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The Great Bill Russell

Basketball legend Bill Russell, who led the Boston Celtics to eight straight championships, has died.

U.S. Information Agency/National Archives, Washington, D.C.; photograph, Rowland Scherman; Andrew Innerarity—Reuters/Alamy; © Jerry Coli/

Bill Russell, a basketball legend who helped the Boston Celtics win 11 National Basketball Association (NBA) titles, has died. He was 88.

Russell had an incredible career as both a player and a coach. As a student at the University of San Francisco, he led his team to 55 straight wins, won two National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championships, and won a gold medal at the 1956 Olympics. The same year he wowed at the Olympics, Russell was drafted by the Boston Celtics. Playing as a center, he was a defensive whiz and a renowned rebounder. It’s no accident that Russell was on the team during one of the eras when the Celtics dominated the NBA. The Celts won the championship every year between 1959 and 1966. In 1966, Russell became head coach of the Celtics—the first Black head coach in any of the nation’s four major sports leagues. He continued to play until 1969, leading the team to two more championships.

Although he was a hero to many, Russell was also the target of racist attacks. When Russell began his NBA career, racial segregation was legal in the southern United States. In 1961, while in Kentucky for a game, Russell was told he wouldn’t be served at a hotel coffee shop because he was Black. He and four other players informed their coach that they would not play in that night’s game and flew home. 

But life wasn’t necessarily easier in the North. Russell’s house in Massachusetts was burglarized and repeatedly vandalized with racial slurs. 

We’ve got to show our disapproval of this treatment or else [nothing will change],” Russell once said. “We have the same rights and privileges as anyone else and deserve to be treated accordingly.”

A vocal supporter of civil rights, Russell was in attendance when Martin Luther King, Jr., led a famous civil rights protest known as the March on Washington. He also spoke out against school segregation in Boston, which persisted into the 1970s.

Russell spent the later part of his career as a commentator, an author, and a basketball icon. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and many other players who came after Russell have said they consider him to be a hero.

“Bill Russell was a pioneer—as a player, as a champion, as the NBA’s first Black head coach and as an activist,” Michael Jordan wrote after Russell’s death was announced. “The world has lost a legend.”

Did You Know?

President Barack Obama laughs as he places a medal around a smiling Bill Russell’s neck.

United States President Barack Obama presented Bill Russell with the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a ceremony on February 15, 2011.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News

In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Bill Russell with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor given in the United States. The medal of freedom is given to people who have made major contributions to peace, prosperity, and the culture of the United States or the world.

Bill Russell’s Achievements

  • Eleven NBA championships
  • Five NBA Most Valuable Player (MVP) awards
  • Two NCAA championships
  • Selected to play in the NBA All-Star Game 12 times
  • 1963 NBA All-Star Game MVP
  • 21,620 career rebounds (only Wilt Chamberlain had more)
  • First Black head coach in the NBA
  • 2011 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient
  • Elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player in 1975
  • Elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame as a coach in 2021

Archive PL/Alamy, © Kittichai, pixelrobot, Arunas Gabalis/, Cmcnicoll; Animation Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

A Giant in More Ways Than One

Want to know more about Bill Russell?

Bill Russell wearing a Celtics uniform and dribbling a ball

CSU Archives—Everett Collection/Alamy

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