NBA legend Bill Russell died on Sunday, according to his family. He was 88.
An announcement… pic.twitter.com/KMJ7pG4R5Z— TheBillRussell (@RealBillRussell) July 31, 2022
Russell had health scares in the past, collapsing at a speaking engagement in 2014 and needing to be hospitalized in May 2018 for dehydration. In both instances, however, he recovered quickly.
In his NBA career, Russell was peerless when it came to winning titles. He won 11 in his 13 professional seasons (1956-69) with the Boston Celtics, which is the most in NBA history among players. He also made 12 trips to the All-Star Game, won five MVP awards and was twice named a first-team All-NBA selection. In 1975, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
He averaged 15.1 points and 22.5 rebounds rebounds per game over the course of his career, solidifying himself as one of the most dominant centers of all time. In 1996, Russell was voted one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history.
During his era, Russell and Wilt Chamberlain battled for supremacy on the interior. Chamberlain was statistically superior (30.1 PPG, 22.9 RPG in his career) and arguably more dominant on an individual basis.
“People say it was the greatest individual rivalry they’ve ever seen,” Russell said in the ’90s, per basketball writer Bob Ryan. “I agree with that. I have to laugh today. I’ll turn on the TV and see the Knicks play the Lakers, and half the time Patrick [Ewing] isn’t even guarding Shaq [O’Neal], and vice-versa. Let me assure you that if either Wilt’s or Russ’ coach had ever told one of them he couldn’t guard the other guy, he would have lost that player forever!”
Even head to head, Chamberlain was productive, averaging an incredible 28.7 points and 28.7 rebounds per game in his matchups against Russell. The Celtics legend, meanwhile, averaged 14.5 points and 23.7 rebounds per game in those duels, but Russell often had the last laugh, winning nine more titles than Chamberlain and holding an 85-57 record in the head-to-head matchups.
Of course, Russell had plenty of help along the way. During his NBA career with the Boston Celtics, he was paired with a slew of Hall of Famers, including head coach Red Auerbach and players Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, Tom Heinsohn, K.C. Jones, Sam Jones, Bill Sharman, Clyde Lovellette, Frank Ramsey, Tom Sanders, Arnie Risen, Bailey Howell and Andy Phillip.
Russell then took over as the team’s head coach in the 1966-67 season and served as a player-coach for three seasons, winning two of his titles in that split role. He was the first African-American head coach in NBA history.
After retiring from playing, Russell served as the head coach of the Seattle Supersonics (1973-77) and the Sacramento Kings (1987-88), reaching the playoffs twice with the Sonics. He never had the same success as a coach that he enjoyed in his playing career, however.
He also served as a basketball broadcaster for a time after his basketball career, working for both ABC and CBS Sports during the 70s and 80s, though he was never completely comfortable in the role.
“The most successful television is done in eight-second thoughts, and the things I know about basketball, motivation and people go deeper than that,” he told the Sacramento Bee (h/t NBA.com).
But Russell also made a huge impact off the court as a civil-rights activist, often facing racism from fans and establishments, as did other African-American players of the time. In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, highlighting the historical precedent Russell set by breaking the coaching color barrier, among his many other achievements.
“Bill has always had the consciousness and intellect to understand what freedom and equality and justice meant for all people,” NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown said of Russell in 2013, per John Hareas of NBA.com . “He’s always represented all people, not by color or race or gender or anything but by the rights of people.”
“Bill Russell is a difference maker,” fellow Hall of Famer Bob Lanier added. “He, Brown, Arthur Ashe were the guys during that era who were celebrities and used their celebrity to the greatest good to try to define equality among mankind. They were very much leaders in that.”
Russell will be remembered as one of the greatest Celtics of all time, one of the greatest NBA players of all time and one of the most successful athletes in U.S. history. But he’ll also be remembered as a key figure in American history and the Civil Rights Movement, transcending sport.