Updated Aug 1, 2022 - Sports

Obama shares tribute to Bill Russell: "Today we lost a giant"

President Barack Obama presents Basetball Hall of Fame member and human rights advocate Bill Russell with the 2010 Medal of Freedom. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Former President Obama remembered the late basketball great Bill Russell on Sunday, noting that he "learned so much from the way he played, the way he coached, and the way he lived his life."

The big picture: President Biden also paid tribute to the 11-time NBA champion, who died on Sunday at the age of 88.

  • Russell also won two NCAA championships and an Olympic gold medal. He served as the first Black head coach of a North American professional sports team and won two more NBA championships as coach.
  • Obama in 2010 presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Russell, who participated in the 1963 March on Washington and sat front row as Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Russell also supported Muhammad Ali when he refused to join the Army during the Vietnam War.

What they're saying: "Today, we lost a giant," Obama tweeted. "As tall as Bill Russell stood, his legacy rises far higher — both as a player and as a person."

  • "Perhaps more than anyone else, Bill knew what it took to win and what it took to lead," Obama said. "On the court, he was the greatest champion in basketball history. Off of it, he was a civil rights trailblazer — marching with Dr. King and standing with Muhammad Ali."
  • Biden issued a statement later Sunday noting that Russell "never gave up" despite facing "the hostility and hate of racism embedded in every part of American life" from his childhood in segregated Louisiana to "playing on the biggest stages in sports at the height of the Civil Rights Movement."
  • "Throughout his life, he forced us to confront hard truths. And on this day, there are generations of Americans who are reflecting on what he meant to them as someone who played for the essential truth that every person is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect," Biden said.
"Bill Russell is one of the greatest athletes in our history — an all-time champion of champions, and a good man and great American who did everything he could to deliver the promise of America for all Americans."
— President Biden

Editor's note: This article has been updated with comment from President Biden.

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