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Bill Russell, a civil rights activist and an 11-time NBA champion who played for the Boston Celtics, passed away at the age of 88, and former president Barack Obama has taken the lead in paying respect.
Although Russell won 11 championships with the Celtics between 1956 and 1969, one of the most dominant periods in sports history, he also faced a lot of prejudice and hatred while competing for Boston.
But throughout his life, Russell advocated for equality by using his position. Notably, he was present at the 1963 March on Washington when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, and he supported Muhammad Ali when the boxer came under fire for opposing being drafted into the military.
Obama presented Russell with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, which is the nation’s highest civilian honor.
After hearing of his passing, Obama wrote on Twitter, “Today, we lost a giant.” As tall as Bill Russell was, his legacy as a player and a person is much greater.
Russell also helped the United States win the gold medal at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, as well as two NCAA championships in San Francisco in 1955 and 1956. These victories prepared the way for him to go on to win five NBA MVP awards and be a 12-time All-Star.
Over the course of 13 seasons (1956–1969) with the Celtics, Russell averaged 15.1 points and 22.5 rebounds. He was first enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975 as a player, and then again in 2021 as a coach. The Celtics have retired his No. 6 jersey.
In a statement released on Sunday, his family said: “It is with a very heavy heart that we would like to convey to all of Bill’s friends, fans, and followers: with his wife Jeannine by his side, Bill Russell, the most successful athlete in American sports history, died peacefully today at the age of 88.” Plans for his memorial service will be revealed shortly.
He is regarded as one of the greatest victors in US sports history and the finest defensive player in NBA history, in addition to his civil rights activism.
The Louisiana native also made a lasting impression as a black athlete in a city and a nation where race is frequently a contentious issue.
Along with Senator John Lewis, business mogul Warren Buffett, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and baseball legend Stan Musial, Obama gave Russell the Medal of Freedom in 2011.
Russell claimed that his parents gave him the quiet confidence necessary to shrug off racist teasing while he was growing up in the segregated South and later in California.
Russell, a 6-foot-10 center, never scored more than 18.9 points per game over the course of his 13 seasons, with each season seeing a higher average of rebounds than points. He averaged over 20 rebounds per game for ten seasons. He once had 51 rebounds in a game; Wilt Chamberlain, a friend and adversary, currently holds the record with 55.
After Auberach retired in 1966 following the Celtics’ championship, Russell took over as player-coach for the team.
Bill Russell was the first NBA black head coach
Nearly ten years before Frank Robinson became the manager of the Cleveland Indians in baseball, he was the league’s first black head coach.
Boston had the best regular-season record in the NBA when the season was through, but its championship run came to an end when it was defeated by Chamberlain and the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Division finals.
In 1968 and 1969, Russell led the Celtics to back-to-back championships while defeating Chamberlain in a seven-game playoff series each time. After the 1969 NBA Finals, Russell announced his retirement. He came back for a four-year, largely fruitless run as coach and general manager of the Seattle SuperSonics, followed by a less successful half-season as coach of the Sacramento Kings.
In 2013, a statue of Russell with granite slabs bearing sayings about character and leadership was installed in Boston’s City Hall Plaza.
In 1975, Russell was admitted to the Basketball Hall of Fame, but he chose not to attend the ceremony because he felt it was improper for him to be the first African American to be elected. (His selection was Chuck Cooper, the first black player in the NBA.)
Russell received his Hall of Fame ring at a private ceremony in 2019. He tweeted, “I believe those before me should have received that privilege.” It’s encouraging to see progress.
He also had a wicked sense of humor. He was accompanied on stage at the 2017 NBA Awards by five other iconic centers: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Alonzo Mourning, Shaquille O’Neal, David Robinson, and Dikembe Mutombo as he accepted the NBA Lifetime Achievement award.