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Basketball icon, 11 time NBA champion Bill Russell dies at 88

July 31, 2022 Updated Sun., July 31, 2022 at 9:53 p.m.

Member of the Boston Celtics' 1966 Championship team Bill Russell is honored at halftime of a game between the Boston Celtics and the Miami Heat at TD Garden on April 13, 2016, in Boston.   (Getty Images)
Member of the Boston Celtics' 1966 Championship team Bill Russell is honored at halftime of a game between the Boston Celtics and the Miami Heat at TD Garden on April 13, 2016, in Boston.  (Getty Images)
By Richard Goldstein New York Times

Bill Russell, whose defensive athleticism at center changed the face of pro basketball and propelled the Boston Celtics to 11 NBA championships, the final two when he became the first Black head coach in a major U.S. sports league, died Sunday. He was 88.

His death was announced by his family, who did not say where he died.

When Russell was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975, Red Auerbach, who orchestrated his arrival as a Celtic and coached him on nine championship teams, called him “the single most devastating force in the history of the game.”

He was not alone in that view: In a 1980 poll of basketball writers (long before Michael Jordan and LeBron James entered the scene), Russell was voted nothing less than the greatest player in NBA history.

Russell’s quickness and his uncanny ability to block shots transformed the center position, once a spot for slow and hulking types. His awesome rebounding triggered a Celtic fast break that overwhelmed the rest of the NBA.

Former Sen. Bill Bradley, who faced Russell with the New York Knicks in the 1960s, viewed him as “the smartest player ever to play the game and the epitome of a team leader.”

“At his core, Russell knew that he was different from other players – that he was an innovator and that his very identity depended on dominating the game,” Bradley wrote in reviewing Russell’s remembrances of Auerbach in “Red and Me: My Coach, My Lifelong Friend” (2009) for The New York Times.

In the decades that followed Russell’s retirement in 1969, when flashy moves delighted fans and team play was often an afterthought, his stature was burnished even more, remembered for his ability to enhance the talents of his teammates even as he dominated the action and to do it without bravado: He disdained dunking or gesturing to celebrate his feats.

In those later years, his signature goatee now turned white, Russell reappeared on the court at springtime, presenting the MVP of the NBA championship series with the trophy named for him in 2009.

Russell was remembered as well for his visibility on civil rights issues.

He took part in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and was seated in the front row of the crowd to hear Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. He went to Mississippi after civil rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered and worked with Evers’ brother, Charles, to open an integrated basketball camp in Jackson. He was among a group of prominent Black athletes who supported Muhammad Ali when Ali refused induction into the armed forces during the Vietnam War.

President Barack Obama awarded Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, at the White House in 2011, honoring him as “someone who stood up for the rights and dignity of all men.”

In September 2017, after President Donald Trump’s calling for NFL owners to fire players who were taking 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 those guys know I support them,” he told ESPN.

A much-decorated man

Russell was the ultimate winner. He led the University of San Francisco to NCAA Tournament championships in 1955 and 1956. He won a gold medal with the U.S. Olympic basketball team in 1956. He led the Celtics to eight consecutive NBA titles from 1959 to 1966, far eclipsing the New York Yankees’ five straight World Series victories (1949 to 1953) and the Montreal Canadiens’ five consecutive Stanley Cup championships (1956 to 1960).

He was the NBA’s MVP five times and an All-Star 12 times.

A reedy, towering figure at 6 feet, 10 inches and 220 pounds, Russell was cagey under the basket, able to anticipate an opponent’s shots and gain position for a rebound. And if the ball caromed off the hoop, his tremendous leaping ability almost guaranteed that he’d grab it. He finished his career as the No. 2 rebounder in NBA history, behind his longtime rival Wilt Chamberlain, who had 3 inches on him.

Russell pulled down 21,620 rebounds, an astonishing average of 22.5 per game, with a single-game high of 51 against the Syracuse Nationals (the forerunners of the Philadelphia 76ers) in 1960.

He didn’t have much of a shooting touch, but he scored 14,522 points – many on high-percentage, short left-handed hook shots – for an average of 15.1 per game. His blocked shots – the total is unrecorded, because such records were not kept in his era – altered games.

Beyond the court, Russell could appear aloof. He was bruised by the humiliations his family had faced when he was young in segregated Louisiana and by widespread racism in Boston. When he joined the Celtics in 1956, he was their only Black player. Early in the 1960s, his home in Reading, Massachusetts, was vandalized.

Russell’s primary allegiance was always to his teammates, not to the city of Boston or to the fans. Guarding his privacy and shunning displays of adulation, he refused to sign autographs for fans or even as keepsakes for his teammates. When the Celtics retired his No. 6 in March 1972, the event, at his insistence, was a private ceremony in Boston Garden. He ignored his election to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame – situated squarely in Celtics country, in Springfield, Massachusetts – and refused to attend the induction.

“In each case, my intention was to separate myself from the star’s idea about fans and fans’ ideas about stars,” Russell said in “Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man (1979),” written with Taylor Branch. “I have very little faith in cheers, what they mean and how long they will last, compared with the faith I have in my own love for the game.”

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