Legendary former Celtics center Bill Russell, winner of a record 11 NBA titles in 13 seasons as a player, has passed away at the age of 88, per a press statement from Russell’s representatives (Twitter link).
“Bill Russell, the most prolific winner in American sports history, passed away peacefully today at age 88, with his wife, Jeannine, by his side,” the statement began.
After Boston traded for Russell’s draft rights in 1956 (he was the No. 2 pick out of San Francisco, where he won two NCAA titles), the 6’10” defensive-oriented big man continued to rack up accolades at the next level. In addition to his 11 championships, the 12-time All-Star was also a five-time league MVP, as well as an 11-time All-NBA honoree. He also won an Olympic gold medal for team basketball in 1956.
During the 1966/67 season, when Red Auerbach stepped down as Boston’s head coach, Russell made history as the first Black NBA head coach while still a player. In this player-coach capacity, Russell won the last two of his 11 championships.
Russell was named to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975 as a player, and then again as a head coach in 2021. Beyond Boston, he served as head coach with the Seattle SuperSonics from 1973-77, and for the Kings during the 1987/88 season. He made the 25th, 35th, 50th, and 75th Anniversary NBA Teams, honoring the best players the game has ever seen.
In 13 seasons and 963 regular season games, all with the Celtics, Russell averaged 15.1 PPG on 44% field goal shooting, plus 22.5 RPG and 4.3 APG. He certainly would have also averaged a boatload of blocked shots, too, but that statistic was not maintained in his era. His greatness as a competitor and teammate goes beyond the numbers, and he is widely considered one of the very best NBA players ever.
A longtime leader in the civil rights movement, Russell was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama for his societal contributions both on and off the court in 2011. Russell is so resonant to the game of basketball that the NBA Finals MVP Award was rebranded the Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award in 2009, and when health permitted Russell would be on hand to dole out the trophy to the award’s winners through the years.
“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 Russell family statement read in its concluding paragraph. “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’s jersey number, long since retired in Boston].”
Tributes have already begun pouring in for Russell from players, media, fans, and league personnel.
“Thank you for everything! R.I.P. Legend,” current Celtics All-NBA forward Jayson Tatum wrote (via Twitter).
Boston star wing Jaylen Brown wrote a series of tweets commemorating the one-of-a-kind Boston big man.
“Thank you for paving the way and inspiring so many,” Brown wrote in part (Twitter link). “Today is a sad day but also [a] great day to celebrate his legacy and what he stood for.”
“R.I.P. Bill Russell,” Boston reserve forward Grant Williams began his post (via Twitter). “You allowed me to be in the position I am in today and you changed not only the league but the world. Forever 6.”
Celtics team president Brad Stevens weighed in as well, tweeting, “So very sad to hear about Bill Russell today. He set the standard – on and off the court. RIP to an all-time winner, teammate and person.”
League Commissioner Adam Silver released a heartfelt statement in response to the news (Twitter link).
“Bill Russell was the greatest champion in all of team sports,” Silver wrote. “The countless accolades that he earned for his storied career with the Boston Celtics… only begin to tell the story of Bill’s immense impact on our league and broader society. 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.”
Our deepest condolences go out to Russell’s family and friends. One of the NBA’s brightest lights has gone out.