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Bill Russell, a superior athlete and civil rights activist

Bill Russell had more rings than he had fingers, and a cluster of awards to fill the walls of his entire house. But awards and statistics tell only a portion of this NBA Hall of Famer, who died peacefully Sunday, according to a statement from his family. He was 88. 

One line in the statement from his family spoke volumes about his achievements: he was the most prolific winner in American sports history. They were making reference to Russell’s incomparable 11 NBA titles with the Boston Celtics, eight of them consecutively, thereby surpassing the New York Yankees’ five straight World Series championships; and the Montreal Canadiens’ five straight Stanley Cup titles.

 Few could speak with absolute authority of Russell’s prowess like Red Auerbach, his coach and mentor. For him Russell was “the single most devastating force in the history of the game.” There is a long list of numbers to back up this comment, including five-time NBA MVP and 12-time All-Star. He wasn’t much of a scorer but his athleticism, his speed and vertical extension made him an impregnable defensive player. And his being left handed gave him an added advantage against the majority of right handed players, such as Wilt Chamberlain, and their battles were classic.

 Add the number of rebounds, assists, and blocked shots, which were not tabulated during his career, and you have a formidable team player, to say nothing of his savvy and understanding of how to run the court, set up a pick and roll, and hustle back down the court. In his 1979 book “Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man,” with Taylor Branch, he wrote this about his defense of the almost unstoppable Oscar Robertson. “When he hesitated near the foul line for the jump shot, I would take a step toward him, faking a move to block his shot or steal the ball. But what I really wanted him to do was to take the opening to drive by me for a lay-up, and I’d be able to recover in time to black the shot.”

He was even more successful at University of San Francisco, where he captained the team and led them to back-to-back NCAA championships. His teammate was K.C. Jones, who would later join him on the Celtics. The two inseparable players would also lead the U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal in Melbourne in 1956.

A most impressive pattern was established and it would continue for them right into the green uniforms in Boston. And the rest of the league soon learned what a lethal combination they were, and near the end of their remarkable streak of victories, Russell became the coach, the first Black coach or manager in any major sports team in the nation.

Upon hearing of Russell’s death, Michael Jordan, widely considered the greatest basketball player of all time, said, “Bill Russell was a pioneer—as a player, as a champion, as the NBA’s first Black head coach, and as an activist. He paved the way and set an example for every Black player who came to the league after him, including me. The world has lost a legend. My condolences to his family and may he rest in peace.”

Similar sentiments were expressed by former president Barack Obama, who awarded Russell the Medal of Freedom in 2011. “Today we lost a giant,” Obama tweeted. “As tall as Bill Russell stood, his legacy rises far higher—both as a player and as a person. 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.” And there is a photo that has Russell seated with Ali, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Jim Brown, in support of Ali’s refusal to serve in the military.Russell possessed an infectious laugh, a delightful sense of humor, and always carried himself with dignity and respect for others, at the same time totally in control of his own inadequacies and his ego, as he wrote in “Second Wind.” “I’ve tried to handle my ego the way I would any other part of my character: to acknowledge it but not to let it control me or make me into something I don’t like,” he wrote. “All of us have prejudices that grow out of our egos, but that’s natural. Show me a person with no prejudice and I’ll show you a person with no taste. The struggle is to keep prejudice from turning into bigotry and hatred.”  

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