Icon. Legend. Trailblazer. There is no formidable winner in basketball than Bill Russell.
The American hero won 11 NBA titles, two NCAA championships and an Olympic gold medal. To put his trophy-laden career into context, Michael Jordan only won six NBA championships, an NCAA title and two Olympic golds.
“Success is a result of consistent practice of winning skills and actions,” Russell once famously declared. “There is nothing miraculous about the process. There is no luck involved.”
Michael Jordan (R) poses for a portrait with NBA Legend Bill Russell in Chicago, U.S., May 18, 1998. /CFP
A five-time Most Valuable Player, 12-time All-Star and the Presidential Medal of Freedom winner, Russell’s achievement go beyond numbers. During his 13-year career, he not only served as the cornerstone of a Boston Celtics dynasty, but also left a lasting mark as an African American athlete.
A leading voice for social justice, Russell single-handedly changed the course of American sports history by becoming its first Black coach in 1966 and the first Black player inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975.
It is little wonder thus that after news of Russell’s death broke on Sunday, the sporting world and beyond have come together to pay tribute to one of the most important basketball players of all time.
U.S. President Barack Obama awards the Medal of Freedom to Bill Russell during a ceremony at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 14, 2011. /CFP
Jordan led the way by saying Russell was a “pioneer.” “He paved the way and set an example for every Black player who came into the league after him, including me,” Jordan said in a statement. “The world has lost a legend.”
Boston’s former “Big Three” of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen all posted emotional messages on social media. “I can go on all day about what you meant to me,” said Pierce. “I’ll never forget this day we were like kids sitting around a camp fire listening to your stories.”
Lakers great Magic Johnson, another legendary Hall of Famer, added, “Bill Russell was my idol… Despite all of his achievements, he was so humble, a gentle giant, a very intelligent man, and used his voice and platform to fight for Black people.”
Bill Russell (L) is congratulated by Celtics coach Arnold Auerbach after scoring his 10,000th point in the NBA game against the Baltimore Bullets in Boston Garden, U.S., December 12, 1964. /CFP
“He was one of the first athletes on the frontline fighting for social justice, equity, equality, and civil rights. Over the course of our friendship, he always reminded me about making things better in the Black community.”
The comment was echoed by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who stressed that his eulogy “only begin to tell the story of Bill’s immense impact on our league and broader society.”
“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.
Celtics great Bill Russell looks at his statue on Boston’s City Hall Plaza, U.S., November 1, 2013. /CFP
There’s almost no way to measure the huge impact Russell had on basketball and society as a whole, and U.S. President Joe Biden highlighted Russell’s ability to force everybody “to confront hard truths.”
“The promise of America is that we are all created equal and deserve to be treated equally throughout our lives. We’ve never fully lived up to that promise, but Bill Russell made sure we never walked away from it,” Biden said in a statement.
“And on this day, there are generations of Americans who are reflecting on what he meant to them as someone who played for the essential truth that every person is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect.”
Bill Russell holds the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award at AT&T Center in San Antonio, U.S., June 15, 2014. /CFP
Former U.S. President Barack Obama, who awarded Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom, also paid his tribute, saying the world had “lost a giant.”
“Perhaps more than anyone else, Bill knew what it took to win and what it took to lead. On the court, he was the greatest champion in basketball history. Off of it, he was a civil rights trailblazer, marching with Dr. King and standing with Muhammad Ali,” Obama wrote on Twitter.
“For decades, Bill endured insults and vandalism, but never let it stop him from speaking up for what’s right. I learned so much from the way he played, the way he coached, and the way he lived his life.”
Bill Russell stands court side during a tribute in his honor in the second quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Milwaukee Bucks in Boston, U.S., November 1, 2013. /CFP
Bill Russell Key Numbers
Russell was NBA’s Most Valuable Player five times, tying Michael Jordan and beaten only by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who won the award six times.
Russell holds the record for the most NBA championships won with 11 titles during his 13-year career, including eight straight titles from 1959-1966. He also served as a player-coach of the Celtics for his final two titles in 1968 and 1969.
Russell made the All-Star team 12 times. He was named MVP of the All-Star Game in 1963 after notching up 19 points, 24 rebounds and five assists.
Russell averaged 22.5 rebounds per game for his career, taking up the number two spot on the all-time list. He and Wilt Chamberlain are the only NBA players in history to average more than 15 rebounds per game in the playoffs.