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‘What a great legend he is.’ Reflecting on the legacy of Celtics great Bill Russell

Russell’s example helped shape the generations that followed him.

Max Watkins, 7, came with his family to pay his respects to Celtics legend Bill Russell, who passed away Sunday.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Bill Russell, the Celtics basketball legend who died Sunday at 88, was lauded by people in Boston as a leader who championed justice and denounced racism in the city and across the country.

Russell’s example — unwavering in the face of the virulent racism he experienced in Boston, as he won championship after championship — helped shape the generations that followed him.

“To many of us, he was a hero and a role model, one that we wanted to try and emulate the best we could,” said the Rev. Miniard Culpepper, pastor at a Dorchester church who grew up watching Russell play for the Celtics.


Culpepper said Russell followed the rules. As a player, he was unselfish; facing a challenge, he would persevere.

“Bill Russell taught us never to give up,” Culpepper said.

Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, said Russell endured racism as a Black man in Boston, and he made sure to use “his voice and his platform to raise issues of racial injustice.”

Russell’s example can be seen today in professional athletes who have spoken out on social issues like LeBron James and Chris Paul, she said.

“It is a legacy that lives on; it is a legacy that speaks to knowing your power, and using your power, for the betterment of humanity,” Sullivan said.

Local leaders also reflected on Russell’s legacy, and the example he set on and off the basketball court.

Russell was “the definition of a legend,” Governor Charlie Baker said on Twitter.

“He was a consummate winner and a trailblazer who broke barriers in the game of basketball and the game of life for Black athletes and Americans throughout his career and life,” Baker said. “Boston and Massachusetts were very lucky to be part of his life story.”

“RIP Champ!” Baker wrote.


Russell’s death was announced by his family in a Twitter post Sunday.

A group of tourists from Germany paused to pay their respects to Celtics Legend Bill Russell, who passed away today. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

He was an 11-time NBA champion, a five-time most valuable player, the NBA’s first Black head coach, and an Olympic gold medalist, the Celtics said in a statement Sunday.

But despite his success as a player and leader, Russell faced virulent racism in Boston, where many were unwilling to celebrate a Black man as their champion.

Vandals broke into his Reading home, defiling it with racist slurs and defecating in the beds. Russell at one point dismissed Boston as “a flea market of racism.”

Russell spoke out forcefully against injustice during the civil rights era.

“A man without integrity, belief, or self-respect is not a man,” Russell said. “And a man who won’t express his convictions has no convictions.”

In 2013, decades after Russell stopped playing for Boston, a statue was erected in his honor outside Boston City Hall.

Former governor Deval Patrick, in an e-mail to the Globe, said Russell loved the Boston Celtics “even when Boston didn’t always love him back.”

Patrick was among the dignitaries — including then-president Barack Obama — who gathered at Boston City Hall Plaza to honor Russell with the unveiling of his statue.

Barack Obama with then-governor Deval Patrick and Celtics legend Bill Russell, in Boston in 2013.Yoon S. Byun/Globe staff

“Through determination, excellence, candor, and good humor, he earned his way into the hearts and history of the Commonwealth,” Patrick said. “I am grateful for his public example, his principled advocacy, and the many hilarious and inspiring stories he shared privately.”


Culpepper, who is the senior pastor at Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Dorchester, said Russell served as an inspiration.

“Many of the young Black basketball players, the young Black kids in Boston, really looked up to Bill Russell,” Culpepper said. “And when he talked to us, he always encouraged us.”

Culpepper was in his 20s and working for civil rights in Boston in the wake of court-mandated busing when he met Russell. The two met in a Boston restaurant owned by another Celtics great, Thomas “Satch” Sanders.

Culpepper, who is now in his 60s, said he can clearly remember meeting his hero.

“I don’t think I walked for days. I think I floated for a week,” he said.

Russell encouraged Culpepper and other civil rights advocates to persevere in their social justice work.

“ ‘Don’t let it get you down, just keep fighting,’ " Culpepper said Russell told him.

“What a great legend he is,” Culpepper said. “He did it all.”

As news of Russell’s death spread Sunday, local leaders paid tribute to his achievements.

“Bill Russell gave so much to the city of Boston — as the greatest sports champion of all time and a role model fighting for justice, equality, and labor rights. We owe him a debt of gratitude and we will miss him,” said Mayor Michelle Wu of Boston.

In an e-mail to the Globe, former governor Michael Dukakis called Russell “a giant” on and off the court.

“He taught us a lot, and Boston and Massachusetts are much the better for it,” Dukakis said.


US Representative Ayanna Pressley said Russell was an “undisputed champion and unapologetic advocate” for a more just and equitable world.

“But most importantly, he was a man with a family and beloved community,” Pressley said.

Labor Secretary Martin J. Walsh, former mayor of Boston, said he was reflecting with “deep gratitude on the immense good” Russell did for Boston, the United States, and the world.

“He stood tall in the face of injustice and inspired us to be better people and a better city,” Walsh said.

Celtics fans, residents, and visitors to the city stopped at the Bill Russell statue outside City Hall to pay their respects. People stopped to take photos, leave flowers, or pause a moment to gaze at the statue.

Dart Adams, 46, a local author and journalist, headed for the statue shortly after hearing the news.

Russell should be as recognizable as Muhammad Ali, Adams said.

“That man is the living embodiment of not paying any attention to ‘shut up and dribble,’ " Adams said. “As a Black man who grew up in Boston playing basketball ... [Russell] has always been the gold and platinum standard for me, not only in what it is to be a player, a winner, dedicating everything to your team, but what it is to be a person.”

Frank Gerweck, 53, and his girlfriend, Becca Gencarelli, 32, came over from their home in the North End. Gerweck said he was born in Colorado but his father was a Celtics fan and when his family moved to Needham in 1974, “all we would watch was the Celtics.”


Russell “was definitely the greatest winner, but I also educated myself on the civil rights work that he did,” Gerweck said. “It made him even more impressive as a human being.”

Arthur Smith, of Charlestown pauses to pay his respects to Celtics Legend Bill Russell, after placing a bouquet of flowers at the statue in City Hall Plaza after learning of Russell’s death. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Arthur Smith, 43, walked from his home in Charlestown to the statue and placed a bouquet of sunflowers and lilies at Russell’s feet.

Smith grew up in Hanover watching the Larry Bird era of the Celtics but said his father always told him Russell was the greatest Celtic in the team’s history, including his work in civil rights.

“I got to learn a lot more about all the different things that he did in his life, and that to me speaks volumes even beyond his greatness in basketball,” Smith said.

Jumaane Morris, 33, of Everett, grew up in New York as a Knicks fan but said his father told him stories about Russell, his dominance on the court, and his commitment to social justice.

Russell was “the example of what it is to maneuver and be the best that you can and be better than the rest,” Morris said. “He was that guy that unified all. He wants to make the way for equality for everyone... and he did that to his last breath.”

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