Bill Russell, an 11-Time NBA Champion Dies at 88

Eastern Conference Western Conference during 2014 NBA All-Star game at the Smoothie King Center on February 16, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.

Bill Russell, an 11-Time NBA Champion Dies at 88

Bill Russell, an 11-time NBA champion who grew up in the Bay Area and won two NCAA Tournament Championships at the University of San Francisco (USF), died peacefully on Sunday at the age of 88.

Russell will be remembered as one of the greatest basketball players of all time and a pivotal figure in the civil rights movement.

Bill Russell, an 11-Time NBA Champion Dies at 88
Eastern Conference Western Conference during 2014 NBA All-Star game at the Smoothie King Center on February 16, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.

He did not follow the typical path to sports stardom. Stars like LeBron James are defined as transcendent generational talents from an early age, but colleges ignored Russell, who grew up in Oakland and moved to the city with his family when he was eight. He only played varsity basketball his senior year at McClymonds High School after spending his junior year on the JV team.

That all changed at the University of South Florida, the only school to offer him a scholarship, where he competed as a high jumper and became the starting center under head coach Phil Woolpert after a successful freshman year. He led a 14-7 team his sophomore year, then led the Dons to back-to-back national championships in 1955 and 1956, averaging more than 20 points and 20 rebounds per game in each of those seasons.

“Bill Russell helped put USF on the map in the 1950s,” said Rev. Paul J. Fitzgerald, current president of the university. “We are grateful not only for his numerous contributions to our community, the athletic department, and Jesuit education, but also for his courage and commitment to advancing justice on and off the court.”

The St. Louis Hawks selected him with the second overall pick in the 1956 NBA Draft, owing to his credentials. He was quickly traded to the Boston Celtics, where he established himself as one of the all-time great professional basketball players.

Russell’s NBA career didn’t begin until midway through the 1956-57 season, when he chose to remain an amateur in order to compete in the Melbourne Olympics. There, he was instrumental in leading the United States men’s basketball team to a gold medal.

 

In his first playoff game with the Celtics, he grabbed 31 rebounds in a win over the Syracuse Royals in the Eastern Division Finals. And in a winner-take-all NBA Finals Game 7 against St. Louis, he grabbed 32 rebounds as the Celtics won their first championship by a two-point double overtime margin.

 

Russell quickly became synonymous with winning in Boston, despite facing racial abuse from fans. Despite defeating the Celtics in the 1957 Finals, Boston went on to win the next eight titles. The Celtics defeated St. Louis in seven games again in 1960, and while the 122-103 victory in the decisive game did not require two overtimes as it did in 1957, Russell racked up 35 rebounds.

 

Russell’s championship performances were legendary throughout his career; he had 31 points and 38 rebounds in Game 5 of the 1961 Finals, securing another title over the Hawks. In the 1962 NBA Finals, the Celtics faced the Los Angeles Lakers for the first time, and Russell collected 40 rebounds, matching his own single-game NBA Finals record, in a Game 7 overtime victory. In a seven-game series against the Lakers in 1966, he led the Celtics to a 95-93 victory with 25 points and a game-high 32 rebounds.

 

The Philadelphia 76ers and longtime rival Wilt Chamberlain ended Boston’s dominance in 1967, the first of Russell’s three seasons as a player coach. Only Buddy Jeannette of the 1947-48 Baltimore Bullets, another player-coach, has led his team to a championship; Russell did it in both of his final two seasons. Even though the Vietnam War and other off-court issues distracted Russell during his final season, he led the Celtics to a seven-game NBA Finals victory over the Lakers, combining with John Havlicek. Russell had 26 rebounds in his final professional game, a 108-106 road win that secured Boston’s place as the first team to win the NBA Finals after losing the first two games.

Russell abruptly retired from both playing and coaching following the 1969 World Series. While he coached the Seattle SuperSonics for four years in the 1970s and dabbled in broadcasting, he was most active in politics after his career. Racism was a recurring theme in Russell’s life, from his family’s decision to relocate from Monroe, Louisiana to Oakland when he was a child to discriminatory treatment from journalists and fans.
His activism drew the attention of the FBI, who described him as “an arrogant Negro who won’t sign autographs for white children” in a file.

Russell, a prominent member of the Black Power movement, boycotted an exhibition game in Lexington, Kentucky in 1961 after two of his teammates were denied service in a coffee shop. Russell was a prominent figure at the 1967 Cleveland Summit in support of Muhammad Ali’s refusal to participate in the Vietnam War draft.

Russell skipped his own jersey retirement in 1972 and Hall of Fame induction in 1975 due to resentment over his treatment in Boston. He did, however, attend a ceremony in 1999 to re-retire his jersey, 27 years after the original event. The NBA renamed the Finals MVP award the “Bill Russell Award” in 2009, a fitting honor for a man who went 21-0 in winner-take-all games during his collegiate, Olympic, and professional careers.

Russell was regarded as a recluse for much of his post-retirement years, but he did occasionally take to social media in his final years, posting about basketball and his travels. But his most memorable social media contribution came in September 2017, when he posted a photo of himself kneeling in support of protesting NFL players in the days following then-President Donald Trump’s “get that son of a bitch off the field” remarks.

Russell’s three children are William Jr., Jacob, and Karen. They were born during his first marriage to Rose. He married three more times after that. His final marriage was to Jeannine, a competitive golfer 33 years his junior. Jeannine was by his side when he passed away.

 

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