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Bill Russell, 11-time NBA champion, Boston Celtics legend and all-time defensive great, dies

Russell was pro basketball’s first Black head coach, no small feat at the time in racially divided Boston.

Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell, who towered over pro basketball throughout the turbulent 1960s and stood tall against the era’s virulent racism, died Sunday, according to a statement posted to his verified Twitter page.

Russell was 88.

Russell's wife, Jeannine, was by his side at the time of his death, the statement said. His family thanked fans 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 statement said. "And we hope each of us can find a new way to act or speak up in Bill's uncompromising, dignified, and always constructive commitment to principle."

Russell led the Celtics to 11 NBA titles, two as player-coach, in a victory-filled résumé considered to be one of pro sports’ most insurmountable records.

He is rivaled by Henri “Pocket Rocket” Richard, who hoisted the Stanley Cup 11 times with the Montreal Canadiens, and Yogi Berra, a member of 10 World Series-winning New York Yankees teams.

No modern players hold a candle to Russell’s accomplishments. The award for the most valuable player of the NBA Finals is named after him.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver called Russell the "greatest champion in all of team sports" in a tribute recounting the player's career. Silver said that he cherished his personal friendship with Russell while offering condolences.

"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.

ESPN's Stephen A. Smith tweeted a tribute to Russell Sunday, saying that the center made the world "better for us all."

"My deepest condolences to the family, loved ones and the @NBA community on the loss of the greatest champion we’ve ever known: BILL RUSSELL," Smith wrote. "An activist, a pioneer, a humanitarian."

Retired player "Magic" Johnson, whose legal name is Earvin Johnson Jr., called Russell his idol.

"I looked up to him on the court and off," Johnson said. "His success on the court was undeniable; he was dominate and great, winning 11 NBA championships. Off the court, Bill Russell paved the way for guys like me."

Russell, a 6-foot-10 center, also won the NBA regular season MVP award five times while averaging 15.1 points, 22.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists a game throughout his 13-season career.

Russell’s numbers weren’t as flashy as those of contemporary big man Wilt Chamberlain, who is the only pro basketball player ever to score 100 points in a game and retired with a scoring average of 30.07 points, second only to Michael Jordan’s 30.12.

Bill Russell #6 of the Boston Celtics rebounds against Walt Bellamy #8 of the New York Knicks during a game in1967 at the Boston Garden.
Bill Russell #6 of the Boston Celtics rebounds against Walt Bellamy #8 of the New York Knicks during a game in1967 at the Boston Garden.Dick Raphael / NBAE via Getty Images file

But Russell is largely credited with writing the book on modern defense for centers. He perfected the art of blocking shots, swatting away would-be scorers with brutal efficiency — without fouling and while keeping the ball in play, so one of his teammates could gain possession.

The NBA didn’t recognize the blocked shot until 1973-74, so Russell’s prowess here is largely lost to history.

What has been fully chronicled is Russell’s will to win, as he led Boston to NBA titles in 1957, 1959 and every year of the 1960s, except for 1967.

Bill Russell grins at announcement that he had been named coach of the Boston Celtics on April 18, 1966.
Bill Russell grins at announcement that he had been named coach of the Boston Celtics on April 18, 1966.AP file

Legendary Celtics coach Red Auerbach retired in 1966 and turned the keys over to Russell, who led Boston to two more titles as player-coach.

He was pro basketball’s first Black head coach, no small feat at the time in racially divided Boston.

Russell’s pro basketball career stretched over a particularly fraught time in civil rights history. He never backed down to a challenge.

When the Celtics were set to play an exhibition game against the St. Louis Hawks in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1961, he and Black teammates were refused service at a coffee shop. In protest, Russell and his teammates left town without playing.

He refused to sign autographs, fearing that doing so would show acquiescence to the era’s white establishment as it largely kept African Americans from advancing in fields not directly tied to baskets, touchdowns and home runs.

President Barack Obama reaches up to present a 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom to basketball hall of fame member and former Boston Celtics coach and captain Bill Russell on Feb. 15, 2011, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House.
President Barack Obama reaches up to present a 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom to basketball hall of fame member and former Boston Celtics coach and captain Bill Russell on Feb. 15, 2011, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House.Charles Dharapak / AP file

“I remember one time, this businessman asked for an autograph,” longtime Golden State Warriors broadcaster and onetime Celtics player Jim Barnett recalled admiringly of Russell. “He said, ‘If I weren’t Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics, I’d be just another N-word to him.’”

Russell came to the support of Muhammad Ali when Ali refused to serve in the Vietnam War. Russell and UCLA basketball star Lew Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, went to Cleveland in 1967 for a summit, organized by Jim Brown, to show support for Ali.

Even as he brought Boston titles, Russell endured the era’s ugly racial resentment.

In 1963, vandals broke into his home in Reading, Massachusetts, scrawled racist epithets on the walls and defecated in his bed.

“Russ was the ultimate angry Black man,” teammate and fellow Celtics legend Bob Cousy told WBUR in a 2018 interview. “And I didn’t blame him then, and I blame him even less now.”

While Russell has spoken fondly of Cousy, the point guard said he has long regretted not having done more to comfort his teammate during those years.

Bill Russell of San Francisco and the Olympic basketball team wears a Boston Celtics uniform for his first workout with the NBA team shortly after having signed a contract in Boston on Dec. 19, 1956.
Bill Russell of San Francisco and the Olympic basketball team wears a Boston Celtics uniform for his first workout with the NBA team shortly after having signed a contract in Boston on Dec. 19, 1956.AP file

“‘Let’s go have a beer, let’s go to the movie together,’ whatever, or socialize outside of the unit,” said Cousy, a roommate of Chuck Cooper, the first Black man ever drafted by an NBA team.

“I was the senior member. I had a good relationship with the media. I always have. So I could have reached out and perhaps shared his pain a little bit with him, you know? I never did that with Russ.”

Russell was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.

“Bill Russell, the man, is someone who stood up for the rights and dignity of all men. He marched with King; he stood by Ali,” President Barack Obama said.

“He endured insults and vandalism, but he kept on focusing on making the teammates who he loved better players and made possible the success of so many who would follow. And I hope that one day, in the streets of Boston, children will look up at a statue built not only to Bill Russell the player, but Bill Russell the man.”

Obama posted a series of tweets Sunday remarking on Russell's life, on and off the court, saying that society had "lost a giant."

"Perhaps more than anyone else, Bill knew what it took to win and what it took to lead," Obama said Sunday. "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."

CSPAN tweeted the clip of Obama presenting the medal to Russell on Sunday.

In 2020, Russell wore the medal in a picture he posted on social media, taking a knee and ripping President Donald Trump for criticizing athletes’ protests for racial justice.

He called Trump “divisive” and a “coward” five months before voters turned Trump out of office.

William Felton Russell was born Feb. 12, 1934, in Monroe, Louisiana, before his family moved west, settling in Oakland, California.

He was a basketball player at McClymonds High School, dominating the hardwood alongside teammate and future baseball Hall of Fame member Frank Robinson.

The Boston's Celtic's Bill Russell goes in high to score as St. Louis Hawk's Zelmo Beaty tries to block in 1963.
The Boston's Celtic's Bill Russell goes in high to score as St. Louis Hawk's Zelmo Beaty tries to block in 1963.Bettmann Archive via Getty Images file

Russell went across San Francisco Bay for college, collaborating with future Celtics teammate and coach K.C. Jones in leading the University of San Francisco to NCAA titles in 1955 and 1956, with the Dons going 57-1 in those final two seasons.

He and Jones led Team USA to gold at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.

Even six decades later, Russell was still having an impact on the sports in his old backyard.

The West Coast Conference, which includes USF, in 2020 instituted the “Russell Rule,” requiring schools to consider “a member of a traditionally underrepresented community in the pool of final candidates” for coaching and top administrative posts.

Russell was married four times, to Rose Swisher, 1968 Miss USA Dorothy “Didi” Anstett, Marilyn Nault and Jeannine Russell.

Nault died in 2009, and Swisher died in 2014.

Russell and Swisher had three children, daughter Karen and sons William Jr. and Jacob. William Felton Russell Jr. was 58 when he died from cancer in 2016.