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

Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell, who towered over professional basketball in the turbulent 1960s and stood against the era’s vicious racism, died Sunday, according to a statement published on 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 their prayers.”

“You may relive one or two of the golden moments he bestowed on us, or remember his signature laugh as he was delighted to explain the real story behind those moments,” the statement reads. “And we hope that each of us can find a new way to act or speak out in Bill’s uncompromising, dignified, and always constructive commitment to principle.”

Russell led the Celtics to 11 NBA titles, two as player-coach, on a winning resume is considered one of the most insurmountable records in professional sports.

He is being competed by Henri “pocket rocket” Richard, who won the Stanley Cup eleven times with the Montreal Canadiens; and Yogi Berra, a member of ten New York Yankees teams that won the World Series.

No modern player can match Russell’s accomplishments. Most Valuable Player Award NBA Finals is named after him.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver called Russell the “greatest champion of all team sports” in a tribute to the player’s career. Silver said he values ​​his personal friendship with Russell while offering his condolences.

“Bill represented something much bigger than sport: the values ​​of equality, respect and inclusion that he inculcated into our league’s DNA,” said Silver. “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.

Bill Russell #6 of the Boston Celtics rebounds against Walt Bellamy #8 of the New York Knicks during a game in 1967 at the Boston Garden.
Bill Russell #6 of the Boston Celtics rebounds against Walt Bellamy #8 of the New York Knicks during a game in 1967 at the Boston Garden.Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images file

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 per game over his 13-year career game scored.

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

But Russell is widely credited with writing the modern defense book for Centers. He perfected the art of blocking shots and slicing away would-be goalscorers with brutal efficiency – without fouling and while keeping the ball in play for one of his teammates to gain possession.

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

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

Bill Russell grins as he announces his appointment to coach the Boston Celtics on April 18, 1966.
Bill Russell grins as he announces his appointment to coach the Boston Celtics on April 18, 1966.AP file

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

He was pro basketball’s first black head coachNo small thing back then in racially divided Boston.

Russell’s pro basketball career spanned a particularly tense period in civil rights history. He never took up a challenge.

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

He refused to sign autographs, fearing it would show his approval of the era’s white establishment, as it largely discouraged African Americans from entering areas not directly related to baskets, touchdowns, and home runs.

President Barack Obama presents a 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom to Bill Russell, inductee of the Basketball Hall of Fame and former coach and captain of the Boston Celtics, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on February 15, 2011.
President Barack Obama presents a 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom to Bill Russell, inductee of the Basketball Hall of Fame and former coach and captain of the Boston Celtics, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on February 15, 2011.Charles Dharapak / AP File

“I remember this businessman asking for an autograph once,” longtime Golden State Warriors broadcaster and former Celtics player Jim Barnett remembered Russell fondly. “He said, ‘If I wasn’t Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics, I’d be just another N-word to him.'”

Russell supported 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 for a summit meeting in 1967organized by Jim Brown to show support for Ali.

Even as he clinched Boston titles, Russell endured the ugly racial resentment of the era.

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

“Russ was the ultimate angry black man,” teammate and Celtics legend Bob Cousy said 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 long regrets not doing more to comfort his teammate during those years.

Bill Russell of San Francisco and the Olympic basketball team wears a Boston Celtics uniform during his first practice session with the NBA team, shortly after signing a contract in Boston on December 19, 1956.
Bill Russell of San Francisco and the Olympic basketball team wears a Boston Celtics uniform during his first practice session with the NBA team, shortly after signing a contract in Boston on December 19, 1956.AP file

“‘Let’s go have a beer, let’s go to the movies 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 oldest member. I had a good relationship with the media. I have always. So I could have reached out and maybe shared a little bit of his pain, 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 fought for the rights and dignity of all human beings. He marched with King; he stood by Ali,” said President Barack Obama.

“He has endured insults and vandalism, but he remained focused on making the teammates he loved into better players and enabling the success of so many who would follow him. And I hope one day kids will look up on the streets of Boston at a statue erected not just for Bill Russell the player, but for Bill Russell the man.”

In 2020, Russell was wearing the medal in a picture he posted to social media, kneeling and tearing apart President Donald Trump for criticizing athletes’ racial justice protests.

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

William Felton Russell was born on February 12, 1934 in Monroe, Louisiana before his family moved west and settled in Oakland, California.

He was a basketball player at McClymonds High School and dominated the hardwood alongside teammate and future Baseball Hall of Famer Frank Robinson.

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

Russell went to college across the San Francisco Bay and worked with future Celtics teammate and coach KC Jones to lead the University of San Francisco to NCAA titles in 1955 and 1956, with the Dons going 57-1 in these last two seasons.

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

Even six decades later, Russell still had an impact on the sport in his old backyard.

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

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

Nault died in 2009and Swisher died in 2014.

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

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/bill-russell-11-time-nba-champion-boston-celtics-legend-time-defensive-rcna40852 Bill Russell, 11-time NBA champion, Boston Celtics legend and all-time defensive great, dies

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