Bill Russell, 11-time NBA champion as a player and coach with the Boston Celtics and one of the most important figures of NBA story, died at the age of 88, his family announced on 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 that we would like to pass on to all of Bill’s friends, fans and followers:
Bill Russell, the most prolific winner in American sports history, died peacefully today at the age of 88, with his wife, Jeannine, by his side. Arrangements for his memorial service will be announced shortly.
Bill’s two high school state championships offered a glimmer of the unparalleled string of pure team accomplishments to come: two-time NCAA champion; captain of a gold medal-winning US Olympic team; 11-time NBA champion; and leading two NBA championships as the first black head coach of any North American professional sports team.
Along the way, Bill has won an unprecedented series of individual awards as he hasn’t been mentioned by him. In 2009, the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player award was renamed after the two-time Hall of Famer as the “Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award”.
But despite all the victories, Bill’s understanding of wrestling is what lit up his life. From boycotting a 1961 exhibition game to expose long-tolerated discrimination, to running Mississippi’s first all-inclusive basketball camp in the searing wake of the assassination of Medgar Evans, to decades of activism finally recognized by his receipt of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010. Bill spoke out against injustice with a callous candor that he believed would disrupt the status quo, and with a powerful example that, though never his humble intention, will inspire forever teamwork, selflessness and thoughtful change.
Bill’s wife, Jeannine, and her many friends and family thank you for keeping Bill in your prayers. Maybe you’ll relive one or two of the golden moments he gave us, or remember his signature laugh as he reveled in explaining the real story behind how those moments unfolded. And we hope that each of us can find a new way to act or speak with Bill’s uncompromising, dignified and always constructive commitment to principles. It would be a last and lasting victory for our beloved #6.”
Born in Louisiana in 1934, Russell was not initially considered one of basketball’s top prospects. His first scholarship offer came from the University of San Francisco, a school hardly known for its basketball prowess but which Russell was able to carry to back-to-back national championships in 1955 and 1956. In addition to basketball, Russell was a track star in San Francisco. , competing in particular in the high jump. He won an Olympic gold medal in basketball as captain of the USA team in 1956 before turning professional.
Despite his collegiate excellence, Russell was not the first choice of the 1956 NBA Draft. That honor went to the Duquesne Si Green Wing. 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, and Boston clinched 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. Despite losing 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 would 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 had been drafted by St. Louis, I wouldn’t have been in the NBA,” Russell said in an interview with NBATV. “St. Louis was extremely racist.” Sadly, Russell faced racism throughout his youth in the South and his entire career in Boston, and he went on to become one of the most socially responsible athletes in American history. He attended Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in person and was one of many 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 en route to its final two championships.
Russell left the Celtics after his playing career ended. He then worked as a television host before returning to training with the Seattle Supersonics. He went four games under .500 in four seasons in Seattle before getting fired. He would coach one more season with the Sacramento Kings a decade later, but otherwise remained largely out of public view for the next few decades, living out of his home in Washington.
But he appeared publicly more regularly in his later years, often honored for his notable 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 it many more times, but doing it for Bryant was especially meaningful given the friendship they had forged. When Bryant died in a helicopter crash in 2020, Russell wrote an emotional social media post remembering the legend. Bryant may have played for the rival Lakers, but Russell has frequently made himself available to modern players seeking advice.
Many sought him out, because above all else Russell was on the court, he was the sport’s biggest winner. He’s only lost two playoffs in his entire career. He has never once lost a win-win match. Not in college. Not at the Olympics. Not in the NBA. He won all 21 games he played. Russell came out big when it mattered most, both on and off the pitch, and that’s what he will always be remembered for.