Bill Russell, 11-time NBA champion as a player and coach with Boston Celtics One of the most important figures in the history of the NBA has passed away, at the age of 88, his family announced Sunday. Russell died peacefully with his wife Janine at his side. His family issued the following statement.
“It is with a very heavy heart that we would like to pass this on to all of Bill’s friends, fans and followers:
Bill Russell, the greatest winner in the history of American sports, passed away peacefully today at the age of 88, with his wife Jeanine at his side. Arrangements for his memorial service will be announced soon.
Two high school Bell state championships provided a glimpse into the unrivaled path to the team’s next pure achievement: two-time NCAA Champion; gold medal winning US Olympic team captain; 11 times NBA champion. He topped the NBA Championships twice as the first black coach of any North American professional sports team.
Along the way, Bell has earned a string of singles awards he’s never seen before because he didn’t mention them. In 2009, the NBA Finals Player of the Year award was renamed after the Hall of Fame twice as the “NBA Finals Bill Russell Player of the Year Award”.
But for all the winners, Bill’s understanding of struggle is what has lit his life. From the 1961 fair game boycott to exposing longstanding discrimination, to leading the first integrated basketball camp in Mississippi in the aftermath of the Medgar Evans assassination, to the decades of activism that was finally recognized by his being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010. Bell advocated injustice with an unforgiving frankness intended to disrupt the status quo, and with a powerful model that, though not of humble intent, would forever inspire teamwork, selflessness, and considered change.
Bill’s wife, Jeanine, and several of his friends and family thank you for keeping Bill in your prayers. Perhaps you’ll relive a moment or two of those golden moments he gave us, or remember his signature laugh as he delighted in explaining the true story behind how those moments came about. We hope that each of us can find a new way to act or speak with Bell’s uncompromising, generous and always constructive commitment to principles. That would be a final and lasting win for our beloved No.6.”
Born in Louisiana in 1934, Russell was not initially considered a prominent basketball player. The first scholarship offer came from the University of San Francisco, a school hardly known for its basketball prowess, but one that Russell managed to carry to back-to-back National Championships in 1955 and 1956. In addition to basketball, Russell was a star at San Francisco track. Especially in the high jump. He won an Olympic gold medal in basketball as captain of Team USA in 1956 before turning professional.
Despite his collective supremacy, Russell wasn’t the first pick in the 1956 NBA Draft. That honor went to winger Duquesne Si Green. That left Russell available at No. 2, where the St. Louis Hawks family was working on the forge. However, circumstances worked in Russell’s favour. Boston Celtics star Ed McCauley’s son was being treated for meningitis in St. Louis, so he asked the team to send him there for his favour. They did, and Boston finished second against McCauley and fellow Hall-of-Famer Cliff Hagan. The deal didn’t exactly explode in St. Louis’ face. Although they lost the 1957 Finals to Boston, the Hawks came back to win it all in 1958 with the Celtics. But this will be the last championship he ever wins. Russell won 10 more, including the next eight in a row.
Trade was as important to Russell as it was to the Celtics. Russell said in an interview with NBATV. “St. Louis was overwhelmingly racist.” Sadly, Russell faced racism throughout his early life in the South and all of his career in Boston, and he became one of the most socially conscious athletes in American history. He personally attended Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and was one of the many black athletes and leaders who attended the 1967 Cleveland Summit in support of Muhammad Ali. In 1966, Russell became the first black coach in the history of American sports when he replaced Reed Auerbach in Boston. He retained his role as the team’s starting position as he trained en route to his last two championships.
Russell left the Celtics once his football career ended. He worked as a television announcer after that before returning to training with the Seattle Supersonics. He went four games under 0.500 in four seasons in Seattle before leaving. He coached another season with the Sacramento Kings a decade later, but remained largely out of sight for the next several decades, living out of his Washington home.
But he appeared more regularly in his later years, often being honored for his remarkable achievements as a player and activist. In 2009, the NBA renamed the Finals MVP award after Russell, and he attended the 2009 Finals to award the trophy to Kobe Bryant personally. He would have done it many times, but doing it for Bryant was especially meaningful given the friendship they had established. When Bryant died in a helicopter accident in 2020, Russell wrote an influential social media post remembering the legend. Bryant may have played for the Lakers’ rival, but Russell often made himself available to modern players looking for advice.
Much sought him, because above all Russell was on the court, he was the sport’s greatest winner. He has only lost two playoff series in all of his career. Never lose a game once the winner takes it all. Not in college. Not in the Olympics. Not in the NBA. He won all 21 matches he played. Russell was great when it really mattered, on and off the court, and that’s one he will always remember.
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