Bill Russell, the cornerstone of a Boston Celtics dynasty that won 11 NBA titles and a powerful voice for social justice, died Sunday at the age of 88, his family said.
“Bill Russell, the most prolific winner in American sports history, passed away peacefully today at age 88, with his wife, Jeannine, by his side,” said a statement posted on Russell’s Twitter page.
U.S. President Joe Biden and former President Barack Obama – who awarded Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 – were among those who paid tribute to Russell’s contributions on and off the court.
“The promise of America is that we are all created equal and deserve to be treated equally throughout our lives,” Biden said in a statement. “We’ve never fully lived up to that promise, but Bill Russell made sure we never walked away from it.”
Eight titles in a row
Russell’s 11 titles with the Celtics included eight in a row from 1959-1966. Today’s NBA Finals MVP award is named for him.
He averaged 15.1 points and 22.5 rebounds per game for his career, building a famed rivalry with Wilt Chamberlain in the 1960s.
Russell became the first Black coach in the NBA when he served as player-coach of the Celtics in 1966 and the first Black player inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975.
His skills revolutionized the NBA game, but Biden noted that throughout his stellar career Russell “faced the hostility and hate of racism embedded in every part of American life. Yet, he never gave up. Throughout his life, he forced us to confront hard truths. And on this day, there are generations of Americans who are reflecting on what he meant to them as someone who played for the essential truth that every person is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect.”
Russell’s family said his “understanding of the struggle is what illuminated his life.”
“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.”
Obama said the world had “lost a giant.”
“As tall as Bill Russell stood, his legacy rises far higher – both as a player and as a person,” Obama said in a statement posted on Twitter.
“Perhaps more than anyone else, Bill knew what it took to win and what it took to lead. On the court, he was the greatest champion in basketball history. Off of it, he was a civil rights trailblazer, marching with Dr. King and standing with Muhammad Ali,” said Obama. “For decades, Bill endured insults and vandalism, but never let it stop him from speaking up for what’s right. I learned so much from the way he played, the way he coached, and the way he lived his life.”
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver called Russell “the greatest champion in all of team sports,” but added that his accolades “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.
‘Making things better’
Those beliefs, more than his prowess on the court, were what inspired Magic Johnson’s love of Russell, the Lakers legend said on Sunday as he joined in an outpouring of tributes.
“He was one of the first athletes on the front line fighting for social justice, equity, equality, and civil rights,” Johnson said. “Over the course of our friendship, he always reminded me about making things better in the Black community.”
Current Celtics stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown remembered the franchise legend, the club saying in a statement that “Bill Russell’s DNA is woven through every element of the Celtics organization.”
Michael Jordan, who for many inherited the mantle of greatest-ever NBA player from Russell, said Russell “paved the way and set an example for every Black player who came into the league after him, including me.”
In a sentiment echoed by former New York Knicks great Patrick Ewing, “the world has lost a legend,” said Jordan.