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Bill Russell, Legend and Icon, Dies at 88

President Obama
Bill Russell wearing a Boston Celtics jacket in 1957.
Credit: John G. Zimmerman for Sports Illustrated /Wikimedia Commons

By Stacy Brown

Bill Russell, one of professional basketball’s greatest players and the sport’s most crowned champion, has died at the age of 88.

Russell, the legendary Boston Celtics center who won 11 NBA titles as a player and two as a player-coach for the storied franchise, died “peacefully” with his wife, Jeannine, at his side, according to a statement issued Sunday.

“But 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, 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, who won five NBA Most Valuable Player awards, was given the Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2011.

He made the All-Star team in 12 of the 13 years he played in the league. The prolific big man finished his career in 1969 with 21,620 career rebounds, an average of 22.5 per game, and led the league in rebounding four times.

He grabbed 51 rebounds in one game, 49 in two others, and had a dozen consecutive seasons of 1,000 or more rebounds.

Many viewed Russell as the greatest player in NBA history before Michael Jordan and LeBron James came to the league.

Born in Monroe, Louisiana, in 1934, Russell’s family moved to the San Francisco area, where he attended McClymonds High School in Oakland.

He earned a scholarship to play at the University of San Francisco and helped lead the school to an astounding 56 straight wins and back-to-back NCAA titles.

In 1974, Russell earned election to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. In 1980, he was voted Greatest Player in the History of the NBA by the Professional Basketball Writers Association of America.

He was part of both the NBA’s 50th and the 75th anniversary teams in 1996 and 2021.

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