Bill Russell, arguably one of the most accomplished athletes of the 20th Century, died on July 31 at the age of 88. Far beyond his incomparable accolades on the basketball court, Russell would become one of the most influential voices of the Civil Rights Movement at a time when Black athletes could risk their livelihood in speaking out against racial injustice.
Russell is the most immediate name associated with the term “sports dynasty.” Over 13 seasons at center with the Boston Celtics, Russell helped win 11 championships — including eight consecutive titles from 1957 through 1966—and would revolutionize the center position by emphasizing defense.
Russell knew early on that basketball wasn’t as much about offense but, rather, preventing your opponent from scoring. He played the game with an analytical view as well as with an emotional intensity.
At the news of his passing, some of the greatest names in sports and politics offered fond remembrances of the man who simultaneously helped reshape the world of both athletics and civil rights:
Boston Celtics remember Bill Russell
The Boston Celtics organization tweeted: “To be the greatest champion of your sport, to revolutionize how the game is played, and to be a societal leader all at once is unthinkable, but that is who Bill Russell was.”
In 2011, then-President Barack Obama awarded Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “Today we lost a giant. As tall as Bill Russell stood, his legacy rises far higher — both as a player and as a person,” he said.
“One of our darker days,” said NBA legend Jerry West. “He was one of those unique people who comes along as a difference maker when a difference maker is needed.”
Laker owner Jeanie Buss agreed: “Bill Russell was a treasure as a player, coach and especially as a human being. Lakers and Celtics fans can agree to this today.”
The Los Angeles Clippers organization also reacted: “The LA Clippers join the basketball community in mourning the passing of Bill Russell — the ultimate winner, leader and trailblazer. His impact and his legend will live forever.”
One legend remembers another
“Bill Russell was a pioneer—as a player, as a champion, as the NBA’s first Black head coach, and as an activist,” said Michael Jordan. “He paved the way and set an example for every Black player into the league after him, including me.”
Ervin “Magic” Johnson had this to say: “I am heartbroken to hear about the passing of the greatest winner the game of basketball has ever seen, a legend, hall-of-famer, mentor and my friend for over 30 years, Bill Russell.”
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar commented: “My thoughts on Bill Russell passing away…I am working on a deeper thought-provoking article tonight as I process what just happened.”
Another legend, Billie Jean King, said: “Bill Russell was a once-in-a-generation activist athlete who made all around him better. He had a career of firsts and led the way for many. I admired him my entire life and he had a huge influence on my career. He was the ultimate leader, ultimate team player, and ultimate champion.”
Defying Jim Crow
Born in Monroe, La. in 1934, the Russell family departed the Jim Crow south for the Bay Area in the mid-1940s. By age 18, he had enrolled at the University of San Francisco where he won two NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956, averaging 20.7 points and 20.3 rebounds per game. Russell also led the United States basketball team to the gold medal in the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia.
Russell entered the NBA draft in 1956, selected second overall by the St. Louis Hawks. He was soon traded to the Celtics in a deal spearheaded by legendary Coach Red Auerbach. Russell was a natural fit alongside future Hall-of-Famers Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Sam Jones and Frank Ramsey.
During his career, Russell would face off against some of the most famous names in the history of professional basketball, among them Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Hal Greer, Oscar Robertson, Rick Barry and his most famous rival, Wilt Chamberlain.
Boston was not always a hospitable host for Russell. He faced immense racism from the most devout Celtics fans. His home was accosted on several occasions. He was frequently rejected service while on the road.
In 1961, the Celtics were in Lexington, Ky. for an exhibition game. The team was in their hotel when teammate Sam Jones asked Satch Sanders to go to the lobby to get some food. They were refused service. Russell and teammate K.C. Jones heard what happened, and Russell suggested none of the Black players should participate in the game. They informed Auerbach and the game was called off.
Racism at home and on the road
In Boston, Russell once got word from a White reporter that he would never be selected league MVP because he was Black. Undaunted by the overt racism, Russell played with great intensity, character and determination when his White teammates would receive far more applause, adoration and positive press coverage than he did.
During the era of dominance the Celtics exercised over the NBA, Russell’s most legendary years could come near the end of his storied career. When Auerbach retired as head coach in 1966, Russell became the first African-American in any professional sport to serve as head coach. After a loss to the Chamberlain-led Philadelphia 76rs in the 1967 playoffs, Russell came back as player-coach in 1968 finals to defeat the talent-rich Lakers.
The two teams met again in 1969, this time with the Lakers heavily favored against a Boston team that had parted ways with most of its stars. Only Russell, aging star Sam Jones and an emerging superstar in John Havlicek were left from the mighty franchise that dominated the league for more than a decade.
Battling Wilt Chamberlain
Game seven of the 1969 series took place at the Fabulous Forum. Word had gotten back to Russell that Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke had filled the rafters with purple and yellow balloons and had hired the USC marching band to coronate the new champions.
“We’re going to have to do something about this,” Russell told his teammates. Mid-way through the fourth quarter, Lakers Coach Butch van Breda Koff took Chamberlain out of the game. “We’re doing fine without you,” he said. Without Chamberlain and an injured Jerry West (who helped to mount a furious 4th-quarter comeback), it was not enough to defeat the Celtics
“Wilt is weak,” Russell said following the win. “I would have demanded to come back in.”
Russell was named NBA Most Valuable Player five times. His 21,620 rebounds are second only to Chamberlain. He would have likely led the league in blocked shots many times, but the NBA did not keep track of that statistic. Russell played in 963 games, averaging 15.1 points per game, 22.5 rebounds per game, 4.3 assists per game while shooting 44% from the field and 56.1% from the freethrow line.
Russell retired after the 1969 season, but returned periodically over the next several decades as a coach, advisor, and executive, including a stint as the president of basketball operations for the Sacramento Kings in the late 1980s.
In 1975, Russell refused to accept induction in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. He offered no immediate explanation, but told the New York Times: “for my own personal reasons, which I don’t want to discuss, I don’t want to be part of it. I’m not going. They know that. I’ve felt this way for many years.”
Life after basketball
Four decades later, Russell did accept his Hall of Fame ring and explained the controversy in that he “refused being the first Black player to go into the Hall of Fame. Others before me should have that honor” in pointing to Chuck Cooper who in 1950 became the first Black player drafted into the NBA, and other stars like Sweetwater Clifton and Earl Lloyd.
Following basketball, Russell was a familiar face on television serving as colorman to announcer Keith Jackson on the “ABC Game of the Week.” He took a turn at comedy in a 1979 episode of “Saturday Night Live.” He made a series of popular AT&T “long distance” telephone commercials, and also wrote and hosted a special series “LA Roots,” tracing the history of Black Los Angeles, for Channel 7 Eyewitness News.
Perhaps Rusell’s most memorable contribution to the cause of civil rights occurred in June 1967. The famous “Cleveland Summit” saw Russell, Jim Brown, Lou Alcindor and Muhammad Ali come together in support of the latter’s refusal to fight in Vietnam. Among those in attendance were Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes and football stars Willie Davis and Bobby Mitchell.
An accomplished author
Russell was an avid writer. His 1966 autobiography “Go Up For Glory” became a big seller, as did a 1979 work “Second Wind.” In his 2006 book “Russell’s Rule,” he revealed he played a “significant” role” just prior to a 2004 game on Martin Luther King Day in convincing Lakers teammates, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, to “bury the hatchet” and put an end to their well-publicized feud.
Bill Russell was married three times. He is survived by three children, Karen Russell and sons William Jr. and Jacob, from his college sweetheart and first wife Rose Swisher. Funeral services for Bill Russell were pending at press time.