Bill Russell, Hall of fame player, esteemed civil rights activist, dies at 88


Bill Russell, the 11-time champion and Hall of Fame icon of the Boston Celtics, who used that fame to further the civil rights cause in the United States during the turbulent 1960s, has died at the age of 88.

This was the announcement posted on Bill Russell’s Twitter account.

“Bill Russell was the greatest champion in all of team sports,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “The countless accolades that he earned for his storied career with the Boston Celtics – including a record 11 championships and five 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. 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.

“I cherished my friendship with Bill and was thrilled when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 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. We send our deepest condolences to his wife, Jeannine, his family and his many friends.”

Russell has to be at the heart of any conversation for the greatest player of all time — an 11-time NBA champion who was the anchor and core of a Boston Celtics team that dominated an era. He was a defensive force that changed the game with his shot blocking — nobody had done that aggressively or above the rim before Russell arrived on the scene — and his intensity as a competitor was legendary. That competitive focus led Russell to be a five-time MVP, an 11-time All-NBA player, a 12-time All-Star, a Hall of Famer, and maybe the greatest Celtic ever.

Yet his basketball accomplishments were not as important as what he did off the court.

Russell battled racism, in basketball and America, his entire career. It started when he led the University of San Francisco to back-to-back NCAA titles in 1955 and 1956 — he was the first black man to captain and lead a team to college titles (he and future Celtic and Hall of Famer K.C. Jones were teammates for USF). There was a backlash. When USF was in Oklahoma City in 1954 for a tournament around Christmas, no downtown hotel would let Russell, Jones and the other black players stay (so the team all stayed in a college dormitory). When USF took the court for that tournament, coins were thrown at them and the crowd chanted “Globetrotters.”

That tournament was far from an isolated case.

After USF, Russell was the captain of the gold medal-winning U.S. men’s national team at the 1956 Summer Olympics.

He was well known coming into the NBA and the St. Louis Hawks took him with the No. 2 pick. However, he wasn’t destined for St. Louis — Red Auerbach of the Boston Celtics recognized what Russell could be and traded six-time All-Star Ed Macauley and the draft rights to Cliff Hagan to get the big man. It turned out to be a steal.

Russell revolutionized the NBA, bringing an above-the-rim verticality — something seen in the African-American game at the time but not the very white NBA — to the court. Other players, such as Elgin Baylor, built on Russell’s legacy above the rim.

Russell led a Celtics team that won 11 titles in 13 seasons. Wilt Chamberlain was Russell’s great nemesis, and that is when the Celtics/Lakers rivalry was born. Russell, with a great sense of team play and a relentless determination to win, rarely lost when it mattered.

All this during an era when black athletes were expected to look the other way at racism — something Russell refused to do. This included in Boston, where at that time Russell was not embraced by Celtics’ fans the way Bob Cousey and other white teammates were. On road trips, Russell and his fellow African-American teammates often had to stay in a different hotel than his white teammates.

Russell spoke out early and often on issues of race — starting with the unwritten quota rule on black players on an NBA team when he started in the league (there was 15 total when he was drafted).

In 1961 the Celtics were scheduled to play an exhibition game in Lexington, Ky., but the restaurant the team went to pregame would not seat or serve Russell or his black teammates. In solidarity, the team voted and boycotted the game.

With the national Civil Rights movement starting to find its footing at the time, Russell was unafraid to speak out. He was close with Jackie Robinson (Russell was a paul bearer at his funeral) and along with Jim Brown earned a lot of admiration from other black athletes for his stances. Russell marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and put himself front and center in the civil rights debate.

On the court, Russell just kept winning. For the final three years of his Celtics career he was a player-coach — and the team won two titles. He was the first Black coach in a major professional sport in America.

Off the court, he never stopped speaking about equality, which is why President Barack Obama awarded Russell with the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the highest honor an American civilian can receive).

Boston itself put a statue up of Russell in City Hall Plaza in 2011.

RIP Russell. He will be missed.