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 any major U.S. sport — and marched for civil rights with Martin Luther King Jr., died Sunday. His age was 88.
His family posted the news on social mediaRussell was pronounced dead with Jeannine by his side. It did not provide the cause of death.
“Bill’s wife, Jeannine, and his many friends and family thank you 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 family statement said. “And we hope each of us can find a new way to act or speak up with Bill’s uncompromising, dignified and always constructive commitment to principle. That would be one last, and lasting, win for our beloved #6.”
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement that Russell was “the greatest champion in all of team sports.”
“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,” Silver said. “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.
Russell, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame, was five-time Most Valuable Player, and twelve-time All-Star in 1980, was named the NBA’s greatest player by the basketball writers. He remains the sport’s most prolific winner and an archetype of selflessness who won with defense and rebounding while leaving the scoring to others. Wilt Chamberlain was often cited as a player who could challenge Russell.
The battles on the court between the centers were fierce — signature showdowns in the NBA. Russell was the University of San Francisco’s champion in 1956 and 1955, and won the gold medal at 1956 Olympics.
In Boston, Russell left a lasting mark as a Black athlete in a city — and country — where race is often a flash point. 2011 was the year that President Barack Obama presented Russell with the Medal of Freedom. Two years later, a statue of Russell was unveiled on Boston’s City Hall Plaza.
“I cherished my friendship with Bill and was thrilled when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom,” Silver said in his statement. “I often called him basketball’s Babe Ruth for how he transcended time. Bill was the ultimate winner. He was a consummate teammate. The NBA will always be grateful for his contribution. We send our deepest condolences to his wife, Jeannine, his family and his many friends.”
His family said that arrangements for Russell’s memorial service will be announced in the coming days.
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