Bill Russell, one of the iconic figures in American history and the greatest winner in North American team sports, died peacefully on Sunday (July 31). He was 88.
Russell’s wife was by his side when he passed, and funeral arrangements will be announced soon.
Born in Monroe, Louisiana in 1934, Russell would have one of the more decorated careers in sports. He won two state championships in high school before attending the University of San Francisco, where he won two NCAA titles in 1955 and 1956. Drafted No. 2 overall by the Boston Celtics, Russell would go on to win a record 11 NBA titles and, in later years, became the first Black head coach of a major North American sports team and the first Black coach to win an NBA title.
Russell’s legacy on the court resulted in the NBA renaming the NBA Finals MVP trophy to the Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP trophy in 2009, but his greatest impact came off the court. As a champion for civil rights, Russell famously staged a boycott along with his Black Celtics teammates of a 1961 exhibition game in Kentucky due to racist treatment by a local restaurant. He also famously declined to attend his jersey retirement at Boston Garden in 1972 and refused to attend his Hall of Fame induction in 1975 due to his staunch vitriol toward racist fans in Boston.
In 2010, Russell was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then-President Barack Obama. The honor, the highest given to a civilian in the United States is given to an individual who has shown “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
“Bill Russell, perhaps more than anyone else, knows what it takes to win and what it takes to lead,” Obama said in a prepared statement for Russell’s second Hall of Fame induction in 2021. “That’s always been true off the court as well. As I mentioned when I gave him the Medal of Freedom, this is a man who marched with Dr. King and stood by Muhammad Ali. He endured insults and vandalism but never stopped speaking up for what was right.
“When a coffee shop in Lexington, Kentucky, wouldn’t serve Black players, Bill joined his teammates in boycotting the game in their town. An act of civil disobedience that still echoes to this day. That’s why I could not be more honored to celebrate Bill Russell for the way he played, the way he coached, the way he led, the way he lives his life. Because as tall as Bill Russell stands, his example and his legacy rise far, far higher.”