He was to his family “the most prolific winner in American sports history” and to former President Barack Obama a “giant”: Bill Russell, 11-time Celtics NBA champion and civil rights defender, died on Sunday. “Bill Russell, the most prolific winner in American sports history, passed away peacefully today at the age of 88, with his wife Jeanine by his bedside,” his family announced on Twitter.
The NBA and American sports more broadly have lost one of their legends, who can also be recognized by his deep laugh. His record is impressive and will never equal: In thirteen NBA seasons, all under the Boston Celtics green jersey, Russell won eleven NBA titles, a record that still stands, including eight in a row from 1959 to 1966.
Although he finished his career averaging 15.1 points per game, Russell made a name for himself thanks to his defense: from his height of 208 cm, he was stubborn and disgusted his opponents with his negatives. He was also the first black American to be appointed to lead an American professional sports franchise, and the first to be crowned in its second year (1967) at the helm of the Celtics.
‘We lost a giant’
Also outside the basketball court, Russell became a figure in American society, which in 2011 earned him from Barack Obama the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.
“Today we lost a giant” responded to the announcement of the death of the former US president. “On the court, he was the greatest champion in basketball history. Off the court, he was a civil rights pioneer, walking with Dr. (Martin Luther) King and standing by Muhammad Ali.”
“For decades, Bill has endured insults and harassment, but that has never stopped him from standing up for the truth. I have learned so much from his way of playing, his way of training, and his way of living his life,” Barack Obama added.
Born in 1934 in Louisiana, in the deep south still living under a segregationist system, Russell, before moving with his family to California in the 1940s, used his notoriety to advance the civil rights cause. In 1963, he participated in the Martin Luther King Jr. rally in Washington.
It rains honors in the NBA
When announcing his death, the National Basketball Association hailed the “greatest champion in all of team sports.” “Bale stood for something far greater than sport: the values of equality, respect and inclusion that he engraved in the DNA of our league,” NBA president Adam Silver said in a statement.
“At the height of his athletic career, Bell was a staunch advocate of civil rights and social justice, a legacy he has passed on to generations of NBA players who followed in his footsteps,” added Adam Silver. He was also praised by current Celtics players. Grant Williams tweeted: “She changed not just the league but the world,” while Jaylen Brown posted a message thanking Bill Russell “for leading the way and inspiring so many people.”
“Bill Russell was my idol,” former Los Angeles Lakers point guard Magic Johnson replied. “He was one of the first athletes to fight on the front lines for social justice, equity, equality and civil rights.” Superstar Michael Jordan praised the ‘Pioneer’ who “paved the way and set an example for all the black players who entered the league after him, myself included.”
“The world lost a legend with the death of Bill Russell. His impact on basketball and society will not be forgotten,” said former New York Knicks center Patrick Ewing. While his funeral has not yet been scheduled, his family hoped that “each of us will find a way to speak and act in Bill’s way.” always without compromise, with dignity and a constructive approach”…