Celtics legend Bill Russell dies at 88

BOSTON (AP) — Bill Russell, the NBA legend who was the mainstay of the Boston Celtics’ dynasty that won 11 champions in 13 years — the last as the first black coach in an American professional league — and who marched for civil rights alongside Martin Luther King Jr., died Sunday. He was 88 years old.

His family spread the news on social media. They indicated that Russell died accompanied by his wife, Jeannine. The statement did not mention the cause of death.

“Bill’s wife, Jeannine, and her many friends and family want to say thank you for keeping Bill in your prayers. Maybe you can relive one or two of the golden moments he gave us, or remember the singular smile from him when he delighted in telling the true story of how those moments unfolded,” the family said. “And we hope that each of us will be able to find a new way to act or express ourselves with Bill’s uncompromising, dignified and always constructive commitment to principle. That would be one last and lasting victory for our beloved #6.”

NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement that “the supreme champion in all team sports.”

“Bill represented something much bigger than sports: the values ​​of equality, respect and inclusion that he imprinted in the DNA of our league,” Silver said. “At the height of his sports career, he 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. Shunning taunts, threats, and unthinkable adversity, he stayed true to his belief that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity.”

A member of the Hall of Fame, five times Most Valuable Player and 12 times selected for the All-Star Game, Russell was proclaimed in 1980 as the best player in NBA history after a vote by basketball writers.

Russell remains the most decorated player in the game and a model of sacrifice, dedicating himself to defensive work to let others take care of scoring the points. This often benefited Wilt Chamberlain, the only player of the era to overshadow Russell.

The on-court battles between the two centers were fierce — matchups par excellence in the NBA.

Russel dominated in the only stat that mattered to him: 11 championships to two.

The native of Louisiana left an indelible mark as a black athlete in the midst of segregation in the city and the country.

He was at the march on Washington in 1963, when King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, and endorsed Muhammad Ali when the boxer was ridiculed for refusing to be admitted to compulsory military service.

“To be the greatest champion in his sport, to revolutionize the way the sport is played and to be a leader within society at the same time seems unthinkable, but that’s what Bill was,” the Boston Celtics said in a statement. a statement.

In 2011, President Barack Obama conferred the Medal of Freedom on Russell, along with Congressmen John Lewis, businessman Warren Buffett, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and baseball player Stan Musial.

“Bill Russell, the man, is someone who supported the rights and dignity of all men,” Obama said at the ceremony. “He Marched with King; he was by Ali’s side. When a restaurant refused to serve Celtics players of color, he refused to play. He endured insults and hooliganism, but he focused on making the teammates he loved better players and made success possible for many who followed him.”

Russell said growing up in the segregated South and later in California, his parents taught him the calm and confidence that allowed him to ignore racist taunts.

Years later, people asked me what I had to overcome,” Russell said in 2008. “Unfortunately, or fortunately, I never went through anything. From the first moment I was alive, I had the notion that my mother and father loved me.” It was Russell’s mother who told her to ignore the comments of those who might see him playing in the yard.

“Whatever they said, good or bad, they don’t know you,” she recalled him saying. “They are fighting their own demons.”

But it was Jackie Robinson who gave Russell a map for dealing with racism in sports: “Jackie was a hero to us. He always behaved like a man. He showed me the way to be a man in professional sports.”

The feeling was mutual, Russell learned, when Robinson’s widow, Rachel, called him and asked him to be the pallbearer at her husband’s funeral in 1972.

He hung up the phone and I asked myself, ‘How do you get to be a hero to Jackie Robinson?'” Russell said. “I was honored.”

William Felton Russell was born on February 12, 1934, in Monroe, Louisiana. He was a child when his family moved to the West Coast, and he went to high school in Oakland, California, and then to the University of San Franciscco. He led the Dons to the NCAA championship in 1955 and 1956 and won the gold medal at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.

Red Auerbach, coach and general manager of the Celtics, coveted Russell so much that he worked to make possible a trade with the St. Louis Hawks for the second pick in the draft. He promised the No. 1 pick Rochester Royals a lucrative visit from the Ice Capades, also owned by Celtics owner Walter Brown.

Still, Russell arrived in Boston with complaints that he wasn’t good enough. “People said it was a waste of selection, wasted money,” he recalled. “They said ‘it’s not good. All he can do is block shots and rebound.’ And Red said ‘that’s enough.’”

In 2009, the NBA Finals MVP trophy was named after him. Russell never won the laurel, as it was not until 1969 that it was first awarded. He was in charge of delivering the trophy for several years, the last time in 2019 to Kawhi Leonard. Russell could not be present in 2020 due to the NBA bubble and neither in 2021 due to COVID-19.

In 2013, the city of Boston unveiled a statue of Russell in City Hall Square.

Russell was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1975 but did not attend the ceremony that should not have been the first African American to be elected. Chuck Cooper, the first black man to play in the NBA, was his pick.

In 2019, Russell accepted his Hall of Fame ring in a private ceremony.

“I feel like others before me deserved honor,” he tweeted. “Good to see progress.”

But for Michael Jordan, Russell was someone unique.

“Bill Russell was a trailblazer — as a player, as a champion, as the first black coach in the NBA and as an activist,” said the former Chicago Bulls star and current majority owner of the Charlotte Hornets. “He paved the way and established an example to every black player who came into the league after him, including me. The world lost a legend.”