Bill Russell, 11-time NBA champion as a player and coach Boston Celtics And one of the most important figures in NBA history has died at age 88, his family announced Sunday. Russell passed away peacefully with his wife Jeanine by his side. His family released the following statement.
“It is with a very heavy heart that we would like to inform all of Bill’s friends, fans and followers that:
Phil Russell, the greatest hitter in American sports history, died peacefully today at the age of 88 with his wife Jeanine by his side. Arrangements for his memorial service will be announced soon.
Bill’s two state championships in high school provided a glimmer of an unparalleled run of pure team accomplishments to come: two-time NCAA champion; captain of the gold medal-winning US Olympic team; 11-time NBA champion; and presided over two NBA championships, the first black head coach of any North American professional sports team.
Along the way, Bill received a series of personal awards that are unprecedented in that they were not mentioned by him. In 2009, the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award was renamed the ‘Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award’ after the two-time Hall of Famer.
But for all the winners, it was Bill’s understanding of struggle that lit up his life. From boycotting a 1961 exhibition game to unraveling long-endured discrimination, to leading Mississippi’s first integrated basketball camp in the wake of Medgar Evans’ assassination, to decades of activism finally recognized by receiving the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom. Bill called out injustice with an unapologetic honesty that would disrupt the status quo, and with a powerful example that, though not his humble ideal, would always inspire teamwork, selflessness, and thoughtful change.
Thanks to Bill’s wife Jeanine and his many friends and family for keeping Bill in your prayers. You may 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. We hope that each of us can find a new way to act or speak of Bill’s uncompromising, dignified and always constructive commitment. It’s one last and lasting victory for our beloved #6.”
Born in Louisiana in 1934, Russell was not initially considered a top basketball prospect. His first scholarship offer came from the University of San Francisco, a school not known for its basketball prowess, but which Russell was able to lead to back-to-back national championships in 1955 and 1956. , particularly participated in the high jump competition. He won an Olympic gold medal as captain of the US basketball team before turning professional in 1956.
Despite his college excellence, Russell was not the first pick in the 1956 NBA draft. That honor went to Duquesne wing C Green. Russell was the No. 2 pick when the St. Louis Hawks drafted him. However, circumstances worked in Russell’s favor. Boston Celtics star Ed McCauley’s son was being treated for spinal meningitis in St. Louis, so he asked the team to send him there for help. They did so, and Boston landed the No. 2 pick in exchange for McCauley and fellow Hall-of-Famer Cliff Hagan. The deal didn’t exactly blow up in St. Louis’ face. Although they lost the 1957 Finals to Boston, the Hawks won it all again in a 1958 rematch with the Celtics. But that would be the last championship they would win. Russell had 10 more hits, including the next eight in a row.
The trade was as important to Russell as it was to the Celtics. “If I had been drafted by St. Louis, I wouldn’t have been in the NBA,” Russell said in an interview. NBATV. “St. Louis is hugely racist.” Unfortunately, Russell faced racism throughout his early career in the South and throughout his career in Boston, and he became one of the most socially conscious athletes in American history. He attended Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and was one of several black athletes and leaders who attended the 1967 Cleveland Summit in support of Muhammad Ali. In 1966, Russell became the first black head coach in American sports history, replacing Red Auerbach in Boston. He retained his role as the team’s starting center while coaching the team en route to the last two championships.
Russell left the Celtics after his playing career ended. He worked as a television broadcaster before returning to coach the Seattle SuperSonics. He went four games below .500 in four seasons in Seattle before leaving. He would coach one more season with the Sacramento Kings a decade later, but he left his home in Washington and stayed out of the public eye for the next several decades.
But he made frequent public appearances in his final 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 personally present the trophy to Kobe Bryant. He would do so many more times, but doing so for Bryant was especially meaningful given the friendship they had formed. When Bryant died in a 2020 helicopter crash, Russell wrote an emotional social media post remembering the legend. Bryant may have played for the rival Lakers, but Russell often made himself available to modern players looking for advice.
A lot of people looked up to him because after all Russell was on the court, he was the biggest winner in the game. He only lost two playoff series in his entire career. He never won once. Not in college. Not in the Olympics. Not in the NBA. He won all 21 games he played. Russell became so important on and off the court that he will always be remembered for that.
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