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Bill Russell’s career

May 6, 1969: Bill Russell greeted fans after the Celtics won the NBA title.

Bill Brett/Globe staff

May 6, 1969: Bill Russell greeted fans after the Celtics won the NBA title.

When Bill Russell debuted for the Boston Celtics on December 22, 1956, fans knew the team had the centerpiece for the defensive style of play that would eventually yield eleven championships in the next thirteen years. What they couldn’t have known was that Russell would prove as important off the the court as he was on it. He defended personal dignity in the face of institutionalized racism in society as aggressively as he defended the basket on the court. Russell appeared fashionably dressed on television talk shows as his celebrity status grew and transcended his basketball career. Still receiving accolades for his dual role in sport and society, Russell’s notoriously strained relationship with Boston has warmed. The National Basketball Association named its Finals MVP award for him, President Barack Obama recognized him with the Medal of Freedom, and a statue planned for the city will reflect not just the athlete, but the man. -- Lane Turner and Lisa Tuite

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