NBA legend Bill Russell, the former Boston Celtic who won 11 championships, died on July 31 at the age of 88. As word of Russell’s death spread via social media, countless friends, fans and fellow athletes paid tribute to the man who not only was a towering presence on the basketball court but also in our nation’s civil rights movement.
One of the basketball legends who followed in Russell’s footsteps, Hall of Famer Michael Jordan (now the owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets), released a statement on Twitter through his team’s account.
“Bill Russell was a pioneer—as a player, as a champion, as the NBA’s first Black head coach, and as an activist,” Jordan said in the post, which included a photo of the pair. “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.”
A statement from Hornets Chairman Michael Jordan on the passing of NBA legend Bill Russell. pic.twitter.com/RdYcnuCrmb
— Charlotte Hornets (@hornets) July 31, 2022
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar shared his early reaction to the news of Russell’s death, calling him “my friend, my mentor, my role model.”
My thoughts about Bill Russell passing away…. I am working on an deeper thought provoking article tonight as I process what just happened. pic.twitter.com/M69pXNkaC0
— Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (@kaj33) August 1, 2022
Russell began making his mark on history with his outstanding skill on the basketball court. The 6 feet, 10 inches tall center was a five-time Most Valuable Player, a 12-time NBA All-Star, a two-time college national champion, and an Olympic Gold Medal winner.
The Boston Celtics paid tribute to their former player and coach on social media, recognizing his status as “the greatest champion in your sport,” a revolutionary in the game, and a “societal leader.”
“Bill Russell’s DNA is woven through every element of the Celtics organization,” the team continued in the 4-tweet thread conversation.
To be the greatest champion in your sport, to revolutionize the way the game is played, and to be a societal leader all at once seems unthinkable, but that is who Bill Russell was. (1/4) pic.twitter.com/K0Ue0hKiLs
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) July 31, 2022
But, it was Russell’s efforts beyond his playing days that made him a pioneering force for the Black community in a time when the civil rights movement was taking the national stage.
In 1961, when two Black teammates on the Celtics were refused service at a Kentucky restaurant before a pre-season game, Russell relayed the details to the team’s coach and the team decided to boycott the game, according to a report by NPR.
He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington and was in attendance for the “I have a dream” speech. He joined a coalition of Black athletes who supported Muhammed Ali when the boxer refused to fight in the Vietnam War, and Russell opened an integrated basketball camp in Jackson, Mississippi, following the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, according to The New York Times.
Starting in 1966, Russell won two of his NBA championships as the nation’s first Black head coach in an American sports league, all while still keeping his place on the court as the center.
In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Upon news of Russell’s death, the former president shared his condolences and reflected on the champion’s life.
“For decades, Bill endured insults and vandalism, but never let it stop him from speaking up for what’s right,” he shared on his Twitter account. “I learned so much from the way he played, the way he coached, and the way he lived his life.”
Today, we lost a giant.
As tall as Bill Russell stood, his legacy rises far higher—both as a player and as a person.
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) July 31, 2022
The Russell family thanked fans and friends via Twitter for their support of the NBA legend over the years and said arrangements for a memorial service “will be announced soon.”