The Washington Post

Russell leaves a towering legacy

Celtics legend remembered for his colossal impact on and off the court

- BY BEN GOLLIVER

Bill Russell, the NBA’S greatest champion as a player and its first Black coach, died Sunday at 88, leading those inside and outside the basketball community to remember his storied career, his civil rights activism, his gracious personalit­y and his distinctiv­e laugh. ¶ The Boston Celtics center, who was inducted to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and a coach, won a record 11 titles in a playing career that spanned from 1956 to 1969, in addition to five MVP awards. In recognitio­n of his dominance, the NBA named its Finals MVP award in his honor. Beyond the hardwood, Russell was a vocal proponent of civil rights, earning the Presidenti­al Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. ¶ “Bill stood for something much bigger than sports: the values of equality, respect and inclusion that he stamped into the DNA of our league,” NBA Commission­er Adam Silver said in a statement. “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. Through the taunts, threats and unthinkabl­e adversity, Bill rose above it all and remained true to his belief that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity.

“I often called him basketball’s Babe Ruth for how he transcende­d time. Bill was the ultimate winner and consummate teammate, and his influence on the NBA will be felt forever.”

In a 2021 address, Obama noted how Russell’s legacy extended beyond sports, recounting the Celtics’ 1961 boycott of a game after a Kentucky coffee shop refused to serve Black players. Obama called it “an act of civil disobedien­ce that still echoes to this day.”

“As tall as Bill Russell stood, his legacy rises far higher — both as a player and as a person,” Obama wrote Sunday. “He was a civil rights trailblaze­r — marching with Dr. King and standing with Muhammad Ali. For decades, Bill endured insults and vandalism, but never let it stop him from speaking up for what’s right. I learned so much from the way he played, the way he coached, and the way he lived his life.”

On the court, Russell’s 11 rings as a player — a standard that has never been approached in the modern era — earned him a special respect among the game’s greats.

Michael Jordan, who won six titles with the Chicago Bulls and is the only Black principal owner in the NBA, said Russell was a “pioneer” who “paved the way and set an example for every Black player who came into the league after him, including me.”

Los Angeles Lakers icon Magic Johnson, a five-time champion, said he was “heartbroke­n to hear about the passing of the greatest winner the game of basketball has ever seen, a legend, Hall of Famer, mentor and my friend for over 30 years.”

Russell’s death prompted tributes from the Celtics, who posted an image of his No. 6 under 11 shamrocks, to represent his championsh­ips as a player, and above two additional shamrocks, to represent his titles as a coach.

Longtime Boston Globe writer Bob Ryan noted Russell was 21- 0 in his career in “winner-take-all games,” spanning his NCAA career at the University of San Francisco, where he won two titles; the 1956 Olympics, where he won a gold medal; and with the Celtics, where he was 10- 0 in Game 7s.

“Thank [you] for setting the bar, for [your] kind words of wisdom,” Celtics legend Paul Pierce wrote. “Thank [you] for that great laugh [you] had. I can go on all day about what [you] meant to me.”

Jaylen Brown, a Celtics forward who led a protest march in Atlanta after George Floyd’s murder, added: “Thank you for paving the way and inspiring so many. Today is a sad day but also a great day to celebrate his legacy and what he stood for.”

Though Russell retired as a coach in 1988, he remained a fixture at NBA events, most notably during his annual presentati­on of the Finals MVP trophy, and he appeared to savor his role as the league’s elder statesman. In 2017, Russell was honored with a lifetime achievemen­t award, and he took the stage alongside fellow Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-jabbar, Shaquille O’neal, David Robinson, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo.

Russell, leaning on a cane for support, pointed at each of the five centers in turn, before declaring, “I would kick your a--.”

Quips like that were usually accompanie­d by what Jack Mccallum, a longtime Sports Illustrate­d writer, called Russell’s “famous cackle.” In a 1987 feature, Mccallum wrote how Russell would “throw back his head” and “open his mouth” before unleashing his belly laugh. There was a mischievou­s side to the icon, who also delighted in flipping the bird at his basketball colleagues in hopes of making them laugh.

In somber moments, Russell’s gravitas had a healing quality. When Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna were among those killed in a helicopter crash in 2020, Russell attended a game between the Celtics and Lakers. Despite the longtime rivalry between the franchises, Russell made a point to wear Bryant’s No. 24 Lakers jersey as he sat courtside at Staples Center.

“I would do anything to honor Kobe and Gianna. I am always a Celtic. We had a deeper connection: 2+4 does = 6,” Russell explained, referencin­g his own jersey number. “We had much love and respect for one another!”

 ?? ASSOCIATED PRESS ?? Bill Russell, who won a record 11 NBA championsh­ips with the Celtics as a player and two as a coach, died Sunday at 88. Former president Barack Obama hailed him for his impact as “a civil rights trailblaze­r.”
ASSOCIATED PRESS Bill Russell, who won a record 11 NBA championsh­ips with the Celtics as a player and two as a coach, died Sunday at 88. Former president Barack Obama hailed him for his impact as “a civil rights trailblaze­r.”
 ?? Charles Krupa/associated Press ?? Bill Russell “paved the way and set an example for every Black player who came into the league after him,” Michael Jordan wrote Sunday.
Charles Krupa/associated Press Bill Russell “paved the way and set an example for every Black player who came into the league after him,” Michael Jordan wrote Sunday.

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