Basketball legend Bill Russell dies at 88

A five-time NBA MVP and 12-time All-Star, Russell won 11 NBA titles as a player with the Boston Celtics

Reuters
Published : 1 August 2022, 04:41 AM
Updated : 1 August 2022, 04:41 AM

Basketball Hall of Fame centre Bill Russell passed away peacefully on Sunday at the age of 88.

Russell's death was announced on his official Twitter account. The cause and location were not disclosed.

A five-time NBA MVP and 12-time All-Star, Russell won 11 NBA titles as a player with the Boston Celtics. He also was the first Black head coach in North American professional sports history and helped the club win two more titles.

A member of the NBA's 25th, 50th and 75th anniversary teams, Russell also was well known for his commitment to social justice.

"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," the Celtics said in a statement on social media.

"Bill Russell's DNA is woven through every element of the Celtics organization, from the relentless pursuit of excellence, to the celebration of team rewards over individual glory, to a commitment to social justice and civil rights off the court. Our thoughts are with his family as we mourn his passing and celebrate his enormous legacy in basketball, Boston, and beyond."

Russell averaged 15.1 points and 22.5 rebounds over 13 seasons (1956-69) with the Celtics. He was first inducted into the Hall of Fame as a player in 1975, then again as a coach in 2021.

His No. 6 jersey is retired by the Celtics.

"But for all the winning, Bill's understanding of the struggle is what illuminated his life," read a statement from Russell's Twitter account. "From boycotting a 1961 exhibition game to unmask too-long-tolerated discrimination, to leading Mississippi's first integrated basketball camp in the combustible wake of Medgar Evers' assassination, to decades of activism ultimately recognized by his receipt of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010, Bill called out injustice with an unforgiving candour that he intended would disrupt the status quo, and with a powerful example that, though never his humble intention, will forever inspire teamwork, selflessness and thoughtful change.

"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. 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 thing, for our beloved #6."

The news of Russell's passing was posted on the video board at Fenway Park on Sunday as the Boston Red Sox hosted the Milwaukee Brewers. A moment of silence followed.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver praised Russell for persevering through "unthinkable adversity" as a preeminent Black athlete of his time.

"Bill Russell was the greatest champion in all of team sports," Silver said in a statement. "The countless accolades that he earned for his storied career with the Boston Celtics -- including a record 11 championships and five MVP awards -- only begin to tell the story of Bill's immense impact on our league and broader society.

"Bill stood for something much bigger than sports: the values of equality, respect and inclusion that he stamped into the DNA of our league. At the height of his athletic career, Bill advocated vigorously for civil rights and social justice, a legacy he passed down to generations of NBA players who followed in his footsteps. Through the taunts, threats and unthinkable adversity, Bill rose above it all and remained true to his belief that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity."

Fellow Celtics legend Bob Cousy, who turns 94 on Aug 9, played seven seasons with Russell and they won six titles together.

"Russell goes down as the best winner ever in American team sports," Cousy told the Boston Globe. "That's pretty significant and that's never going to change. He fought the good fight, obviously, on the floor, but he fought the good fight off the floor, fighting racism all his life. Sticking his tongue out at the opponent. That's not easy to do.

"People give up things to take a stand, and Russell simply never cared. Jocks generally worry about their image after they've had a successful career and they're all very careful as to what they say and how they approach every issue. Most of them are very circumspect and have people that advise them. Russell just let it flow. He spoke out against racism in every form and I'm sure he's happier for that now."

Current Celtics stars Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum as well as former Boston great Paul Pierce were among those who paid tribute to Russell over social media.

"Rest in Peace. thank you for paving the way and inspiring so many," Brown wrote on Twitter. "Today is a sad day but also great day to celebrate his legacy and what he stood for."

NBA legend Magic Johnson called Russell his idol in a series of tweets Sunday afternoon.

"I looked up to him on the court and off," Johnson wrote. "His success on the court was undeniable; he was (dominant) and great, winning 11 NBA championships. Off the court, Bill Russell paved the way for guys like me. He was one of the first athletes on the front line fighting for social justice, equity, equality, and civil rights. That's why I admired and loved him so much. Over the course of our friendship, he always reminded me about making things better in the Black community.

"This is a tremendous loss for the entire basketball world."

Russell won two NCAA championships at the University of San Francisco and led the team to 55 straight wins. He also led the United States to a gold medal in men's basketball in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.

The school tweeted the following: "Rest easy, Bill Russell. Champion. Pioneer. Legend."

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher