Bill Russell, NBA Icon and Activist, Dies at 88

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

His passing was announced by the official Twitter account of NBA legends.

“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. He was a two-time All-American and won two consecutive NCAA championships. His team also had 55 consecutive wins. He had not won a gold at the 1956 Olympics.

Russell was then hired by the Boston Celtics to lead the team through 11 championships and win five MVP titles. Russell was the team’s head coach for the last three seasons. 

A statement was released by NBA.com on Sunday afternoon. 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.”

Also, tributes to Russell are exploding on social media. 

Barack Obama, former President, presented Russell with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, making him the first ever winner of the award. “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, reflecting on the advice Russell gave to him, tweeted 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 started. 

“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.

Russell was a quote by Michael Jordan “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 February 12, 1934 in Monroe, Louisiana. His long-running matchups against Wilt Chamberlain were just a few of the many accolades he received over his long and distinguished career. He is known as the “The” “Battle of the Titans,”It is one of the most storied rivalries in sports history.

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