Russell anchored a Boston Celtics dynasty that won 11 championships in 13 years between 1957 and 1969. His last two titles came as a player coach. Russel was the first ever black head coach of an American professional franchise.
His family posted the news on social media, saying Russell died with his wife, Jeannine, by his side. The statement did not give the cause of death.
“Bill’s wife, Jeannine, and his many friends and family thank you for keeping Bill in your prayers. Perhaps you’ll relive one or two of the golden moments he gave us, or recall his trademark laugh as he delighted in explaining the real story behind how those moments unfolded,” the family statement said. “And we hope each of us can find a new way to act or speak up with Bill’s uncompromising, dignified and always constructive commitment to principle. That would be one last, and lasting, win for our beloved #6.”
Russell was born on Feb. 12, 1934, in Monroe, Louisiana. He went to High School in Oakland after his family moved to California. He attended the the University of San Francisco winning NCAA titles in 1955 and 1956. Russell also won a gold medal for Team USA in 1956 at the Melbourne Olympics in Australia.
Russell was a 5 time NBA MVP and 12 time All-Star. His contributions went beyond scoring. Each year Russell averaged more rebounds per game than points. For 10 seasons he averaged more than 20 rebounds. Russell was also considered the best team defender in the history of the sport.
In addition to his basketball credentials, Russell was also a leader in the area of civil rights, enduring racist abuse during his days as a youth in Louisiana and throughout his playing career in Boston.
“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 in 2010, 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,” his family said in the statement.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver also lauded Russell’s contributions on and off the court.
“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,” Silver said. “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.”
No funeral arrangements have been finalized though Russell’s family says they will make an announcement in the coming days.