Bill Russell, an 11-time NBA champion, defensive innovator, Hall-of-Fame player and coach, Civil Rights pioneer and the formative figure in Boston Celtics history passed away at 88 on Sunday peacefully, his family announced.
Russell also achieved a pair of high school championships, back-to-back NCAA titles with the San Francisco Dons and a 1956 Gold Medal with the U.S. National team. The ultimate winner in North American team sports, Russell filled the Boston Garden with most of its banners, sweeping the 1960s in all but one season, adding five Most Valuable Player awards as an individual contributor before becoming the first Black head coach in North American sports when Red Auerbach made him a player-coach from 1966-1969. Willie Naulls, Satch Sanders, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones and Russell formed the first all-Black starting lineup in 1964.
Born in 1934 at the height of southern segregation in Monroe, Louisiana, Russell lived a life of resistance to systematic oppression he’d face through his childhood and basketball career, nearly appearing on stage for Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech during the 1963 March on Washington after Russell led a Celtics boycott in Lexington, Kentucky when Jones and Sanders were refused service at a local coffee shop. The three players flew back to Boston and skipped the Celtics’ exhibition against the St. Louis Hawks.
Russell also disassociated himself from Boston due to the discrimination and attacks Black people, including himself, endured during his playing career. He found himself solely representing the Celtics organization, and would maintain a cold relationship with the city for decades until his recognition with a City Hall statue in 2013. When the team chose to retire his No. 6, he asked for it to happen in an empty Boston Garden, with the stands often sparsely filled to watch his teams early in his playing career.
”I played for the Celtics, period,” Russell said. ”I did not play for Boston. I was able to separate the Celtics institution from the city and the fans.”
Russell would receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 from Barack Obama in recognition for his greatness on and off the floor. He moved to Oakland during the Second Great Migration at eight-years-old, where Russell’s basketball prowess only emerging when head coach George Powles noticed his running and jumping ability that’d propel him to track-and-field success, along with large hands. He’d later laud Powles’ impact on his life. Russell nearly got cut from the McClymonds High School team as a freshman, but Powles worked with him on his fundamentals, while the big man would grow to 6-10 with a 7-4 wingspan and focused on blocking shots at the rim. That skill would eventually change NBA defense.
Hal DeJulio of USF became Russell’s lone college recruiter after a modest scoring performance in high school, but he noticed how Russell scouted opponent’s tendencies to shut them down and flashed incredible defensive instincts. Russell enrolled, embracing basketball as an escape from poverty and racism, and under head coach Phil Woolpert made history alongside future Celtics teammate K.C. Jones and Hal Perry as the first Black starting trio in college basketball. Russell became such a force as a shot preventer that the NCAA widened the lane and introduced basket interference, long before the game-shattering impact of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the 1960s. Despite his individual accomplishments, snubs Russell saw as race-related caused him to adopt a team-oriented mindset during that time.
“At that time it was never acceptable that a black player was the best,” he said. “My junior year in college, I had what I thought was the one of the best college seasons ever. We won 28 out of 29 games. We won the National Championship. I was the MVP at the Final Four. I was first team All American. I averaged over 20 points and over 20 rebounds, and I was the only guy in college blocking shots. So after the season was over, they had a Northern California banquet, and they picked another center as Player of the Year in Northern California. Well, that let me know that if I were to accept these as the final judges of my career I would die a bitter old man.”
Russell’s USF team got denied a hotel stay during a 1954 Oklahoma City tournament, leading to a protest in a college dorm and revolutionary life off the floor. Racial taunts became a constant experience, particularly during road games, but his transformative impact on the game led the Dons to 55 straight wins through his championship seasons. He finished his college career with 20.7 PPG and 20.3 RPG while shooting 51.6% from the field. Russell also won high jump titles, leaping over 6-9, and ran the 440-yard dash while in college.
The Harlem Globetrotters recruited Russell in 1956, but he spurned them since they spoke to his coach over him and Russell instead entered the 1956 NBA Draft, a transformative one for a Celtics team that had been founded 10 years earlier and had yet to win a championship. They had finished second the prior season though, setting up a long shot for Auerbach to select the top-ranked center in the draft.
The Rochester Royals already had a big man, though, so Boston’s owner Walter A. Brown received assurance Rochester wouldn’t pick him, with legend stating he offered guaranteed Ice Capades performances, before Auerbach executed a trade with the Hawks for Russell, who went No. 2 overall. He also selected Russell’s teammate, Jones, and future rookie of the year Tom Heinsohn out of Holy Cross to secure the Celtics’ dynastic core.
Russell and Jones began their undefeated career arriving late in December to the Celtics from the Summer Olympics in Melbourne with a gold medal by going 8-0 with Team USA. Auerbach immediately initiated an aggressive man-to-man defense where Russell rotated when teammates called for help and sent shots flying. The Celtics won their first Game 7 of a 10-0 career in those winner-take-all playoff games over the Hawks, Russell highlighting the series with a key chase down block late in the double-overtime finale.
Bob Pettit’s Hawks got revenge in 1958 before the Celtics and Lakers rivalry began with a Boston sweep in 1959, Russell’s second title shortly before the Philadelphia Warriors drafted Russell’s chief rival during his career — Hall-of-Fame center Wilt Chamberlain. Chamberlain outscored Russell in their first meeting that fall, but the Celtics won, a definitive trend through the two legendary player’s clashes into the 1960s.
Boston beat the Hawks again in 1961, then finally met Chamberlain’s Warriors the next summer. He had just averaged over 50 PPG and scored his famous 100-point game during the regular season, but Russell held him to 22 points in another Game 7 victory before going on to beat the Lakers with a Finals record 40 rebounds in Game 7, going back-to-back over Jerry West and Elgin Baylor’s team in six games in 1963. Russell dominated Chamberlain’s Warriors, now of San Francisco, in a five-game rout in 1964. The Celtics set a 62-win record the next year, winning another Game 7 over Chamberlain’s 76ers on a last-second steal by John Havlicek.
The Celtics’ core shifted from Bob Cousy to the young Havlicek, while Auerbach retired as coach after the 1966 title over the Lakers. He named Russell his replacement, who would play and coach simultaneously. They got crushed by Chamberlain’s 76ers in the east playoffs, the first setback of his career that he acknowledged by shaking his rival’s hand after. Though an engaged teammate, Russell chafed fame and refused autographs. He butted heads with Heinsohn early in his career, perhaps over the rookie of the year distinction his teammate had earned, but shared a friendship off the floor with Chamberlain in spite of their rivalry, often eating dinners around games. They fell out for 20 years after Russell blasted him for sitting early in Game 7 of the 1969 Finals with a knee injury, Russell calling into question the injury and how it’d impact the legitimacy of Boston’s victory. Russell later apologized and would eulogize Chamberlain at his funeral in 1999. Russell’s Celtics edged Chamberlain’s teams 57–37 in the regular season and 29–20 in the postseason.
Russell grew more disillusioned with basketball late in his career and joined the Black Power movement alongside Muhammad Ali, whose conscious objection to the Vietnam War he stood in line with. Russell detested politicians and though he had ties to the Civil Rights movement and the Nation of Islam, which Malcolm X rose through, but he preferred to sit front row for the March on Washington rather than be a visible presence on-stage. Russell’s daughter noted how they were the only Black family in Reading, Massachusetts for many years, where his home was infamously broken into and defaced with feces left in his bed. He called Boston a flea market for racism and skipped his Hall of Fame ceremony. The Celtics would eventually re-retire his number in 1999, as he lived out the rest of his life on the west coast. He’d later give credit to the organization’s trailblazing efforts for Black athletes like himself and received a massive ovation in his return, bringing him to tears.
He finished his career with back-to-back titles, earning 11 in 13 years, amid the turmoil of the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination, which forced the 76ers and his Celtics to come together and consider cancelling the series. They’d play on, though Russell for years would wonder if that was the correct decision. The Celtics, once again, ended 1968 by defeating West’s Lakers. Then, they’d do it again in 1969, Russell suddenly retiring and not attending the city’s rally, ending the greatest era of winning by any team in North American sports history. He finished 15.1 PPG, 22.5 RPG and 4.3 APG, leaving his mark on the game as the original shot-blocker, transition player and prioritizing team basketball. He still owns the all-time playoff rebound total record (4,104) and ranks second to Chamberlain in career totals. Blocks did not get record as a stat during his time, though sample data indicates he might’ve averaged as many as 8.6 per game.
“If I had a choice of any basketball player in the league,” West said. “My No. 1 choice has to be Bill Russell. Bill Russell never ceases to amaze me.”
Russell went on to broadcast and coach short stints with the SuperSonics and Kings from 1973-1988. He’d enter the Hall of Fame in 2021 as a coach and only accepted his ring as a player in 2019. Russell became a more visible presence in the 2000s, appearing in Boston when the Celtics won their 2008 championship, before he handed Kobe Bryant the first Bill Russell Finals MVP trophy named in his honor by David Stern in 2009.
Russell is survived by his wife Jeannine. The family’s statement emphasized his work hosting the first integrated basketball camp in Mississippi after the assassination of Medgar Evers, who had challenged school segregation by applying to law school at the University of Mississippi after Brown v. Board of Education. They also noted his trademark laugh and humbleness. His passing follows other great Celtics in recent years, including his teammates Jones, Jones, Havlicek and Heinsohn.
“Bill Russell, perhaps more than anyone else, knows what it takes to win and what it takes to lead,” Obama said in a video record for his induction. “That’s always been true off the court as well. As I mentioned when I gave him the Medal of Freedom [in 2011], this is a man who marched with Dr. [Martin Luther] King and stood by Muhammad Ali. He endured insults and vandalism, but never stopped speaking up for what was right … I could not be more honored to celebrate Bill Russell for the way he played, the way he coached, the way he led and the way he lives his life. Because as tall as Bill Russell stands, his example and his legacy rise far, far higher.”