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What we all should know about NBA legend Bill Russell


11-time NBA champion Bill Russell has passed away. He changed the course of NBA history, but that’s just the beginning. Here’s what every sports fan should know.

The world’s basketball fraternity is honouring one of its true heroes Bill Russell today, who passed away peacefully at the age of 88 next to his wife Jeannine.

Russell is widely considered one of sport’s greatest champions and a key figure in NBA history, guiding his Boston Celtics to 11 titles in 13 seasons from 1956-1969.

But there was much more to the 6’10 centre’s story than his on-court exploits – which included being 21-0 in “winner-take-all games,” spanning his NCAA career at the University of San Francisco, where he won two titles; the 1956 Olympics, where he won a gold medal; and with the Celtics, where he was 10-0 in game sevens.

The man known for his belly laugh, who is immortalised with a bronze statue in Boston’s City Hall, was just as well known for being outspoken on social justice issues. 

He was a renowned civil rights advocate, leading a player protest when Celtics players were denied service at a restaurant in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1961.

The five-time NBA MVP, who also has the NBA Finals MVP named after him, also once joined civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., Cleveland Browns’ Jim Brown and fellow NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1967 as they supported boxer Muhammad Ali after he refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War.

Then more recently, he showed his support for NFL players who kneeled during the national anthem in 2017 by posting a photo of himself kneeling on his Twitter account. 

It’s for acts like this that will forever be felt around the sporting landscape – just ask Michael Jordan, who released the following after hearing the news of Russell’s passing.

“Bill Russell was a pioneer—as a player, as a champion, as the NBA’s first Black head coach and as an activist,” Jordan wrote via the Charlotte Hornets Twitter account.

“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.

“My condolences to his family and may he rest in peace.”

Those sentiments were echoed by numerous prominent figures across social media, including former US president Barrack Obama, NBA legend Magic Johnson and current NBA commissioner Adam Silver.

“Bill stood for something much bigger than sports: the values of equality, respect and inclusion that he stamped into the DNA of our league,” Silver said in a statement.

“At the height of his athletic career, Bill advocated vigorously for civil rights and social justice, a legacy he passed down to generations of NBA players who followed in his footsteps. 

“Through the taunts, threats and unthinkable adversity, Bill rose above it all and remained true to his belief that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity.

“I often called him basketball’s Babe Ruth for how he transcended time. 

“Bill was the ultimate winner and consummate teammate, and his influence on the NBA will be felt forever.”

The Oakland native’s outspokenness and advocacy extended to his relationship with the Basketball Hall of Fame. 

Even though he was inducted in 1975, Russell refused to attend the ceremony because he believed other African Americans deserved the honour first and that there was racism in the selection process. 

It wasn’t until 44 years later, in 2019, that the Presidential Medal of Freedom winner accepted his ring from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame – the same year former NBA forward Chuck Cooper, who became the first African American to play in an NBA game on October 31, 1950, was inducted.

Two years later, Russell was back in Springfield to attend his second induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame as a coach who made history as the NBA’s first African American head coach – leading the Celtics to two titles as player-coach, before stints with the Seattle SuperSonics and Sacramento Kings. 

This event proved to be the last time we saw Russell on the public stage, largely due to health reasons.

But the enormity of his impact had already been made around the world, with his trailblazing ways set to be continually felt for decades to come.

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