NBA legend, Boston Celtics former player Bill Russell dies at 88

He was one of the greatest basketball players and an advocate against discrimination.

BOSTON — Bill Russell, the NBA great who anchored a Boston Celtics dynasty that won 11 championships in 13 years – the last two as the first black head coach in a major US sport – and marched for civil rights with Martin Luther King Jr , died Sunday. He was 88.

His family posted the news on social media, and said Russell died with his wife Jeannine at his side. The statement did not give a cause of death.

“Bill’s wife Jeannine and his many friends and family thank you for keeping Bill in your prayers. Perhaps you will relive one or two of the golden moments he gave us or remember his signature laugh as he was delighted to explain the real story behind those moments,” the family statement said. “And we hope that each of us can find a new way of acting or speaking with Bill’s uncompromising, dignified and always constructive commitment to principle. It would be a final and lasting victory for our beloved No. 6.”

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement that Russell is “the greatest champion in all team sports.”

“Bill represented something much bigger than sport: the values ​​of equality, respect and inclusion that he inculcated into our league’s DNA. At the height of his athletic career, Bill was a vigorous advocate for civil rights and social justice, a legacy he passed on to generations of NBA players who followed in his footsteps,” said Silver. “Through the taunts, threats and unimaginable adversity, Bill rose above all and remained true to his belief that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity.

A Hall of Famer, five-time MVP, and 12-time All-Star, Russell was voted the greatest player in NBA history by basketball writers in 1980. He remains the sport’s most prolific winner and an archetype of selflessness, winning on defense and rebound while letting others do the scoring. Often that meant Wilt Chamberlain, the only player of the era who was a worthy rival for Russell.

But Russell dominated in the only stat he cared about: 11 championships to two.

A Louisiana native, he also left an indelible mark as a black athlete in a city — and country — where racing is often a focal point. He was at the March on Washington in 1963 when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, and he supported Muhammad Ali when the boxer was pilloried for refusing to draft to be included.

In 2011, President Barack Obama presented Russell with the Medal of Freedom along with Congressman John Lewis, billionaire investor Warren Buffett, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and baseball great Stan Musial.

“Bill Russell, the man, is someone who stood up for the rights and dignity of all men,” Obama said at the ceremony. “He marched with King; He stood by Ali. When a restaurant refused to serve the Black Celtics, he refused to attend the scheduled game. He has endured insults and vandalism, but he remained focused on making the teammates he loved better players and enabling the success of so many who would follow him.”

Russell said growing up in the segregated South and later in California, his parents instilled in him the quiet confidence that enabled him to shrug off racial taunts.

“Years later, people would ask me what I was going through,” Russell said in 2008. “Unfortunately or fortunately, I’ve never been through anything. From my first moment, the idea was that my mom and dad loved me.” It was Russell’s mom who told him to ignore comments from those who might see him play in the yard.

“Whatever they say, good or bad, they don’t know you,” he recalled her words. “They wrestle with their own demons.”

But it was Jackie Robinson who gave Russell a roadmap for dealing with racism in his sport: “Jackie was a hero to us. He always acted like a man. He showed me the way to be a man in professional sport .”

The feeling was mutual, Russell learned when Robinson’s widow Rachel called and asked him to be pallbearer at her husband’s funeral in 1972.

“She hung up and I was like, ‘How do you become a hero to Jackie Robinson?'” Russell said. “I was so flattered.”

RELATED: Rachel Robinson Honored on 100th Birthday at All-Star Game: ‘Today is a Special Day’

William Felton Russell was born on February 12, 1934 in Monroe, Louisiana. He was a kid when his family moved to the West Coast and he attended high school in Oakland, California and then the University of San Francisco. He led the Dons to the NCAA Championships in 1955 and 1956 and won a gold medal at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics in Australia.

Celtics coach and general manager Red Auerbach was so popular that Russell worked out a trade with the St. Louis Hawks for a second draft pick. He promised the Rochester Royals, who owned the No. 1, a lucrative visit from the Ice Capades, also run by Celtics owner Walter Brown. Still, Russell came to Boston to complain that he wasn’t that good.

Still, Russell came to Boston to complain that he wasn’t that good. “People said it was a wasted selection, wasted money,” he recalled. “They said, ‘He’s not good. All he can do is block and deflect shots.’ And Red said, ‘That’s enough.'”

The Celtics also drafted Tommy Heinsohn and KC Jones, Russell’s collegiate teammates, in the same draft. Though Russell joined the team late for leading the U.S. to Olympic gold, Boston finished the regular season with the league’s best record.

The Celtics won the NBA championship – their first of 17 – in a seventh game of double overtime against Bob Pettit’s St. Louis Hawks. Russell won his first MVP award the next season, but the Hawks won the title in a Finals rematch. The Celtics won it all again in 1959, embarking on an unprecedented streak of eight straight NBA crowns.

Russell, a 6-foot-10 center, never averaged more than 18.9 points in his 13 seasons and averaged more rebounds per game than points each year. He averaged more than 20 rebounds in 10 seasons. He once had 51 rebounds in a game; Chamberlain holds the record at 55.

Auerbach retired after winning the 1966 title, and Russell became a player-coach — the first black head coach in NBA history and nearly a decade before Frank Robinson took over baseball’s Cleveland Indians. Boston finished with the best regular-season record in the NBA, but its title streak ended in defeats to Chamberlain and the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Division Finals.

Russell led the Celtics back to the titles in 1968 and 1969, winning a seven-game playoff series against Chamberlain each time. Russell retired after the 1969 Finals, returning for a relatively successful—but unfulfilling—four-year stint as coach and GM of the Seattle SuperSonics and a less than successful half-season as coach of the Sacramento Kings.

Russell’s #6 jersey was retired by the Celtics in 1972. He earned spots on the all-time NBA 25th Anniversary team in 1970, the 35th Anniversary team in 1980, and the 75th Anniversary team. In 1996 he was hailed as one of the 50 Greatest Players in the NBA. In 2009, the NBA Finals MVP trophy was named in his honor.

In 2013, a statue of Russell surrounded by granite blocks with quotes on leadership and character was unveiled in Boston’s City Hall Square. Russell was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975 but did not attend the ceremony, saying he should not have been the first African American elected. (Chuck Cooper, the NBA’s first black player, was his pick.)

In 2019, Russell accepted his Hall of Fame ring in a private gathering. “I felt that others before me should have had that honor,” he tweeted. “Good to see progress.”

“I treasured my friendship with Bill and was thrilled when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom,” Silver said in his statement. “I used to call him Babe Ruth of basketball a lot because he got over time. Bill was the ultimate winner and consummate teammate, and his impact on the NBA will be felt forever. We offer our deepest condolences to his wife Jeannine, his family and his many friends.”

His family said preparations for Russell’s memorial service will be announced in the coming days.

This is an evolving story. NBA legend, Boston Celtics former player Bill Russell dies at 88

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