Bill Russell, a defensive rebounding star who led the Boston Celtics to 11 NBA championships during his 13-season career and became the league’s first Black head coach died Sunday, his family said. He was 88.
A 6-foot, 10-inch center, Russell was a 12-time NBA All-Star and was named the league’s MVP five times, in 1958, 1961, 1962, 1963 and 1965. He collected 21,620 rebounds as the Celtics dominated the NBA during the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s.
Russell was also active in the civil rights movement and was a champion for social justice.
The Celtics’ 11 NBA titles during Russell’s playing days included eight consecutive crowns from 1959 to 1966. Two of the Celtics’ titles came after Russell replaced Red Auerbach after the 1966 season to become the league’s first Black head coach. Russell retired as an active player after the Celtics won the NBA championship for the 1968-69 season.
“The only important statistic is the final score,” Russell once said, adding that “concentration and mental toughness are the margins of victory.”
Russell had both of those qualities.
Russell was named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year in 1968 and was chosen as The Sporting News’ athlete of the decade in 1970.
“Bill Russell helped make my dream a better dream because when you play with the best, you know you have to play your best,” the late Wilt Chamberlain, Russell’s longtime rival at center, once said about the Celtics’ star.
William Felton Russell was born on Feb. 12, 1934, in Monroe, Louisiana. His family moved to Oakland, California, and Russell attended McClymonds High School. He won a scholarship to play at the University of San Francisco.
Russell helped the Dons to 56 consecutive victories and back-to-back NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956. He was named the NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player in 1955.
Russell was also a member of the U.S. Olympic basketball team that won a gold medal in Melbourne, Australia.
Russell was the first-round pick of the St. Louis Hawks (and second overall) of the 1956 NBA Draft. Auerbach traded Cliff Hagen and six-time All-Star Ed Macauley to St. Louis to acquire Russell.
In 1961, Russell led a boycott against racist behavior after Celtics teammates Sam Jones and Thomas “Satch” Sanders were refused service in a coffee shop at their team hotel in Lexington, Kentucky, The Washington Post reported. His other four Black teammates walked out, along with two Black players for the Celtics’ opponent in an exhibition game that night, the St. Louis Hawks.
In 1969, Russell debated Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox on television about racism, ESPN reported.
“Real change takes time — lots of it,” Russell wrote in an essay for The Players’ Tribune in September 2020. “This is infuriating but not surprising when considered in terms of foundations. America is a country of contradictions because of its foundation. On the one hand, there’s the idea of what America is supposed to be, and on the other, what America really is.
“As long as large swaths of Americans regard slavery, Jim Crow and racism as historical footnotes — missteps long since corrected — there is no way to move past racism,” Russell added. “Fifty-three years won’t do it, and 153 years won’t do it. It’s like apologizing for something without knowing what you’re apologizing for — no real understanding comes of it. If America doesn’t reckon with the past, divisions will only worsen.”
After leaving the Celtics, Russell became the head coach and general manager of the Seattle SuperSonics. He resigned after the 1976-77 season.
The NBA Finals MVP Award is named for Russell. He received several other honors during his career, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010. In 2017, Russell was named the inaugural recipient of the NBA Lifetime Achievement Award. Three years later, Russell was among three winners of the Mannie Jackson-Basketball’s Human Spirit Award for his commitment to social justice.
“I hope I epitomize the American dream. For I came against long odds, from the ghetto to the very top of my profession,” Russell said. “I was not immediately good at basketball. It did not come easy. It came as the result of a lot of hard work and self-sacrifice. The rewards, were they worth it? One thousand times over.”
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