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Barack Obama reacts to the death of Bill Russell


“A champion in many ways that matter.”

Bill Russell, former professional basketball player and head coach of the Boston Celtics, receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama. Russell died Sunday, according to his family. Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News

In 2011, then-President Barack Obama presented the Medal of Freedom to Celtics great Bill Russell.

The Medal of Freedom is an award that, by definition, is given to “a person who has made an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, culture, or other significant public or private efforts”. Few professional athletes, of course, have ever made more meritorious contributions to culture through professional sport than Bill Russell, who made his honor in 2011 particularly poignant.

  • Barack Obama reacts to the death of Bill Russell

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In his comments, Obama noted that people would sometimes approach Russell and ask the 6-foot-9 man if he was a basketball player.

“Amazingly, he gets that more than you think,” Obama joked.

Russell’s answer, however, has always been “no.” He was a man who played basketball. Basketball was what he did, not who he was.

“Bill Russell the man is someone who stood up for the rights and dignity of all men,” Obama said at the time. “He walked with [Martin Luther] King. He stood ready [Muhammad] Ali. When a restaurant refused to serve the Black Celtics, they refused to play in the scheduled game. He endured insults and vandalism, but he continued to focus on making the teammates he loved better players and made success possible for so many who would follow.

“I hope one day on the streets of Boston, children will look up at a statue built not just for Bill Russell the player, but Bill Russell the man.”

Two years later, in 2013, the statue was built, meaning that for the last nine years of his life, Boston children saw a monument to Russell – a man who was a basketball player. Shortly before the statue’s unveiling, Obama had a glimpse with Russell – a moment that was documented by photographer Pete Souza.

Russell died on Sunday. Obama sent a tweet thread.

“Today we lost a giant,” Obama wrote. “As great as Bill Russell is, his legacy rises much higher, both as a player and as a person.”

Again, Obama noted Russell’s record of activism — that he walked with the likes of King and Ali.

“For decades Bill endured insults and vandalism, but that never stopped him from standing up for what is right,” Obama wrote. “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 looked up to him.

Other political figures and activists have also reached out via social media to offer their memories of Russell, including Bernice King – Martin Luther King’s youngest daughter – as well as Bill Clinton, Billie Jean King and others.

“What a Pioneer”, Bernice King wrote. “…a champion in many ways that matter. Thank you and rest in power, sir.


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