BOSTON — Bill Russell, the NBA great who anchored a Boston Celtics dynasty that won 11 championships in 13 years — the last two as the first black head coach in any major American sport — and walked for the civil rights with Martin Luther King Jr., died Sunday. He was 88 years old.
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. Maybe you’ll relive one or two of the golden moments he gave us, or remember his signature laugh as he happily explained the real story behind how those moments unfolded. “Said the statement from the family. “And we hope that each of us can find a new way to act or speak with Bill’s uncompromising, dignified and always constructive commitment to principles. It would be a last and lasting victory for our beloved No. 6.”
NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement that Russell was “the greatest champion in all of team sports.”
“Bill represented something much bigger than sport: the values of equality, respect and inclusion that he inscribed in our league’s DNA. During the height of his athletic career, Bill was a strong advocate for civil rights and social justice, a legacy he passed on to generations of NBA players who followed in his footsteps,” Silver said. “Through taunts, threats and unthinkable adversity, Bill overcame it all and remained true to his belief that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity.
A Hall of Famer, five-time Most Valuable Player and 12-time All-Star, Russell was voted the greatest player in NBA history in 1980 by basketball writers. He remains the sport’s most prolific winner and an archetype of selflessness who won with defense and rebounding while leaving the score to others. Often that meant Wilt Chamberlain, the only player at the time who was a worthy rival for Russell.
The on-court battles between the centers were fierce – iconic matchups in the NBA. Russell led the University of San Francisco to NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956 and won a gold medal at the 1956 Olympics.
In Boston, Russell left a lasting mark as a black athlete in a city — and country — where running is often a flashpoint. In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Russell the Medal of Freedom. Two years later, a statue of Russell was unveiled in Boston’s City Hall Plaza.
“I cherished my friendship with Bill and was thrilled when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom,” Silver said in his statement. “I often called him Babe Ruth of basketball for how he transcended time. Bill was the ultimate winner and an accomplished teammate, and his influence on the NBA will be felt forever. We extend our most sincere condolences to his wife, Jeannine, his family and his many friends.
His family said arrangements for Russell’s memorial service will be announced in the coming days.
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