Beloved NBA legend Bill Russell has died at the age of 88, his family announced in a statement Sunday. Russell, a civil rights activist who went from championship player to the first black coach of a professional sports team, died at home with his wife by his side.
Russell’s achievements on the court remain unmatched: He is the most prolific winner in the history of professional basketball—racking up 11 championships as a player and player-coach.
But his family made it clear in their statement that it was his impact off the court that was his true legacy.
“For all the winning, Bill’s understanding of the struggle is what illuminated his life,” his family wrote. “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 Evers’ assassination, to decades of activism ultimately recognized by his receipt of the Presidential Medal of Honor in 2010 , 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 hopeful change.”
They called on his fans to follow his example.
“Perhaps you’ll relive one or two of the golden moments he gave us, or recall his trademark laugh as he delighted in explaining the real story behind how those moments unfolded. And 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, ”the wrote him.
“That would be one last, and lasting, win for our beloved #6.”
The sentiment was echoed by Michael Jordan, who was often considered Russell’s spiritual successor in the game.
“Bill Russell was a pioneer — as a player, as a champion, as the NBA’s first Black head coach and as an activist,” Jordan said in a statement. “He paved the way and set an example for every Black player who came into the league after him, including me. The world has lost a legend.”
Russell was born in Monroe, Louisiana, in 1934, in the thick of America’s segregationist era. As families sought better opportunities for work, Russell’s family relocated to California, and he landed at a high school in Oakland. He towered at 6’10 ”but started off as an“ awkward, unremarkable ”center on the school’s basketball team, according to his NBA bio on him. That quickly morphed into an all-star turn while at the University of San Francisco on a scholarship.
After winning gold at the Olympics and joining the Boston Celtics in 1956, Russell became an inimitable figure in the sport, spending his entire playing career in Boston. He helped lead the Celtics to 11 championships in the 1950s and 1960s. In 2009, the NBA named its Finals MVP trophy after him, allowing his name to stand synonymous with winning.
“Bill Russell was the greatest champion in all of team sports,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement Sunday.
From marching with Martin Luther King Jr. to supporting Muhammed Ali, Russell fearlessly campaigned for civil rights and racial justice.
It did not come without blowback. His daughter Karen Russell wrote in a 1987 New York Times column that Russell repeatedly faced racist threats while he played, often coming home to a vandalized or robbed house. It culminated in a column Russell wrote for the Saturday Evening Post condemning the racist attacks, which in turn led to more threatening letters that he reported to the FBI.
But when Russell applied for his FBI file years later, he found the agency he sought help from had repeatedly referred to him as “an arrogant Negro who won’t sign autographs for white children,” his daughter recalled.
Time prevailed in Russell’s favor. President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 for committing to a better world even as he and his family suffered.
“Bill Russell, the man, is someone who stood up for the rights and dignity of all men,” Obama said at the time. “He endured insults and vandalism, but he kept on focusing on making the teammates who he loved better players, and made possible the success of so many who he would follow.”