NBA Icon and Activist Bill Russell Dead at 88

Bill Russell NBA Legend
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Bill Russell became the first Black head coach in American team sports in 1966.

Bill Russell,  the legendary basketball player who became the first Black head coach in professional American team sports, has died. He was 88. 

The official Twitter account for NBA great announced his passing on Sunday.

"But for all the winning,” the statement read, “Bill's understanding of the struggle is what illuminated his life. 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 ... Bill called out injustice with an unforgiving candor 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.”

Russell’s incomparable run began during his junior year at the University of San Francisco, and according to ESPN, it’s where Russell had the most remarkable career of any player in the history of team sports. There he was a two-time All-American, won two straight NCAA championships and led the team to 55 consecutive wins. This was before he won a gold medal at the 1956 Olympics.

Russell then joined the Boston Celtics, leading the team to 11 championships while capturing five MVP titles. Russell took on the role of head coach while playing for his last three seasons with the team. 

In a statement released Sunday afternoon on, league commissioner Adam Silver called Bill Russell, “the greatest champion in all of team sports.”

“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,” Silver continued.

“I cherished my friendship with Bill and was thrilled when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I often called him basketball’s Babe Ruth for how he transcended time. Bill was the ultimate winner and consummate teammate, and his influence on the NBA will be felt forever. We send our deepest condolences to his wife, Jeannine, his family and his many friends.”

Tributes to Russell are also lighting up social media. 

Former President Barack Obama, who honored Russell with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010, making him the first athlete to ever win the award, started a thread about Russell on Twitter by saying, “For decades, Bill endured insults and vandalism, but never let it stop him from speaking up for what’s right. I learned so much from the way he played, the way he coached, and the way he lived his life. Michelle and I send our love to Bill’s family, and everyone who admired him.”

Lakers great Earvin “Magic” Johnson reflected on advice Russell gave him, tweeting in part, “Bill Russell was my idol. I looked up to him on the court and off. 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 began. 

“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,” Johnson wrote.

Michael Jordan wrote that Russell “paved the way and set an example for every Black player who came into the league, including me. The world has lost a legend. My condolences to his family and may he rest in peace.”

William Fenton Russell was born on Feb. 12, 1934 into a segregated Monroe, Louisiana. Among the countless accolades he received throughout his illustrious career, he was also known for his long-running matchups with Wilt Chamberlain. Known as the “Battle of the Titans,” it is considered one of the greatest rivalries in sports history.