Bill Russell, the NBA Hall of Famer considered by many the greatest player in the history of team sports and a towering figure in the struggle for civil rights, died Sunday at 88. A tweet by his family statement said only that his wife, Jeannine, was at his side. Russell won 11 NBA championships with the Boston Celtics, the final two as head coach after becoming the first Black person to hold that job in a major US professional sport, CBS News reports. He was the league's most valuable player five times. "Bill Russell's DNA is woven through every element of the Celtics organization," a team statement released Sunday said, "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."
William Felton Russell was born on Feb. 12, 1934, in Monroe, Louisiana, and moved with his family to California as a child. He was a high school star in Oakland, per the AP, then led the University of San Francisco to NCAA titles in 1955 and 1956. Before going pro, Russell won a gold medal with the US Olympic basketball team in 1956 in Australia, per the New York Times. The St. Louis Hawks could have drafted Russell but feared they couldn't afford him, so Celtics boss Red Auerbach traded Ed Macauley, who was from St. Louis, and Cliff Hagan for the pick. The involved deal included Auerbach promising the Ice Capades, owned by the Celtics owner, would make a stop in Rochester, New York.
"People said it was a wasted draft choice, wasted money," Russell said, remembering the criticism as being "all he can do is block shots and rebound." Auerbach's answer, Russell said, was, "That's enough." In his first 48 games, the rookie averaged 19.6 rebounds. His athleticism defensively changed the game. Intellectual curiosity led to understanding of shot trajectory, rebounding angles, human psychology, and gamesmanship, per the Washington Post. Auerbach, his coach for nine championships, called Russell "the single most devastating force in the history of the game." In 1980, basketball writers voted him the greatest player in NBA history. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver on Sunday called Russell "the greatest champion in all of team sports."
His presence on civil rights included participation in the 1963 March on Washington, sitting in the front row for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. He went to Mississippi after the murder of Medgar Evers and worked with Evers' brother, Charles, to launch an integrated basketball camp in Jackson, which brought Russell death threats. He supported the civil rights movement but questioned its strategy of nonviolence, saying Black people had the right to defend themselves. When Russell received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, President Obama paid tribute to him as "someone who stood up for the rights and dignity of all men." After President Trump urged NFL owners to fire players who took a knee during the national anthem in a racial injustice protest, Russell tweeted a photo of himself, on one knee, holding the medal. "I don't work for acceptance," Russell said in 1963. "I am what I am." (Read more obituary stories.)