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Bill Russell, NBA great and Celtics legend, dies at 88

By JIMMY GOLEN

BOSTON (AP) — Bill Russell redefined the way basketball is played and then changed the way sports are viewed in a racially divided country.

The most prolific winner in NBA history, Russell walked with Martin Luther King Jr., stood with Muhammad Ali and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. A centerpiece of the Boston Celtics dynasty that won 11 championships in 13 years, Russell won his last two NBA titles as a player-coach – the first black coach in any major American sport.

Russell died Sunday at the age of 88, with his wife, Jeannine, by his side, his family said in a statement posted on social media. No cause of death was immediately available; Russell, who lived in the Seattle area, was not well enough to present the NBA Finals MVP trophy in June due to a long illness.

“We hope each of us can find a new way to act or speak with Bill’s uncompromising, dignified and always constructive commitment to principles,” the family said. “It would be a last and lasting victory for our beloved No. 6.”

A Hall of Famer, five-time Most Valuable Player and 12-time All-Star, Russell was voted the greatest player in NBA history in 1980 by basketball writers. He remains the sport’s most decorated champion – he also won two college titles and an Olympic gold medal – and an archetype of selflessness who won with defense and rebounding while others racked up totals seers.

Often that meant Wilt Chamberlain, Russell’s only worthy rival of the era and his main competition for rebounds, MVP trophies and bar arguments over who was the best. Chamberlain, who died in 1999 at age 63, had twice as many points, four MVP trophies and is the only person in league history to grab more rebounds than Russell – 23,924 to 21,620.

But Russell dominated in the one stat that mattered to him: 11 championships to two.

“Bill Russell was the greatest champion of any team sport,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said. More importantly, he added, “Bill represented something much bigger than sport: the values ​​of equality, respect and inclusion that he ingrained in our league’s DNA.”

Reactions poured in on Sunday, from Obama to Michael Jordan, from Magic Johnson to Boston Mayor Michelle Wu.

“Today we lost a giant,” Obama said. “As great as Bill Russell is, his legacy soars much higher – both as a player and as a person. Perhaps more than anyone, Bill knew what it took to win and what it took to lead.

A native of Louisiana, Russell also left a lasting mark as a black athlete in a city — and country — where running is often a flashpoint. He was at the March on Washington in 1963, when King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, and he supported Ali when the boxer was pilloried for refusing to be inducted into military service.

In 2011, Obama awarded Russell the Medal of Freedom alongside Congressman John Lewis, billionaire investor Warren Buffett, then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel and baseball great Stan Musial.

“To be the greatest champion of your sport, to revolutionize the way the game is played and to be a leader of society all at once seems unthinkable,” the Celtics said on Sunday. “But that’s who Bill Russell was.”

Russell said growing up in the segregated South and later in California, his parents instilled in him the calm confidence that allowed him to shrug off racist taunts.

“Years later people asked me what I had to go through,” Russell said in 2008. “Unfortunately, or fortunately, I never went through anything. From my first moment of life, I had the idea that my mother and my father loved me. It was Russell’s mother telling him to disregard comments from anyone who might see him play in the yard.

“Whatever they say, good or bad, they don’t know you,” he recalls. “They are battling their own demons.”

But it was Jackie Robinson who gave Russell a roadmap for tackling racism in his sport: “Jackie was a hero for us. He always behaved like a man. He showed me the way to be a man in professional sports.

The feeling was mutual, Russell learned, when Robinson’s widow Rachel called and asked him to be a pallbearer to her husband’s funeral in 1972.

“She hung up the phone and I was like, ‘How do you become a hero for Jackie Robinson? “, Russell said. “I was so flattered.

William Felton Russell was born on February 12, 1934 in Monroe, Louisiana. He was a child when his family moved to the West Coast and he went to high school in Oakland, California and then to the University of San Francisco. He led the Dons to NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956 and won a gold medal in 1956 at the Melbourne Olympics in Australia.

Celtics coach and general manager Red Auerbach coveted Russell so much that he made a trade to the St. Louis Hawks for the second pick in the draft. He promised the Rochester Royals, who owned the No. 1 pick, a lucrative visit from the Ice Capades, who were also managed by Celtics owner Walter Brown.

Still, Russell arrived in Boston to complain that he wasn’t that good. “People were saying it was a useless draft pick, wasted money,” he recalled. “They said, ‘He’s no good. All he can do is block shots and rebound. And Red said, “That’s enough.”

The Celtics also picked up Tommy Heinsohn and KC Jones, Russell’s college teammate, in the same draft. Although Russell joined the team late because he was leading the United States to Olympic gold, Boston finished the regular season with the league’s best record.

The Celtics won the NBA championship — their first of 17 — in Game 7 of double overtime against Bob Pettit’s St. Louis Hawks. Russell won his first MVP award the following season, but the Hawks won the title in a Finals rematch. The Celtics won it all again in 1959, beginning an unprecedented streak of eight consecutive NBA crowns.

A 6-foot-10 center, Russell has never averaged more than 18.9 points in his 13 seasons, producing more rebounds than points each year. For 10 seasons, he averaged over 20 rebounds. He once had 51 rebounds in a game; Chamberlain holds the record with 55.

Auerbach retired after winning the 1966 title, and Russell became the player-coach – the first black head coach in NBA history, and nearly a decade before Frank Robinson took control of Cleveland in the American Baseball League. Boston’s title streak ended with a loss to Chamberlain and the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Division Finals.

Russell led the Celtics back to titles in 1968 and 1969, winning a seven-game playoff series each time over Chamberlain. Russell retired after the 1969 Finals, returning for a relatively successful – but unsatisfying – four-year stint as Seattle SuperSonics coach and general manager and a less successful half-season as Sacramento Kings coach. .

Russell’s No. 6 jersey was retired by the Celtics in 1972. He earned spots on the NBA’s 25th Anniversary All-Time Team in 1970, 35th Anniversary Team in 1980, and Team of the 75th anniversary. In 1996, he was hailed as one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players.

In 2009, the NBA Finals MVP trophy was named in his honor. (Russell has never won this honor, as it was first awarded in 1969.) He has presented his namesake trophy for many years, most recently in 2019 to Kawhi Leonard; Russell wasn’t there in 2020 due to the NBA bubble nor in 2021 due to COVID-19 concerns.

In 2013, a statue was unveiled in Russell Town Hall Square in Boston, surrounded by granite blocks with quotes about leadership and character. Russell was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975 but did not attend the ceremony, saying he should not have been the first African-American elected. (Chuck Cooper, the NBA’s first black player, was his choice.)

In 2019, Russell accepted his Hall of Fame ring at a private gathering.

“I thought others before me should have had this honor,” he tweeted. “It’s good to see progress.”

But for Jordan, Russell was alone.

“Bill Russell was a trailblazer – as a player, as a champion, as the NBA’s first black head coach and as an activist,” said the former Chicago Bulls star and current majority owner. Charlotte Hornets. “He paved the way and set an example for all the black players who came into the league after him, including me. The world has lost a legend.

Russell’s family said arrangements for the memorial service will be announced in the coming days.

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