11-Time NBA Champion Bill Russell Dead at 88

Bill Russell, the cornerstone of the Boston Celtics dynasty that captured 11 NBA championships in 13 years — including 8 in a row — died peacefully in his home on Sunday with his wife at his side. He was 88.


Beginning in 1956 at the University of San Francisco, Russell had the most incredible career of anyone in any team sport. During the next 15 years, he would win two NCAA championships, an Olympic gold medal, be named to 12 NBA all-star teams, and win 11 professional championships.

One eye-popping statistic speaks to who Bill Russell was: In 30 elimination games at the college, pro, and Olympic levels, Russell was a staggering 28-2.


NBA commissioner Adam Silver called Russell “the greatest champion in all of team sports” in a statement Sunday.

“I cherished my friendship with Bill and was thrilled when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 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,” Silver said.

A five-time MVP and 12-time All-Star, Russell was an uncanny shot blocker who revolutionized NBA defensive concepts. He finished with 21,620 career rebounds — an average of 22.5 per game — and led the league in rebounding four times. He had 51 rebounds in one game and 49 in two others and posted 12 straight seasons with 1,000 or more rebounds. Russell also averaged 15.1 points and 4.3 assists per game over his career.


Russell was also a strong advocate for civil rights and his courage off the field was, at times, otherworldly. He confronted racism at a time when doing so was dangerous to a black man’s health.

Yahoo Sports:

Russell was never just a basketball player; in airports, he often replied, “No,” when asked if he was. Everywhere, Russell stood up against inequality. Once, in Marion, Indiana, Russell was presented with the key to the city. Later that same night, Russell was refused service at a local restaurant. He immediately drove to the mayor’s house and gave back the key.

Few athletes were as outspoken as Russell on controversial subjects. He fought back against the racism he dealt with in Boston. He criticized the NBA for what he saw as quotas on the number of Black players in the league. In 1961, after a restaurant in Lexington, Kentucky, refused to serve some of the Celtics’ Black players before an exhibition game, Russell organized a boycott of the game. In 1975, he declined to attend his Hall of Fame induction, later calling it insulting to all the Black players who were not inducted before him.


Russell revolutionized defense in the NBA. At the time Russell played, the only defense allowed was man-to-man — no zone or any of the hybrid defenses they have today. Russell’s game was intimidation. He was always where the ball was.

Russell was a defensive pioneer. He popularized shot-blocking. “I was an innovator,” Russell told The New York Times. “I started blocking shots although I had never seen a shot blocked before that. The first time I did that in a game, my coach called timeout and said, ‘No good defensive player ever leaves his feet.’ ” Russell was a master of tip-blocking, tapping shots to his teammates to ignite fast breaks instead of swatting shots into the stands.

Much of what defines today’s great defensive players began with Russell. His ability to slide across the lane to provide help defense. His ability to alter shots. Said Auerbach: “He put a whole new sound in [the] game. The sound of footsteps.”

Russell’s titanic contests against Wilt Chamberlain when Wilt played for the Philadelphia/San Francisco Warriors, the Philadelphia 76ers, and the Los Angeles Lakers are legendary. The two dominant players of their era never failed to put on a show and it wasn’t until the Magic Johnson/Larry Byrd rivalry a decade later that any games got close to the intensity generated by Chamberlain/Russell.


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Was Russell the best ever? By some measures, yes. He won more team championships than Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant. But all three men played their best games in different eras. Russell won more championships but the competition when Jordan and Bryant played was a lot tougher. And the game itself evolved — largely thanks to Russell — making the feats by Jordan and Bryant even more amazing.

What’s important is that Bill Russell — as a man and an athlete — transcended sports and made his mark on America as few had before him.


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