(Boston) Bill Russell, an NBA legend who guided the Celtics to 11 championships in 13 years (the last two as the first black coach in major American sport), and who fought alongside Martin Luther King Jr., in human rights activist, died on Sunday. He was 88 years old.
Updated yesterday at 3:37 p.m.
His family shared the news on social media, saying Russell passed away with his wife, Jeannine, at his bedside. The cause of his death was not mentioned in the statement.
A member of the Hall of Fame, five times most valuable player on the circuit and 12 times invited to the All-Star Game, Russell was voted the greatest player in NBA history in 1980 by basketball columnists.
“Bill’s wife, Jeannine, and his many friends and family thank you for keeping Bill in your prayers. Perhaps you will relive one or two of the fantastic moments he gave us, or remember his signature laugh as he savorily explained the real story behind those moments,” the family said.
“We hope that each of us can find a new way to act or speak with Bill’s uncompromising, dignified and always constructive commitment to principle. »
“It would be a last and lasting victory for our beloved #6. »
“The greatest champion of all team sports”
Russell remains the model of the egoless player who won on defense and rebounds, while letting other players score.
The clashes between him and Wilt Chamberlain on the court were fierce – duels you never wanted to miss, in the NBA. Russell also guided the University of San Francisco to the NCAA championship in 1955 and 1956, in addition to winning Olympic gold in 1956.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement that Russell was “the greatest champion of all team sports.”
“Bill represented something much bigger than sport: the values of equality, respect and inclusion that he inscribed in our league’s DNA.
“At the height of his career, Bill was a strong advocate for civil rights and social justice, a legacy he passed on to generations of NBA players who followed in his footsteps,” Silver said.
“Beyond pettiness, threats and unthinkable adversity, Bill rose above it all, remaining true to his belief that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity. »
The Louisiana native was at the March on Washington in 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
He further supported Muhammad Ali when the boxer was pilloried for refusing military service.
In 2011, US President Barack Obama awarded Russell the Medal of Freedom along with Congressman John Lewis, billionaire investor Warren Buffett, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and baseball great Stan Musial.
“Bill Russell stood up for the rights and dignity of all people,” Obama said at the ceremony. He walked with King; he was at Ali’s side. When a restaurant refused to serve black Celtics players, it refused to play in the scheduled game.
“He endured insults and vandalism, but he remained focused on making his teammates better players. He has [aussi] made possible the success of so many who would follow. »
Russell said that as a youth 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 went through,” Russell said in 2008. “Unfortunately, or fortunately, I never ‘went through’ anything. From my first moment of life, I had the notion that my mother and my father loved me. »
It was Russell’s mother who told him to ignore the negative comments.
“Whatever they say, good or bad, they don’t know you,” he recalls. They fight against their own demons. »
Jackie Robinson kind of guided Russell in the fight against racism in his sport.
“Jackie was a hero for us,” Russell said. He always behaved like a man. He showed me how to be a man in professional sports. »
The feeling was mutual, Russell learned, when Robinson’s widow Rachel asked him to be a pallbearer at her husband’s funeral in 1972.
“She hung up 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; he went to high school in Oakland, then to the University of San Francisco.
He led the Dons to NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956 and won Olympic gold in 1956 in Melbourne, with the Americans.
Celtics coach and general manager Red Auerbach coveted Russell so much that he negotiated a trade with the St. Louis Hawks for the second pick in the 1956 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.
However, when he arrived in Boston, Russell was seen as a bad choice.
“People were saying it was a waste of money, wasted money,” Russell said. They said, all he can do is block shots and grab rebounds. Red said, “that’s enough”. »
The Celtics also picked Tommy Heinsohn and Russell’s college teammate KC Jones 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 against Bob Pettit-led St. Louis in second overtime.
Russell won his first Most Valuable Player honor the following season, but the final was won by St. Louis.
The Celtics swept it all again in 1959, beginning an unprecedented run of eight consecutive crowns.
A six-foot-10 center, Russell never averaged more than 18.9 points in his 13 seasons, averaging more rebounds per game than points each year.
For 10 seasons, he averaged over 20 rebounds. He had 51 rebounds in the game, four less than the record held by Chamberlain.
Auerbach retired after winning the 1966 title, and Russell became the player-coach — the NBA’s first black head coach, nearly a decade before Frank Robinson coached baseball’s Cleveland Indians .
The Celtics finished with the second best record in the NBA in 1967, but Chamberlain and the 76ers defeated them in the Eastern Finals.
Russell and the Celtics triumphed the next two years. He retired after the 1969 Finals. He then spent four years as SuperSonics coach and general manager, followed by half a season as Kings coach.
Russell’s No. 6 jersey was retired by the Celtics in 1972.
He had his place in the all-time team of the 25e anniversary of the NBA in 1970, the team of 35e anniversary in 1980 and the 75 teame anniversary.
In 1996, he was hailed as one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players.
In 2009, the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player trophy was named in his honor.
In 2013, a statue of him was unveiled near Boston City Hall, surrounded by granite blocks with quotes about leadership and character.
Russell was inducted into the 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 Temple ring at a private gathering.
“I thought others before me should have had this honor,” he said.
“I cherished my friendship with Bill and was thrilled when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom,” Silver said.
“I’ve often called him the Babe Ruth of basketball for the way he transcended time. Bill was the ultimate winner and an accomplished teammate, and his influence on the NBA will be felt forever.
“We extend our most sincere condolences to his wife Jeannine, his family and his many friends. »
His family said arrangements for Russell’s funeral service will be announced in the coming days.