11-time NBA champion, 12-time NBA All-Star, five-time NBA MVP, two-time NCAA champion, and prominent civil rights activist Bill Russell passed away on Sunday, July 31st at the age of 88.
Russell played 13 seasons in the NBA, all with the Boston Celtics. Originally drafted second overall by the St. Louis Hawks in 1956, Russell was traded on draft day to the Celtics. In his 13 seasons with the Celtics, he won 11 championships, eight of them consecutively.
Russell was one of the most dominant players of his time and in NBA history, standing at 6’10” with a 7’4” wingspan. While his offense was solid, his defense and rebounding are what set him apart from his competition. He was an excellent shot-blocker and is second all-time in total rebounds and rebounds per game. He and Wilt Chamberlin are the only NBA players in history who grabbed over 50 rebounds in a single game.
Russell attended the University of San Francisco and won two NCAA championships with them before entering the NBA. He was regarded as one of the most dominant collegiate players of his time, giving an early indication of his later greatness.
Near the end of his playing career with the Celtics, he was a player-coach for three seasons and officially became the first black coach in the NBA and the first to win a championship.
Russell has received a long list of awards and accolades since his retirement, including induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975 as a player and in 2021 as a coach. He was named to the NBA 25th-Anniversary team in 1971, the 35th-Anniversary team in 1980, the 50 Greatest Players in NBA history in 1997, and the 75th-Anniversary team in 2021. The NBA renamed the NBA Finals MVP award in his honor in 2009 as well.
More important than any on-court awards were the racial barriers that Russel broke throughout his life. Growing up in the 30s, 40s, and 50s exposed him to seeing his parents be victims of racial abuse and discrimination first-hand. As a star player at USF and with the Celtics, he and his black teammates faced abuse from fans and were refused service at hotels and restaurants in certain cities across the country.
Russell became an active participant in the Black Power movement and came together in 1967 at the Cleveland Summit to support Muhammad Ali’s decision to refuse to be drafted to war. Over the course of his career, he received endless abuse from fans of all teams, including the Celtics. In a few books and articles he wrote, he does attribute his affinity for basketball and love and appreciation for coaching to the “anti-racist” white people in his life, especially Celtics coach Red Auerbach who was a pioneer for the no color barrier initiative in the NBA.
Due to multiple break-ins at his house and the hostility of questions he received from media personnel during his time as a coach and player, Russell's frustrated responses struck some people as alienating at the time. Russell would often talk about corruption and racism and refuse to sign autographs a lot of the time. Due to this, the FBI had a profile on him that described Russell as “an arrogant Negro who won’t sign autographs for white children.” He even refused to attend certain events and ceremonies such as the retiring of his jersey and championship celebration in protest of the behavior he received from fans and the media.
Russell had to deal with immense social pressure and different treatment than his white teammates. Yet, he persevered and became one of the best players in NBA history, and was a trailblazer for generations of black athletes and coaches to come. In 2011, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama for his accomplishments both in basketball and in the civil rights movements.
We hope to honor Bill Russell and his commitment to the fair treatment of everyone, both in sports and in society. We thank him for the tireless, decades-long work that he endured to progress not only the game of basketball but society as a whole.