NBA great Bill Russell, the cornerstone of a Boston Celtics dynasty that won 11 titles and a powerful voice for social justice, has died at the age of 88, his family said Sunday.
“Bill Russell, the most prolific winner in American sports history, passed away peacefully today at age 88, with his wife, Jeannine, by his side,” said a statement posted on social media.
Russell’s 11 titles with the Celtics included eight in a row from 1959-1966. Today’s NBA Finals MVP award is named for him.
He had a legendary battle with Wilt Chamberlain in the 1960s, averaging 15.1 points and 22.5 rebounds per game.
In 1975, he became the NBA’s first Black coach and the first Black player admitted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Russell was a civil rights icon off the court, earning the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honour, from President Barack Obama in 2011.
“But for all the winning, Bill’s understanding of the struggle is what illuminated his life,” Sunday’s statement on his Twitter page said.
“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 Evans’ 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.”
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver called Russell “the greatest champion in all of team sports, but added that his accolades “only begin to tell the story of Bill’s immense impact on our league and broader society.
“Bill stood for something much bigger than sports: the values of equality, respect and inclusion that he stamped into the DNA of our league,” Silver said in a statement on Sunday.
“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.”
Those beliefs, more than his prowess on the court, were what inspired Magic Johnson’s love of Russell, the Lakers legend said on Sunday.
“He was one of the first athletes on the front line fighting for social justice, equity, equality, and civil rights,” Johnson said in a statement on Twitter.
“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.”