Aug 1, 2022 - Sports

Remembering NBA legend and civil rights icon Bill Russell

Bill Russell
Bill Russell poses with his 11 rings in 1996. Photo: Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Bill Russell, the greatest winner in the history of team sports and one of the most important athletes to ever live, died Sunday at 88.

By the numbers: Russell's basketball legacy is beyond well-known. Yet reviewing his jaw-dropping accomplishments never gets old.

  • He won a record 11 NBA titles, all with the Celtics, and was a five-time MVP. He never lost a winner-take-all game in the playoffs and was 10-0 in Game 7s.
  • He was an Olympic champion, a two-time NCAA champion, the first Black coach in major American sports, and the only player-coach to win an NBA title.
  • He was a defensive savant who revolutionized basketball and seemed to grab virtually every rebound: 22.5 career average. 51 in one game. 49 in two others.

Of note: Russell is just the fifth NBA MVP to pass away (Wilt Chamberlain, Moses Malone, Kobe Bryant, Wes Unseld) — a reminder of just how young the league is, and of how much weight its legends carry.

Bill Russell in D.C.
Bill Russell (left) at the March on Washington In 1963. Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

The big picture: It would be a disservice to remember Russell as only a basketball player. Off the court, he was a civil rights icon, a humanitarian and a gentle giant with one of the most infectious laughs ever.

  • He sat just feet away for Martin Luther King Jr. during his “I Have A Dream” speech. He supported Muhammad Ali when he refused to go to Vietnam.
  • He hated autographs, preferring instead to invite fans to have a conversation. That was Bill, according to those who knew him: endlessly curious about human nature and life itself.

What they’re saying:

  • Family statement: "[F]or all the winning, Bill's understanding of the struggle is what illuminated his life … Bill called out injustice with an unforgiving candor that … will forever inspire teamwork, selflessness and thoughtful change."
  • President Biden: "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."
  • Ray Ratto, Defector: "He is that rarest of creatures, a man who wrote two autobiographies ('Go Up For Glory' and 'Second Wind') because one could not possibly contain enough of what he did or who he was."

The last word: "If you can take something to levels that very few other people can reach, then what you're doing becomes art," Russell told SI’s Frank Deford in 1999. You painted a masterpiece, Bill.

Go deeper … If you read one thing this morning, make it Deford’s deep dive.

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