NBA legend Bill Russell, an 11-time NBA champion with the Boston Celtics and the first Black head coach in the league, passed away “peacefully” Sunday, according to a family statement from his verified Twitter account. He was 88.
“It is with a very heavy heart we would like to pass along to all of Bill’s friends, fans, & followers,” the statement reads.
“Bill Russell, the most prolific winner in American sports history, passed away peacefully today at age 88, with his wife, Jeannine, by his side. Arrangements for his memorial service will be announced soon.”
In addition to his sporting achievements, Russell was one of sport’s leading civil rights activists and marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. when he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. He also supported iconic boxer Muhammad Ali in his opposition to being drafted into military service.
Former US President Barack Obama took to social media to praise Russell’s contribution to both basketball and society.
“Today, we lost a giant. As tall as Bill Russell stood, his legacy rises far higher — both as a player and as a person,” he said.
“Perhaps more than anyone else, Bill knew what it took to win and what it took to lead. On the court, he was the greatest champion in basketball history. Off of it, he was a civil rights trailblazer — marching with Dr. King and standing with Muhammad Ali.
“For decades, Bill endured insults and vandalism, but never let it stop him from speaking up for what’s right. I learned so much from the way he played, the way he coached, and the way he lived his life. Michelle and I send our love to Bill’s family, and everyone who admired him.”
Russell won 11 championships with the Celtics, including eight straight from 1959 to 1966. He was a five-time NBA MVP and a 12-time All-Star.
As a coach for the Celtics, he led Boston to two titles, becoming the first Black head coach to win an NBA championship.
“Bill’s two state championships in high school offered a glimmer of the incomparable run of pure team accomplishment to come: twice an NCAA champion; captain of a gold-medal-winning US Olympic team; 11 times an NBA champion; and at the helm for two NBA championships as the first black head coach of any North American professional sports team,” the family statement continued.
“Along the way, Bill earned a string of individual awards that stands unprecedented as it went unmentioned by him. In 2009, the award for the NBA Finals most valuable player was renamed after two- time Hall of Famer as the ‘Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award.’