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 years old.
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. Maybe you’ll relive one or two of the golden moments he gave us, or remember his signature laugh as he was happy to explain the real story behind how those moments unfolded,” the statement read. “And we hope that each of us can find a new way to act or speak with Bill’s uncompromising, dignified and always constructive commitment to principles. It would be a final and lasting victory for our beloved No. 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.”
Statement from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver on 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 dominating shot blocker, Russell was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player five times, in addition to being recognized as an All-Star 12 times during his 13-year career. Russell had 21,620 career rebounds (22.5 per game), second only to Chamberlain in career, and was a four-time season leader in rebounds. He had 51 rebounds in one game and 49 in two other outings, in addition to racking up 12 straight seasons with at least 1,000 boards.
The NBA didn’t track blocked shots until the 1973-74 season, long after Russell’s retirement in 1969. But he’s widely regarded as one of the greatest rim protectors in league history, a agile and instinctive defender who brought a new level of athleticism to the NBA with his arrival in 1956.
Off the court, Russell was a strong supporter of the civil rights movement and in 2011 received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.
William Felton Russell was born on February 12, 1934 in Monroe, Louisiana. As a young man, his father Charlie moved the family across the 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 had trouble finding playing time until his senior year. Even then, Russell received little attention from college until he received a single scholarship offer to play at the University of San Francisco.
There he partnered with future Celtics teammate KC Jones to lead San Francisco to 56 straight wins and NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956. Russell was named the 1955 tournament MVP and earned a averaged 20.7 points and 20.3 rebounds in three seasons with the Dons.
Heading into the 1956 draft, Celtics coach and general manager Red Auerbach – already armed with a high-scoring offensive unit including Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman and Ed Macauley – thought the defensive skills and prowess of Russell’s rebound were the ingredients his team was missing.
Auerbach would deal Macauley and small forward Cliff Hagan to the St. Louis Hawks for the second pick in the draft to select Russell.
Boston’s star prospect couldn’t join the Celtics immediately because he played for the 1956 U.S. Olympic team, which won a gold medal in November at the Melbourne Games. Russell would eventually arrive in Boston in December, and in 48 games, the center averaged an NBA-best 19.6 rebounds and 14.7 points while helping Boston win its first championship.
Led by Russell, the Celtics won eight consecutive titles from 1959 to 1966. He averaged at least 23 rebounds per game for seven consecutive seasons with a strong sense of team, while helping to revolutionize the side’s game defensive. .
Being the greatest champion of your sport, revolutionizing the way the game is played, and being a leader of society all at once seems unthinkable, but that’s what Bill Russell was. (1/4) pic.twitter.com/K0Ue0hKiLs
—Boston Celtics (@celtics) July 31, 2022
Russell’s immense skill set and athleticism allowed him to help his teammates while defending his man and protecting the rim. Boston took full advantage of this, often funneling opponents into Russell. This, 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, subordinating and alternately asserting themselves to achieve true teamwork in action,” Russell 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 kinds of superstars,” Nelson told the Boston Herald. “One makes himself look good at the expense of the other guys on the pitch. But there’s another guy who makes the players around him better than they are, and that’s the guy Russell was.
These qualities would serve Russell in 1966 when Auerbach retired to focus on his responsibilities as general manager. Russell agreed to take over as Celtics coach in April, becoming the first post-Depression-era black head coach of any major American sport.
“The most important factor is respect,” Russell said at the time. “In basketball, we respect a man for his abilities, period. I have to pass or fail in this job not as a black man or a white man or a green man, but as a coach. I was not told Offered the job because I was a nigger, I was offered it because Red thought I could do it.
The last two of Russell’s 11 championships would come as a player-coach.
In his first season in that mantle, Russell was tasked with stopping Chamberlain, who led the 76ers to 68 wins while snatching dominance from Boston in the East Division. Philadelphia beat the Celtics 4-1 in the Eastern Division Finals, marking the first time in 10 years that Boston did not advance to the Finals.
The Celtics exacted revenge on the 76ers the following season, winning the Division Final 4-3 before defeating the Lakers 4-2 for Russell’s first championship as a player-coach. Russell and the Celtics won the No. 11 title 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 into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame three years later.
Russell stayed close to the game after his retirement, serving in various NBA capacities, last working with the Sacramento Kings as a coach in 1987-88.
The 11-time champion’s legacy was further cemented when former commissioner David Stern renamed the NBA Finals MVP award in Russell’s honor in 2009.
“Who better to name this prestigious award 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, as I determined early in my career that the only important stat in basketball was the final score.”
In 2013, the city of Boston further honored Russell by erecting a statue of him in City Hall Plaza.
Russell has become more visible in recent years. The day before the Staples Center was to hold a memorial service for Kobe and Gianna Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash in early 2020, Russell showed up in the arena for a game between Boston and Los Angeles wearing the the Laker star’s jersey despite years of intense franchise rivalry.
Russell is survived by his wife, Jeannine Russell, and three children from a previous marriage: daughter Karen Russell and sons William Jr. and Jacob.
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Michael C. Wright is Senior Writer for NBA.com. You can email him herefind his archives here and follow him on Twitter.
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