Every NBA championship-winning team has been led by a superstar, and at the center, both literally and figuratively, of the greatest dynasty in not only the NBA, but American sports history, was Bill Russell.
An 11-time NBA champion, five-time league MVP and 12-time All-Star during a 13-year professional career with the Boston Celtics, Russell is one of America’s most decorated basketball players.
He died on Sunday at the age of 88. His family confirmed the news on social media.
“Bill Russell, the most prolific winner in American sports history, died peacefully today at the age of 88, with his wife, Jeannine, by his side,” it said in a statement.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a tribute that Russell was ”the greatest champion in all team sports”.
Russell, six feet 10 inches tall, helped revolutionize basketball, bringing a hard-nosed, defense-first mentality to the court, frustrating opponents with his enormous wingspan. He is considered one of the best basketball players of all time.
Russell was born in Monroe, Louisiana on February 12, 1934, and moved to Oakland, California when he was eight years old. His legend on the field began at McClymonds High School, where his menacing defense helped his team to back-to-back state championships in his junior and senior years.
Easily recruited by colleges, Russell accepted a scholarship to the nearby University of San Francisco, where his game took off as he led the Dons to consecutive NCAA championships as a junior and senior. He was named NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player in 1955 and NCAA National Player of the Year in 1956.
One of the most coveted prospects in the 1956 NBA Draft, the Celtics acquired Russell in a draft-day trade with the St. Louis Hawks, who selected him with the second pick. A trade that would shape the NBA landscape for the next 13 years.
Before his Celtics debut, however, Russell helped the United States men’s Olympic basketball team win the gold medal at the 1956 Melbourne Games.
As soon as he joined Boston, he made an immediate impact, averaging 14.7 points and 19.6 rebounds during his rookie season in 1956-57 as Boston captured its first NBA title.
In 1958-59, he led the Celtics to the first of an unprecedented eight consecutive NBA championships, culminating in the retirement of legendary coach Red Auerbach after the last of those titles.
Russell then took over as player-coach, becoming the first African-American coach in the NBA. The Celtics’ winning streak was snapped in the 1966-67 season, before Russell helped guide Boston to two more titles in his final two NBA campaigns in 1967-68 and 1968-69, serving as coach in those seasons as well.
Russell finished his career averaging 15.1 points and 22.5 rebounds, and his 21,620 total rebounds tied only Wil Chamberlain for the most in NBA history. When he was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame on April 28, 1975, he became the first African-American to be inducted.
For his postseason accomplishments, his legacy lives on as the NBA Finals MVP trophy was named the Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award in 2009.
Although he is perhaps best remembered for his dominance on the field, he is also seen as a pioneer in sports activism.
Russell was a civil rights activist during his playing days. Russell used his platform later in life to speak out against social injustices, and in 2011 President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Russell is survived by his wife Jeannine. He had three children – Karen Russell, William Russell Jr. and Jacob Russell.