Bill Russell, 11-time NBA champion, dies at 88
Bill Russell, the cornerstone of the Boston Celtics dynasty that won eight straight titles and 11 overall during his career, died Sunday.
The Hall of Famer was 88.
Russell died “peacefully” with his wife, Jeannine, at his side, a statement posted on social media read. Arrangements for his memorial service will be announced soon, according to the statement.
The statement did not give the cause of death, but Russell, who had been living in the Seattle area, was not well enough to present the NBA Finals MVP trophy in June because of a long illness.
“But for all the winning, Bill’s understanding of the struggle is what illuminated his life,” the statement said. “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.
“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. 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.”
Over a 15-year period, beginning with his junior year at the University of San Francisco, Russell had the most remarkable career of any player in the history of team sports. At USF, he was a two-time All-American, won two straight NCAA championships and led the team to 55 consecutive wins. And he won a gold medal at the 1956 Olympics.
During his 13 years in Boston, he carried the Celtics to the NBA Finals 12 times, winning the championship 11 times, the last two titles won while as both a player and serving as the NBA’s first Black coach.
“Bill Russell’s DNA is woven through every element of the Celtics organization, from the relentless pursuit of excellence, to the celebration of team rewards over individual glory, to a commitment to social justice and civil rights off the court,” the Celtics said in a statement. “Our thoughts are with his family as we mourn his passing and celebrate his enormous legacy in basketball, Boston, and beyond.”
NBA commissioner Adam Silver called Russell “the greatest champion in all of team sports” in a statement Sunday.
“I cherished my friendship with Bill and was thrilled when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom,” Silver said. “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.”
A five-time MVP and 12-time All-Star, Russell was an uncanny shot-blocker who revolutionized NBA defensive concepts. He finished with 21,620 career rebounds — an average of 22.5 per game — and led the league in rebounding four times. He had 51 rebounds in one game, 49 in two others and posted 12 straight seasons with 1,000 or more rebounds. Russell also averaged 15.1 points and 4.3 assists per game over his career.
Until Michael Jordan’s exploits in the 1990s, Russell was considered by many as the greatest player in NBA history.
“Bill Russell was a pioneer — as a player, as a champion, as the NBA’s first Black head coach and as an activist,” Jordan, now the chairman of the Charlotte Hornets, said in a statement. “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. My condolences to his family and may he rest in peace.”
Russell was awarded the Medal of Freedom by former President Barack Obama in 2011, the nation’s highest civilian honor. And in 2017, the NBA awarded him with its Lifetime Achievement Award.
“Today, we lost a giant,” Obama said in a statement Sunday. “As tall as Bill Russell stood, his legacy rises far higher — both as a player and as a person. Perhaps more than anyone else, Bill knew what it took to win and what it took to lead.”
President Joe Biden, in a statement released by the White House, praised Russell for his lifelong work in civil rights as well as in sports, and called him “a towering champion for freedom, equality, and justice.”
“Bill Russell is one of the greatest athletes in our history — an all-time champion of champions, and a good man and great American who did everything he could to deliver the promise of America for all Americans,” Biden said.
William Felton Russell was born Feb. 12, 1934, in Monroe, Louisiana. His family moved to the Bay Area, where he attended McClymonds High School in Oakland. He was an awkward, unremarkable center on McClymonds’ basketball team, but his size earned him a scholarship at San Francisco, where he blossomed.
“I was an innovator,” Russell told The New York Times in 2011. “I started blocking shots although I had never seen shots blocked before that. The first time I did that in a game, my coach called timeout and said, ‘No good defensive player ever leaves his feet.'”
Russell did it anyway, and he teamed with guard K.C. Jones to lead the Dons to 55 straight wins and national titles in 1955 and 1956. (Jones missed four games of the 1956 tournament because his eligibility had expired.) Russell was named the NCAA tournament Most Outstanding Player in 1955. He then led the U.S. basketball team to victory in the 1956 Olympics at Melbourne, Australia.
With the 1956 NBA draft approaching, Celtics coach and general manager Red Auerbach was eager to add Russell to his lineup. Auerbach had built a high-scoring offensive machine around guards Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman and undersized center Ed Macauley but thought the Celtics lacked the defense and rebounding needed to transform them into a championship-caliber club. Russell, Auerbach felt, was the missing piece to the puzzle.
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