Bill Russell, the legendary Celtics center who was the cornerstone of basketball’s greatest dynasty and an exemplar of racial harmony and progress, died Sunday at age 88, his family announced on Twitter.
His wife, Jeannine, was at his side, according to the announcement, which did not say where Mr. Russell died or disclose a cause.
“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,” the Celtics said in a statement. “Bill was a champion unlike any other in the history of team sports — an 11-time NBA champion, including winning eight consecutive titles, a five-time MVP, an Olympic gold medalist, and the NBA’s first Black head coach.”
Mr. Russell, who played for two national championship varsities at the University of San Francisco and who captained the US team that won the Olympic gold medal at the 1956 Games, was Boston’s imposing man in the middle for an unsurpassed string of National Basketball Association titles that made the Celtics the league’s most feared and admired club. “The Yankees won 26 championships,” Mr. Russell once observed. “What did it take them, 100 years?”
The Celtics claimed 11 titles between 1957 and 1969, and their championship constant was the goateed Mr. Russell, the gap-toothed, cackling “eagle with a beard” whose flair for invention and intimidation was unmatched. “Russ revolutionized basketball and he was the man who made us go,” said Bob Cousy, the team’s Hall of Fame playmaker. “Without him, we wouldn’t have won a championship.”
Only Montreal Canadiens forward Henri Richard won as many for a franchise in a North American league as did Mr. Russell, who was basketball’s first African American superstar and the first in any sport in Boston, as well as a five-time Most Valuable Player and 12-time All-Star and the Celtics’ player-coach for his final three seasons.
“As tall as Bill Russell stood, his legacy rises far higher — both as a player and as a person,” former president Barack Obama tweeted. “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. 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.”
His front-and-center prominence made him both an icon and an irritant in a city that was unaccustomed to a visible and vocal Black man and that was less than welcoming to the centerpiece of its most successful sports team. His home in suburban Reading was vandalized by intruders who destroyed his trophies, painted racial slurs on the walls, and defecated in the beds.
Mr. Russell arrived in Boston, which he once called “a flea market of racism,” at a time when the city still was a collection of tribal white neighborhoods whose residents were suspicious of outsiders. “I had never been in a city more involved with finding new ways to dismiss, ignore, or look down on other people,” Mr. Russell wrote in “Second Wind,” whose subtitle was “The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man.”
Decades later Cousy wrote Mr. Russell a letter saying that he should have been more supportive to his teammate during that time. “It was my responsibility to reach out to you and hopefully share the pain that you had during that period,” Cousy acknowledged.
Mr. Russell, whose parents had been harassed in Louisiana, was sensitive to racist treatment. “The white cops in Oakland stopped me on the streets all the time, grilled me and routinely called me [n-word],” he reminisced. His Black teammates of the University of San Francisco were turned away at an Oklahoma City hotel, and, when Mr. Russell toured with his fellow NBA All-Stars in 1958, the Black players were refused rooms in North Carolina.
“It stood out, a wall which understanding cannot penetrate,” Mr. Russell wrote in “Go Up For Glory.” “You are a Negro. You are less. It covers every area. A living, smarting, hurting, smelly, greasy substance which covered you.”
Yet Mr. Russell, who was in the prime of his career during the civil rights movement of the ’60s, was a role model for African Americans who appreciated both his athletic prowess and his unabashed candor on social issues at a time when outspoken Black men often were considered “uppity” or ungrateful.
“It was the perfect time for his kind of man, a man who would step out, not be afraid to say what he thought, what he believed in, and to also provide some direction for a lot of people, not only in the sports world,” said teammate Tom Sanders, who later coached the Celtics.
Mr. Russell, who believed that “my citizenship isn’t a gift, it’s a birthright,” refused to accept second-class status when he was out of uniform. “A man without integrity, belief, or self-respect is not a man,” he said. “And a man who won’t express his convictions has no convictions.”
Mr. Russell’s independence, perceived by many as aloofness, made for a remote relationship with Boston’s predominantly white fans, and his refusal to scribble his name was mentioned in his FBI file, which referred to him as “an arrogant Negro who won’t sign autographs for white children.”
While Mr. Russell would admit to having a “grade A glower, which has a big batch of smoldering Black Panther, a touch of Lord High Executioner, and angry Cyclops mixed together, with just a dash of the old Sonny Liston,” his Celtics confreres found him exceptionally engaging. “He was outgoing, gregarious, funny,” said Cousy.
Despite the city’s racial friction, its basketball team during Mr. Russell’s tenure was a model of progress. The Celtics, which in 1950 had been the first club to draft an African American, also was the first to start five Black players in the ’60s and, in Mr. Russell, to have a Black coach.
“I never thought I’d live to see the day when the water would run off a white man onto a Black man and the water would run off a Black man onto a white man,” Mr. Russell’s grandfather Jake, a former farmer and drayman, marveled when he observed Sam Jones and John Havlicek showering next to each other in the Celtics dressing room.
William Felton Russell, who was born in West Monroe, La., on Feb. 12, 1934, was a son of the segregated South who moved with his family to California when he was 8 and who lived in public housing. He was a skinny and ungainly athlete who was cut from his junior high team and had to share a uniform as the last player picked for the junior varsity squad at McClymonds High School in West Oakland. “I was an easily forgettable high school player,” he observed.
Despite his extraordinary leaping ability (“I could kick the net and touch the top of the backboard”) and his knack for rebounding, no college except San Francisco across the Bay offered him a scholarship. But Russell and K.C. Jones, his future Olympic and Celtics teammate, led the Dons to the 1955 and 1956 NCAA titles, winning 60 straight games along the way.
Celtics coach Red Auerbach, whose club had never made an NBA final, saw in Mr. Russell the missing piece to a championship team. “I had scorers, guys who could put the ball in the hole, but you can’t win without the ball,” he said. “I needed a guy to get me the ball.”
So Auerbach traded All-Star center Ed Macauley and the rights to draftee Cliff Hagan to St. Louis for the second overall pick in the 1956 draft, even though Mr. Russell’s Olympic duties would make him unavailable for the season’s first two months.
When he returned from Melbourne with his gold medal and joined the Celtics as their only Black player, Mr. Russell, who immediately established his own air rights inside the league’s arenas, redefined both his position and the sport. “I introduced the vertical game to basketball,” he said.
Mr. Russell, who stood precisely 6 feet, 9 and 13/16ths inches, was an aquiline and angular raptor who unnerved opponents even when they couldn’t see him. “He came out of nowhere,” Johnny Most, the Celtics legendary radio announcer, would shout after Mr. Russell had swatted away a rival’s shot.
His gift for defending and rebounding allowed his green-clad colleagues to run and gun at the other end of the floor. “The guy was incredible,” said Havlicek. “No one won in this town like he did. And make no mistake, it was all because of him. We all knew that.”
So did Auerbach, who understood that Mr. Russell, whose competitive tension made him vomit before games, needed no external motivation. If the coach wanted to criticize him, he did it by osmosis, by yelling at Tom Heinsohn, his designated whipping boy. “He’d say, ‘Tommy, you gotta do this, Tommy you gotta do that — and that goes for you, too, Russell’,” recalled Heinsohn, who succeeded Mr. Russell as coach.
Mr. Russell’s professionalism, passion, and pride — Heinsohn said that he had “a neurotic need to win” — were such that Auerbach was comfortable letting him follow his own path. “Any time he found me drifting, he found a way to call me back,” Mr. Russell said. “Not order me back, but call me back. He always let me know that more than anybody else, he knew what I was doing. I really loved working with him. It was almost like we were soul mates.”
When Auerbach retired after the 1966 season, he named Mr. Russell as his successor. “Do them white boys really have to do what William tells them to do?” his grandfather asked his father. Mr. Russell still was their teammate, still their alpha and omega on the parquet, an underappreciated offensive weapon who scored more than 14,500 points during his career. “Every play we ran started with Russell and ran through Russell,” said Havlicek. “He called them when he was the player-coach. That’s what a lot of people don’t understand.”
Mr. Russell served in that dual role for three years and two more championships, capped by the 1969 upset of the Lakers in the seventh game in Los Angeles. It was Mr. Russell’s final duel with friend and archrival Wilt Chamberlain, whom he’d bested in five of their six playoff series, twice for the title. “People say it was the greatest individual rivalry they’ve ever seen,” observed Mr. Russell, “and I agree with that.”
So Mr. Russell was disappointed and disturbed that Chamberlain took himself out of the game with the championship in the balance. “I thought to myself, ‘This is my last game. Make me earn it. Come on out here,’ ” Mr. Russell later wrote.
By then, after 13 seasons, he was ready to move on after having collected more bejeweled rings than he could wear. “Here I am a grown man, 35 years old, running around seminude in front of thousands of people in Baltimore, playing a game and yelling about killing people,” Mr. Russell mused after giving a rare fight talk during a timeout.
His teammates had dreaded his retirement, even while they knew that it was inevitable. “Year after year, we would ask him to continue,” Sanders said. “‘Don’t leave,’ we’d say. ‘Our playoff shares will dwindle. Please don’t do that to us.’ ”
When Mr. Russell decided to call it a career, he took his captain aside at the Garden. “Cousy passed me the torch,” he told Havlicek. “I’m going to be leaving, so I’m passing it to you.”
Mr. Russell also wanted to pass on his signature No. 6, which he had worn in college and at the Olympics, even though the Celtics wanted to hoist it to the rafters. “I didn’t like the idea at all,” Mr. Russell wrote. “I figured I’d retired myself, and my number could do whatever it wanted.” When Auerbach persisted, Mr. Russell agreed to a private ceremony in 1972 with only his coach and teammates present.
Three years later he also refused to attend his enshrinement ceremony for the Hall of Fame in Springfield. “I don’t respect it as an institution,” Mr. Russell wrote later. “Its standards are not high enough. It’s too political, too self-serving.”
Mr. Russell’s standards and those of his Celtics teams were lofty, which he realized during his stint as coach of the Seattle Supersonics from 1973-77 when he was appalled by his players’ obsession with their salaries (his highest was $100,000 a year, $1 more than Chamberlain’s) and their shortchanging of teammates on playoff shares. That pecuniary attitude would have been unthinkable on Mr. Russell’s teams in Boston. “The Celtics were a family,” he observed, “but it was a family bent on winning.”
Whatever his feelings about the city, Mr. Russell felt a lifetime bond to the team that played in the ramshackle old barn on Causeway Street. “It wasn’t Boston, it wasn’t the NBA, it was the Celtics,” he said. “That was the only thing that counted, the Celtic family. I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to play anyplace else.”
After spending his postbasketball days on the West Coast, Mr. Russell found opportunities to return to what was both a changed Celtics franchise and a changed city. In 1999, when he was 65, he turned up at the new Garden for the formal retiring of his number before a full house that included Chamberlain, Larry Bird, and former Lakers star center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who made his professional debut the season after Mr. Russell retired. “This is a once in a lifetime experience,” Mr. Russell said.
In 2007 Harvard made him an honorary doctor of laws alongside Bill Gates and former university president Larry Summers. “A Rembrandt of roundball whose championship rings are enough to outnumber his fingers,” the commencement citation read. “A peerless team player whose skill and tenacity led even his strongest foes to wilt.”
Mr. Russell’s first two marriages, to Rose Swisher and Dorothy Anstett, ended in divorce. His third wife, Marilyn Nault, was 59 when she died in 2009.
In 2016, Mr. Russell married Jeannine Fiorito. In addition to his wife, he leaves two children from his first marriage, Jacob Russell and Karen Kenyatta Russell. His other son from his first marriage, William Jr., died in 2016. Mr. Russell’s older brother, the playwright Charlie L. Russell, died in 2013. A complete list of Mr. Russell’s other survivors was not immediately available.
According to his family’s announcement, plans for a memorial service will be released soon.
In 2011 President Obama awarded Mr. Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. “I hope that one day in the streets of Boston, children will look up at a statue built not only to Bill Russell the player but Bill Russell the man,” Obama observed.
The statue was unveiled in November 2013 on City Hall Plaza, alongside plinths recognizing the 11 championships that Mr. Russell had helped bring to Boston. “Bill Russell raised a lot of banners,” remarked then-Mayor Thomas M. Menino, “but also he broke down a lot of barriers in our city.”
While Mr. Russell appreciated the sentiment he wasn’t sure about the monument. “It makes me a little uneasy because it seems almost like a tombstone,” he observed. “I don’t want to engrave my tombstone yet.”