Bill Russell, a basketball legend who won a record 11 NBA championships, has died at the age of 88.

 Bill Russell, a basketball legend who won a record 11 NBA championships, has died at the age of 88.

Bill Russell, a basketball legend who won a record 11 NBA championships, has died at the age of 88.

In retrospect, I was essentially bringing the vertical game to a previously horizontal game."


And the outcomes were convincing.


Russell guided San Francisco to NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956. He also led the United States to an Olympic gold medal in 1956.


Then came the start of a historic NBA run.



In 1967, Russell tries to swat away a pass by Fred Crawford of the New York Knicks.

Maloof, A.E.

In Boston, there is love and hate.

From 1957 to 1969, the Celtics won 11 championships, including eight in a row. There were many great players, including Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones, and many more.


But none compare to Russell.


He was the link between all 11 championships, a fierce competitor who would frequently vomit before games.


Despite his success, he had a strained relationship with the city in which he played.


Russell didn't trust some of Boston's white fans, who would applaud the team's victory but then complain that it had too many Black players. Former teammate Heinsohn recalled in a Boston Globe documentary how the Boston suburb of Reading, where Russell lived, held a dinner to honor him.


"He was so taken aback by this honor bestowed upon him," Heinsohn said, "that he broke down, started crying, and said he wished he could live in Reading for the rest of his life."


People broke into Russell's house, destroyed trophies, defecated in his bed, and smeared excrement on the walls not long after.


His interactions with those outside the Celtics locker room deteriorated. He developed a reputation for being grumpy. He refused to sign autographs in order to weed out "bad" fans.


"Russell was the type who had doubts about people's intentions," Basketball Network's Stephen Beslic wrote in 2020 "and he didn't want anyone taking advantage of his popularity. That's why he came up with a simple solution: you won't get anything signed by him, but you will get 15 minutes of coffee time with one of the game's all-time greats."


"If a fan doesn't want to talk to you," Russell explained, "he's going to sell that autograph anyway."


However, he adores his team.

Russell, on the other hand, adored the Celtics and the progressive white men who ran the team — owner Walter Brown and legendary head coach Red Auerbach. The Celtics were the first NBA team to have an all-Black starting lineup during the dynasty years.


And more history in 1966.


When Auerbach retired, he named Russell as his replacement, making him the NBA's first Black head coach. Russell said he didn't care because it was historic. He simply thought he was the best candidate for the job.


As recounted in the 2013 NBA-TV documentary Mr. Russell's House, a reporter questioned that.


"Can you do the job impartially, without any racial prejudice in reverse, as the first Negro coach of a major league sport?" the reporter inquired.


"Yes," Russell confirmed "because respect is the most important factor Respect a man for his ability in basketball. Period."


Away from the court

Russell was fully engaged in the civil rights movement during the Celtics' dynasty.


He sat in the front row of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., for Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic "I Have a Dream" speech. He and his Black teammates boycotted a game in Kentucky after a restaurant refused to serve them. He stood in solidarity with boxer Muhammad Ali, who refused to serve in the military during the Vietnam War.


Russell also wrote a book called Go Up For Glory.



Russell speaks at a civil rights summit at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, in 2014. Russell frequently spoke out about civil rights issues during and after his NBA career.

Getty Images/Ricardo B. Brazziell

"It really changed how athletes wrote about themselves and society," said Damian Thomas, curator of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture's sports exhibition.


He describes the exhibit's book as a transformational autobiography.


"Rather than just sticking to sports," Thomas explained, "we began to see athletes offer opinions about race, politics, and other such things."


Russell's advocacy for civil rights and fight against racism never stopped. Russell noted in a 2020 Slam magazine essay that George Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis police that year, was "yet another life stolen by a country broken by prejudice and bigotry."


"However, what can we do about it?" Russell penned a letter. "Racism cannot be shaken out of the fabric of society because, like dust from a rug, it dissipates into the air for a moment before settling back down, becoming thicker with time.


"Police reform is a start, but it is insufficient. We must dismantle broken systems and begin again. We must make our voices heard through a variety of organizations and tactics. We must demand that America purchase a new rug."



In February 2011, then-President Barack Obama bestows the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Russell at the White House.

Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla

A timeless chuckle

Russell lived a long life that was both profound and chaotic at times.


Russell had a falling out with longtime friend and fierce competitor Wilt Chamberlain — he disliked the term "rival" to describe their on-court relationship. They reconciled later in life. Russell also reconciled his feelings about Boston to some extent.


Russell had one constant throughout it all: laughter.


A timeless laugh. As recognizable as the image of Bill Russell in his number six Celtics jersey, rising above the court to swat an opponent's shot. Red Auerbach was quoted as saying that Bill Russell's laugh was one of the only things that could make him stop coaching.


Many people, however, adored the high-pitched cackle. It also bore the imprint of another Katie Russell lesson. His mother advised him to never hold back. On any subject


Her son listened well once more.

Bill Russell, a legendary basketball player, died at the age of 88. His verified Twitter account made the announcement.


Russell has won more NBA championships than any other player in history. All eleven played for the Boston Celtics. He changed the game by making shot-blocking a key component of defense as a five-time league MVP. And he was a Black athlete who spoke out against racial injustice when it was less prevalent than it is now.


Fighting for something since childhood

It helps to remember a parent's lesson to understand this man and superlative athlete.


Bill Russell was 9 years old when he was outside his Oakland, California, projects apartment. Five boys ran by, one of whom slapped him across the face. He and his mother went in search of the group, and when they found them, young Bill expected his mother to be punished. Instead, Katie Russell advised fighting them one by one. He won two games and lost three. Russell stated in a 2013 interview for the Civil Rights History Project that his mother's message to her tearful son changed his life.


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"'Don't cry,' she says." Russell explained. "'You did exactly what you were supposed to do. It makes no difference whether you won or lost. What matters is that you defended yourself. And that is something you must always do.'"


Russell certainly did on the basketball court, where he came late to the game but ended up revolutionizing it.



In 1961, Russell soars to grab a rebound against the Detroit Pistons. Russell's high-flying defense and prolific shot-blocking changed the game. "Basically, what I was doing," he explained, "was bringing the vertical game to a horizontal game."

AP

Taking the game with him and elevating it "Krebs from around the corner. Russell blocked his outside shot. Russell has now made three big plays in the final three minutes of the game. Russell blocks Barnett's entrance."


Russell was a shot-blocking menace in this NBA Finals game by 1963, which represented a sea change in the game.


The adage has always been, "No good defensive player ever leaves his feet." His coach at the University of San Francisco believed this in the 1950s. Russell, however, did not. He was also a high jumper in track and field, so it seemed natural for him to try to improve in basketball as well.


"My first varsity game [at USF] was against [University of] Cal Berkeley," Russell said in 2013. "Their center was an All-American in the preseason. The game begins, and I block the first five shots he takes. Nobody in the building had ever seen anything like it. So they called a timeout to talk about what I was doing. When we get into our huddle, my coach tells me, 'You can't play defense like that.' On the sidelines, he demonstrated how he wanted me to play defense. I go back out and try it again, and the guy scores three layups in a row. And I said, "This makes no sense." So I resumed playing the way I knew how."

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