Bill Russell, an 11-time NBA champion as a player and coach with the Boston Celtics and one of the most important figures in NBA history, has died at the age of 88, his family announced Sunday. Russell passed away peacefully with his wife Jeannine by his side. His family released the following statement.
“It is with a very heavy heart we would like to pass along to all of Bill’s friends, fans & followers:
Bill Russell, the most prolific winner in American sports history, passed away peacefully today at age 88, with his wife, Jeannine, by his side. Arrangements for his memorial service will be announced soon.
Bill’s two state championships in high school offered a glimmer of the incomparable run of pure team accomplishment to come: twice an NCAA champion; captain of a gold-medal-winning US Olympic team; 11 times an NBA champion; and at the helm for two NBA championships as the first Black head coach of any North American professional sports team.
Along the way, Bill earned a string of individual awards that stands unprecedented as it went unmentioned by him. In 2009, the award for the NBA Finals most valuable player was renamed after the two-time Hall of Famer as the ‘Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award.’
But for all the winning, Bill’s understanding of the struggle is what illuminated his life. From boycotting a 1961 exhibition game to unmask too-long-tolerated discrimination, to leading Mississippi’s first integrated basketball camp in the combustible wake of Medgar Evans’ assassination, to decades of activism ultimately recognized by his receipt of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010. Bill called out injustice with an unforgiving candor that he intended would disrupt the status quo, and with a powerful example that, though never his humble intention, will forever inspire teamwork, selflessness and thoughtful change.
Bill’s wife, Jeannine, and his many friends and family thank you for keeping Bill in your prayers. 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. 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.”
Born in Louisiana in 1934, Russell was not initially considered a top basketball prospect. His first scholarship offer came from the University of San Francisco, a school hardly known for its basketball prowess but one that Russell was able to carry to consecutive national championships in 1955 and 1956. In addition to basketball, Russell was a track star at San Francisco, notably competing in the high jump. He won an Olympic gold medal in basketball as Team USA’s captain in 1956 before turning professional.
Despite his collegiate excellence, Russell was not the first pick in the 1956 NBA Draft. That honor went to Duquesne wing Si Green. That left Russell available at No. 2, where the St. Louis Hawks were drafting. However, circumstances worked in Russell’s favor. Boston Celtics star Ed Macauley’s son was being treated for spinal meningitis in St. Louis, so he asked the team to send him there as a favor. They did so, and Boston landed the No. 2 pick in exchange for Macauley and fellow Hall-of-Famer Cliff Hagan. The deal didn’t exactly blow up in St. Louis’ face. Though they lost the 1957 Finals to Boston, the Hawks came back to win it all in a 1958 rematch with the Celtics. But that would be the last championship they’d ever win. Russell won 10 more, including the next eight in a row.
The trade was just as important to Russell as it was to the Celtics. “If I would’ve gotten drafted by St. Louis, I wouldn’t have been in the NBA,” Russell said in an interview with NBATV. “St. Louis was overwhelmingly racist.” Sadly, Russell faced racism throughout his early life in the South and his entire career in Boston, and he became one of the most socially conscious athletes in American history. He attended Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech in person and was one of several black athletes and leaders to attend the 1967 Cleveland Summit in support of Muhammad Ali. In 1966, Russell became the first Black head coach in American sports history when he replaced Red Auerbach in Boston. He retained his role as the team’s starting center while coaching the team on his way to its last two championships.
Russell left the Celtics once his playing career ended. He worked as a television broadcaster afterward before returning to coaching with the Seattle Supersonics. He went four games below .500 in four seasons in Seattle before leaving. He’d coach one more season with the Sacramento Kings a decade later, but he otherwise largely stayed out of the public eye for the next several decades, living out of his home in Washington.
But he appeared publicly more regularly in his final years, often being honored for his remarkable achievements as a player and activist. In 2009, the NBA renamed the Finals MVP award after Russell, and he attended the 2009 Finals to award the trophy to Kobe Bryant personally. He would do so several more times, but doing so for Bryant was particularly meaningful given the friendship they’d forged. When Bryant died in a 2020 helicopter accident, Russell penned an emotional social media post remembering the legend. Bryant may have played for the rival Lakers, but Russell frequently made himself available to modern players looking for advice.
Plenty sought him out, because above everything else Russell was on the court, he was the sport’s greatest winner. He lost only two playoff series in his entire career. He never once lost a winner-take-all game. Not in college. Not in the Olympics. Not in the NBA. He won all 21 of such games he played. Russell came up big when it mattered most, both on and off the court, and that is what he will always be remembered for.