OK, adding, “I know I’m OK.”
Bob Cousy, who will turn 94 on Aug. 9 and was Russell’s Celtics teammate until 1964, told The Boston Globe on Sunday: “Russell goes down as the best winner ever in American team sports. That’s pretty significant and that’s never going to change. He fought the good fight, obviously, on the floor, but he fought the good fight off the floor, fighting racism all his life.
“People give up things to take a stand, and Russell simply never cared. Jocks generally worry about their image after they’ve had a successful career and they’re all very careful as to what they say and how they approach every issue. Most of them are very circumspect and have people that advise them. Russell just let it flow. He spoke out against racism in every form.”
“What [the Celtics] accomplished in the ’50s and ’60s, it’s something that will never be done again in American team sports. It’s spectacular and singular. Eleven championships in 13 years. Given what teams go through to win a Stanley Cup or a World Series or Super Bowl, they do it twice and they burn down cities and celebrate all week. We did it 11 times in 13 years, and Russ is the center point of that.”
NBA commissioner Adam Silver called Russell “the greatest champion in all of team sports” in a statement released by the league Sunday. He said Russell’s championships and 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,” Silver said.
“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.”
The Celtics said in a statement Sunday: “To be the greatest champion in your sport, to revolutionize the way the game is played, and to be a societal leader all at once seems unthinkable, but that is who Bill Russell was.”
Similar odes were posted Sunday from an array of cultural figures, including Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and former President Barack Obama.
William Felton Russell was born in 1934 in Monroe, Louisiana. It was a far different world from the one in which a Black president, Obama, honored him with the highest civilian honor in 2011.
In his book “Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man,” Russell wrote about having seen his mother, Katie, in tears because a policeman “grabbed and cussed her for dressing like a white woman.” He also wrote of a time when his father, Charlie, confronted a gas station attendant who pointedly refused to serve the Russells while casually waiting on white customers.
The family moved to Northern California when Bill was 8 years old and suffered when Katie died four years later. Russell always saluted his father’s strength, before and after that loss.
Russell was awkward on the court at first; he was cut from his junior high team and barely made the squad at McClymonds High School in Oakland as a freshman. Once he did find his stride, though, there was no stopping him. He decided early on that the only statistic that mattered was the final score, and that shaped his entire career.
Pro basketball itself was dramatically shaped at the 1956 NBA Draft, when Celtics coach and general manager Red Auerbach traded Ed Macauley and the rights to Cliff Hagan for the No. 2 overall pick. After the Rochester Royals chose Sihugo Green, Auerbach picked Russell.
When Auerbach decided to step down from the coaching part of his job in 1966 (after eight NBA titles in a row and nine overall), he chose Russell — not because he was trying to make a political statement by hiring the first Black coach but because he asked himself, “Who better to inspire Russell at that stage than Russell?”
The center/coach said that if either he or Auerbach thought it was a social experiment, neither would have agreed to do it.
Years later, Russell was coach and general manager of the Seattle SuperSonics and coach of the Sacramento Kings but did not win a title, largely because he never had someone like him in the lineup. Russell was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a coach in 2021.
Russell resisted individual honors, allowing the Celtics to retire his No. 6 only in an empty Boston Garden hours before a Knicks-Celtics matchup in 1972 and declining to attend his own Hall of Fame enshrinement. But he was present and deeply touched in 2009 when the NBA announced that the Finals MVP trophy would be named for him.
— With AP
“He was one of the first athletes on the front line fighting for social justice, equity, equality, and civil rights. That’s why I admired and loved him so much. Over the course of our friendship, he always reminded me about making things better in the Black community.” — Hall of Famer Magic Johnson tweeted.
“Bill Russell was a pioneer — as a player, as a champion, as the NBA's first Black head coach and as an activist. He paved the way and set an example for every Black player who came into the league after him, including me. The world has lost a legend ... may he rest in peace.” — Hall of Famer and Charlotte Hornets majority owner Michael Jordan said in a statement.
"Bill Russell's passing is not just an NBA loss, it is a world loss. When your actions match your words on important issues, you are a great man, not just a great basketball player. The word 'hero' is tossed around a lot, but today it is perfect. RIP great man BR." — Charles Barkley
"The Brooklyn Nets join the NBA community in mourning the passing of Bill Russell, an NBA icon whose impact reached far beyond the game of basketball and will endure forever. Our hearts go out to the Russell family and all who loved him." — Brooklyn Nets, via Twitter
“Today, we lost a giant. As tall as Bill Russell stood, his legacy rises far higher — both as a player and as a person.” — President Barack Obama said on Twitte.
“Bill Russell was a once in a generation activist athlete who made all of those around him better on and off the court. He had a career of firsts and led the way for so many. I admired him my entire life and he had a huge influence on my career and my life. He was the ultimate leader, ultimate team player and the ultimate champion.” — Tennis great Billie Jean King