Bill Russell, Boston Celtics Legend and Social Justice Champion, Dead at 88


Bill Russell — Boston Celtics legend, one of the greatest NBA players ever, and a champion of civil rights and social justice — has died at the age of 88.

Russell’s family the basketball great’s death Sunday on social media, saying he “passed away peacefully” with his wife Jeannine by his side. No cause of death was revealed; Russell, so synonymous with winning that he annually presented the NBA Finals MVP trophy that bears his name, was not at hand at this year’s Finals due to an unspecified illness.

“Bill’s two state championships in high school offered a glimmer of the incomparable run of pure team accomplishment to come: twice an NCAA champion; captain of a gold-medal-winning US Olympic team; 11 times an NBA champion; and at the helm for two NBA championships as the first black head coach of any North American professional sports team,” his family wrote.

“But for all the winning, Bill’s understanding of the struggle is what illuminated his life. From boycotting a 1961 exhibition game to unmask too-long-tolerated discrimination, to leading Mississippi’s first integrated basketball camp in the combustible wake of Medgar Evans’ assassination, to decades of activism ultimately recognized by his receipt of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010, Bill called out injustice with an unforgiving candor that he intended would disrupt the status quo, and with a powerful example that, though never his humble intention, will forever inspire teamwork, selflessness and thoughtful change.

Despite playing only 13 seasons, Russell remains the winningest player in NBA history with 11 titles for his Boston Celtics, the latter two while Russell served as a player-coach. Russell’s championship pedigree was so renowned that the NBA renamed its Finals MVP award after the Louisiana-born, Oakland-raised 6’10″ center.

An 12-time NBA all-star, Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee and member of the NBA’s 75th anniversary team, Russell revolutionized the sport of basketball with is defensive prowess, and remains second all time in rebounds despite playing less than 1,000 games in his career. 

Michael Jordan said in a statement Sunday, “Bill Russell was a pioneer — as a player, as a champion, as the NBA’s first Black head coach and as an activist. He paved the way and set an example for every Black player who came into the league after him, including me. The world has lost a legend.”

“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 only begin to tell the story of Bill’s immense impact on our league and broader society.”

Silver continued, “Bill stood for something 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.”

Russell’s family added, “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.”

This story is developing.

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