Celtics, basketball, and social justice icon Bill Russell has died

The 11-time champion was 88 years old.

Bill Russell passed away peacefully on Sunday. Barry Chin/Globe Staff/File

Bill Russell, who made history with the Boston Celtics as he led them to 11 championships, has died, his family announced on Sunday. He was 88 years old.

“It is with a very heavy heart we would like to pass along to all of Bill’s friends, fans, & followers: Bill Russell, the most prolific winner in American sports history, passed away peacefully today at age 88, with his wife, Jeannine, by his side,” the statement, posted on Twitter, read.

Russell was born to Charles and Katie Russell in West Monroe, Louisiana, two days before Valentine’s Day in 1934. When Russell was 8, his father moved the family to Oakland, California, where they struggled with poverty. Russell’s mother suddenly died when he was 12, forcing his father to switch jobs in order to be closer to Bill and his siblings.


As Russell grew older, he grew a love for basketball. Hall-of-Fame Lakers center George Mikan was his favorite player as he joined McClymonds High School’s basketball team in Oakland.

Despite leading his team to two state titles, Russell wasn’t highly recruited. He received an offer from the Univesity of San Francisco, joining its basketball team in 1953. Russell and his college teammates constantly dealt with racism in road games during his time in San Francisco, getting denied to enter hotels at points because of their skin color. On the court, Russell led the school to two national titles, with Russell winning the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player Award in 1955.

Celtics coach Red Auerbach made the bold move to acquire Russell in the 1956 NBA Draft. He gave up the Celtics’ star player, Ed Macauley, plus Cliff Hagan to the St. Louis Hawks for Russell, who was the No. 2 pick in the draft.

The Celtics’ trade for Russell, along with the selections of center Tommy Heinsohn and guard K.C. Jones in the 1956 draft, kickstarted one of the most dominant stretches in all of professional sports. Russell helped the Celtics win the first title in the franchise’s history as a rookie in 1957.

Russell won his first Most Valuable Player award in 1958, but the Celtics fell in the NBA Finals to the Hawks. Boston won eight straight titles after that, with Russell winning four MVP awards (1961-63 and 1965) during that stretch. Russell built an on-court rivalry with Warriors and 76ers center Wilt Chamberlain during that time, with the latter often posting better stats but Russell’s Celtics often getting the better hand.


After the Celtics won their eighth in a row in 1966, Auerbach retired and named Russell as his successor. Not only did Russell become a player-coach, he became the first-ever black head coach for a North American professional sports team.

Russell’s Celtics fell short in his first year as coach, losing to Chamberlain’s 76ers in the Eastern Division Finals in 1967. But Russell was a champion again in 1968, leading the Celtics as a player-coach to defeat the Lakers for the fifth time in the NBA Finals.

The Celtics and Lakers met again in the NBA Finals in 1969. After adding Chamberlain, the Lakers were considered favorites in the series. However, Russell’s Celtics squad pulled away with a road victory in Game 7, which was Russell’s final game as a player and a coach with Boston.

Russell scored 15.1 points and grabbed 22.5 rebounds per game over his 13-year career. Several former teammates and opponents have also described Russell as one of, if not the, best defenders in the history of the game, praising his shot-blocking ability.

Perhaps no player in sports history was a better winner than Russell. In addition to his 11 NBA titles and two NCAA titles, he also won a gold medal playing for Team USA in the 1956 Olympics. Russell’s teams were an astonishing 21-0 in elimination games over his career dating back to college.


As Russell led the Celtics to 11 titles, he still dealt with racism in Boston. One of the more notable incidents of racism Russell dealt with while playing for the Celtics came when fans broke into his home in Reading, painting racist graffiti on his walls and defecating on his bed. Incidents like that led Russell to call Boston a “flea market of racism” and he refused to attend the public ceremony for his jersey number retirement in 1972.

Racial incidents such as that, plus his experience as a youth and in college, led Russell to become a civil rights advocate. When Celtics teammates Sam Jones and Satch Sanders were denied entry into a coffee shop in Lexington, Kentucky, during a trip for an exhibition game in 1961, Russell joined them when they decided to leave in protest, boycotting the exhibition game.

Russell joined several prominent African-American athletes at the Cleveland Summit in 1967, which football star Jim Brown organized when Muhammad Ali denied to serve in the Vietnam War after getting drafted.

Russell continued his social justice fight for decades after his playing days ended, spreading awareness of social issues via social media up until his death.

In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Russell with the Presidential Medal of Freedom not just because of his on-court excellence, but also because of his work as a civil rights activist.

The statement put out by Russell’s family announcing his death touched on all of the titles Russell won throughout his career and also put great emphasis on his work as an activist.


“For all the winning, Bill’s understanding of the struggle is what illuminated his life,” the statement read. “From boycotting a 1961 exhibition game to unmask too-long-tolerated discrimination, to leading Mississippi’s first integrated basketball camp in the combustible wake of Medgar Evans’ assassination, to decades of activism ultimately recognized by his receipt of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in [2011], Bill called out injustice with an unforgiving candor that he intended would disrupt the status quo, and with a powerful example that, though never his humble intention, will forever inspire teamwork, selflessness and thoughtful change.”

Russell had two coaching stints following his time with the Celtics, coaching the SuperSonics (1973-77) and the Kings (1987-88). Russell resided in Washington for much of his post-playing career.

In 1999, Russell accepted the Celtics’ invitation to re-retire his number in a public ceremony, in which he received a long standing ovation. The ceremony began with Russell becoming involved in activities with the Celtics and the City of Boston again. Russell was around for much of the Celtics’ run to winning the NBA title in 2008, becoming close with new star Kevin Garnett. A statue of Bill Russell was also installed outside of City Hall in 2013.

The NBA named its Finals MVP award after Russell in 2009 to honor the player who won the most titles in league history.

As Russell’s family thanked those who pray for him and the family, they ask for one thing as people “relive one or two of the golden moments he gave us.”

“We hope each of us can find a new way to act or speak up with Bill’s uncompromising, dignified, and always constructive commitment to principle. That would be one last, and lasting, win for #6.”

Share your favorite Bill Russell moments.

Your name may be published.
Your Neighborhood/Town may be published.
What are your preferred pronouns?

Please select your preferred pronoun so we may correctly refer to your response in an article.
Please enter an email address and/or phone number that we can easily contact you with. We may reach out for more information. It will NOT be published.


This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on Boston.com