Bill Russell, stalwart of the Boston Celtics’ dynasty of the 1950s and 60s, the only NBA player to win 11 championships and the league’s first Black head coach, died on Sunday. He was 88.
His family posted the news on social media, saying Russell died with his wife, Jeannine, by his side.
“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 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.”
An announcement… pic.twitter.com/KMJ7pG4R5Z
— TheBillRussell (@RealBillRussell) July 31, 2022
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement that Russell was “the greatest champion in all of team sports.”
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver's statement regarding the passing of Bill Russell. pic.twitter.com/3BcZDnKjxK
— NBA (@NBA) July 31, 2022
At 6-foot-10, Russell headlined an era of dominant centers in the NBA that included fellow Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain, his rival in eight playoff and championship battles.
A dominant shot blocker, Russell was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player five times, in addition to earning All-Star recognition on 12 occasions in his 13-year career. Russell racked up 21,620 career rebounds (22.5 per game), which ranks second only to Chamberlain’s career mark, and was a four-time season rebounding leader. He pulled down 51 rebounds in one game and 49 in two other outings, in addition to amassing 12 straight seasons with at least 1,000 boards.
The NBA did not track blocked shots until the 1973-74 season, well after Russell’s retirement in 1969. But he is widely regarded as one of the greatest rim protectors in league history, an agile and instinctive defender who brought a new level of athleticism to the NBA with his arrival in 1956.
Off the court, Russell was an outspoken advocate of the civil rights movement, and in 2011 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
William Felton Russell was born on Feb. 12, 1934, in Monroe, Louisiana. In his youth, his father Charlie moved the family cross-country to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he found work at a shipyard. Russell attended McClymonds High School in Oakland, where he was awkward and struggled to find playing time until his senior year. Even then, Russell drew little college attention until receiving a lone scholarship offer to play at the University of San Francisco.
There, he paired up with future Celtics teammate K.C. Jones to lead San Francisco to 56 consecutive wins and NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956. Russell was named Most Outstanding Player of the 1955 tournament and averaged averaged 20.7 points and 20.3 rebounds in three seasons with the Dons.
As the 1956 draft approached, Celtics coach and general manager Red Auerbach – already armed with a high-scoring offensive unit featuring Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman and Ed Macauley — believed Russell’s defensive skills and rebounding prowess were the ingredients his team lacked.
Auerbach would deal Macauley and small forward Cliff Hagan to the St. Louis Hawks for the second pick in the Draft in order to select Russell.
Boston’s star prospect couldn’t join the Celtics immediately because he played for the 1956 U.S. Olympic team, which captured a gold medal in November at the Melbourne Games. Russell would finally arrive in Boston that December, and in 48 games the center averaged 19.6 rebounds (best in the NBA) and 14.7 points while helping Boston to its first championship.
With Russell leading the charge, the Celtics went on to win eight consecutive titles from 1959 to 1966. He averaged at least 23 rebounds per game for seven straight seasons with a team-first acumen, all while helping to revolutionize the game on the defensive end.
To be the greatest champion in your sport, to revolutionize the way the game is played, and to be a societal leader all at once seems unthinkable, but that is who Bill Russell was. (1/4) pic.twitter.com/K0Ue0hKiLs
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) July 31, 2022
Russell’s immense skill set and athleticism afforded him the ability to help teammates while still defending his man and protecting the rim. Boston took full advantage, often funneling opponents toward Russell. That, in turn, allowed the Celtics to play more aggressively on the perimeter.
“To me, one of the most beautiful things to see is a group of men coordinating their efforts toward a common goal, alternately subordinating and asserting themselves to achieve real teamwork in action,” Russell once wrote. “I tried to do that, we all tried to do that, on the Celtics. I think we succeeded.”
Former Celtics teammate Don Nelson agreed.
“There are two types of superstars,” Nelson told the Boston Herald. “One makes himself look good at the expense of the other guys on the floor. But there’s another type who makes the players around him look better than they are, and that’s the type Russell was.”
Those qualities would serve Russell in 1966 when Auerbach retired to focus on responsibilities as a general manager. Russell agreed to take over as coach of the Celtics that April, becoming the first black head coach in the post-Depression era of any major American sport.
“The most important factor is respect,” Russell said at the time. “In basketball we respect a man for his ability, period. I got to succeed or fail on this job not as a Black man or a white man or a green man, but as a coach. I wasn’t offered the job because I was a Negro. I was offered it because Red figured I could do it.”
The last two of Russell’s 11 championships would come as a player-coach.
In his first season with that mantle, Russell was tasked with stopping Chamberlain, who led the 76ers to 68 victories while wresting away Boston’s dominance in the Eastern Division. Philadelphia bested the Celtics 4-1 in the Eastern Division finals, marking the first time in 10 years Boston didn’t advance to the Finals.
The Celtics exacted revenge on the 76ers the following season, winning the division finals 4-3 before defeating the Lakers 4-2 for Russell’s first championship as a player-coach. Russell and the Celtics captured title No. 11 in his final season with another triumph over Jerry West, the recently-acquired Chamberlain and the Lakers. Russell averaged 19.3 rebounds in his final season.
The Celtics would retire his No. 6 jersey in 1972. Russell was inducted three years later into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Russell remained close to the game after his retirement, serving in various capacities in the NBA, last working with the Sacramento Kings as coach in 1987-88.
The 11-time champion’s legacy was further cemented when former commissioner David Stern re-named the NBA Finals MVP award in Russell’s honor in 2009.
“Who better to name this prestigious award for than one of the greatest players of all time and the ultimate champion,” Stern said at the time.
Russell recalled the honor as “one of my proudest moments in basketball, because I determined early in my career, the only important statistic in basketball is the final score.”
In 2013, the city of Boston further honored Russell by erecting a statue of him on City Hall Plaza.
Russell became more visible in recent years. The day before Staples Center was set to host a memorial service for Kobe and Gianna Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash in early 2020, Russell showed up to the arena for a game between Boston and Los Angeles wearing the Laker star’s jersey despite years of intense rivalry between the franchises.
Russell is survived by his wife, Jeannine Russell, as well three children from a previous marriage: daughter Karen Russell and sons William Jr. and Jacob.
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