Bill Russell, 11-Time NBA Champion and First Black Head Coach in U.S. Pro Sports, Dies at 88

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Bill Russell, a Boston Celtics legend who won 11 championships during his career and served as the first Black head coach of any professional U.S. sports team, died Sunday. He was 88.

Russell’s death was confirmed through his official social media accounts with a statement saying the NBA star died peacefully with his wife, Jeannine, by his side.

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“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,” a statement posted on social media said. “That would be one last, and lasting, win for our beloved #6.”

Described by NBA commissioner Adam Silver as “the greatest champion in all of team sports,” Russell brought 11 championships to the Boston Celtics across his 13-year tenure with the team. He was a five-time MVP winner and a 12-time NBA All-Star. Many sports fans would say Russell is the most impactful defensive player in the history of the league.

William Felton Russell was born Feb. 12, 1934 in Monroe, Louisiana. His family moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he went to high school before attending the University of San Francisco and beginning his impressive rise in professional basketball.

Russell led the San Francisco Dons to consecutive NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956. He also helped the United States take home gold at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.

After the St. Louis Hawks selected Russell in the 1956 NBA draft, Celtics chief Red Auerbach organized a trade to land the elite center. The two teams would go on to face each other in the 1957 NBA Finals, in which Boston emerged victorious, beginning an eight-year run of consecutive championships for the organization. Russell was the cornerstone of the sports dynasty.

In 1966, Auerbach retired as coach. Russell was named as his successor, becoming the first Black coach in the history of U.S. major league sports. As a player-coach, Russell led the Celtics to two additional titles before retiring as a player in 1969 at the age of 35.

After his playing career, Russell began a 14-year tenure as a television commentator. He also hosted radio talk shows along with writing newspaper columns on varied topics. It was through those outlets that Russell added his voice to the civil rights movement, utilizing his unique position as a successful Black athlete to share his thoughts on the racist practices of the NBA.

While he was still a player, Russell participated in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and went on to open the first integrated basketball camp in Mississippi. He was also seated in the front row for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

In his 1968 memoir “Go Up for Glory,” Russell said he “should epitomize the American Dream,” writing, “for I came, against long odds, from the farthest back to the very top of my profession. I came … from an oppressed minority—first in rural poverty and then from a city’s ghetto. I had to persevere to succeed, to climb out of the life that society had programmed for me.”

In 2011, Russell was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. “More than any athlete of his era, Bill Russell came to define the word ‘winner,'” Obama said at the ceremony. “I hope that one day in the streets of Boston, children will look up at a statue built not only to Bill Russell the player but Bill Russell the man.”

Obama paid tribute to Russell, calling him “a giant.”

“As tall as Bill Russell stood, his legacy rises far higher—both as a player and as a person,” the former president wrote on Twitter. “Perhaps more than anyone else, Bill knew what it took to win and what it took to lead. On the court, he was the greatest champion in basketball history. Off of it, he was a civil rights trailblazer—marching with Dr. King and standing with Muhammad Ali.”

He concluded, “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.”

Rusell is survived by his fourth wife, Jeannine, and his children Jacob Russell, William Russell Jr. and Karen Russell.

Thania Garcia contributed to this report.

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