Bill Russell, whose defensive center athleticism changed the face of professional basketball and propelled the Boston Celtics to 11 NBA championships, the last two when he became the first black head coach in a major American sports league, died on Sunday. He was 88 years old.
His death was announced by his family, who did not specify where he died.
When Russell was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975, Red Auerbach, who orchestrated his arrival as Celtic and coached him to nine Championship teams, called him “the most devastating force in history. Game”.
He wasn’t the only one to think so: In a 1980 poll of basketball writers (long before Michael Jordan and LeBron James hit the scene), Russell was voted no less as the greatest player in NBA history.
Russell’s speed and amazing ability to block shots has transformed the center position, once a place for slow, big guys. His impressive rebound sparked a Celtic fast break that overwhelmed the rest of the NBA
Former Senator Bill Bradley, who faced Russell with the Knicks in the 1960s, considered him “the smartest player to ever play the game and the epitome of a team leader”.
“Deep down, Russell knew he was different from other players – that he was an innovator and that his very identity hinged on dominating the game,” Bradley wrote when reviewing Russell’s recollections of Auerbach in ” Red and Me: My Coach, My Friend for Life” (2009) for The New York Times.
In the decades following Russell’s retirement in 1969, when flashy moves delighted fans and team play was often an afterthought, his stature was even more stellar, known for his ability to enhance talent of his teammates even as he dominated the action, and to do so without bravado: he disdained to dabble or make gestures to celebrate his exploits.
In recent years, his signature goatee having turned white, Russell reappeared on the court in the spring, presenting the NBA Championship Series’ Most Valuable Player with the trophy that bears his name in 2009.
Russell is also remembered for his visibility on civil rights issues.
He participated in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and sat in the front row of the crowd to hear the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. He went to Mississippi after the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers and worked with Evers’ brother Charles to open an integrated basketball camp in Jackson. He was one of a group of prominent black athletes who supported Muhammad Ali when he was refused induction into the armed forces during the Vietnam War.
President Barack Obama presented Russell with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, at the White House in 2011, honoring him as “someone who stood up for the rights and dignity of all men “.
In September 2017, following President Donald J. Trump’s call on NFL owners to fire players who took a knee during the national anthem to protest racial injustice, Russell posted a photo on Twitter in which he posed taking a knee while holding the medal.
“What I wanted was to let these guys know that I had their back,” he told ESPN.
A complete obituary will be published shortly.