NBA Legend, Civil Rights Hero Bill Russell Dies At Age 88

·3 min read

NBA legend and human rights champion Bill Russell died on Sunday at the age of 88, NPR reports. Russell’s family announced the news in a statement shared on Twitter, describing him as “the most prolific winner in American sports history.”

The 11-time champion, who won more titles than any player in NBA history, revolutionized the game. The Boston Celtics legend primarily made an impact with his shot-blocking ability, introducing the skill as a key aspect of defense.

In a 2013 interview for the Civil Rights History Project, Russell said he was playing in his first varsity game at the University of San Francisco when he proved the impact he can make with shot-blocking ability. The legendary athlete showed off his skill while playing against another center who was a preseason All-American.

“The game starts and the first five shots he took, I blocked. And nobody in the building had seen anything like that,” Russell said. “So they called timeout to discuss what I was doing. We get in our huddle, and my coach says, ‘You can’t play defense like that.’ He showed me on the sidelines how he wanted me to play defense. I go back out and I try it, and the guy [scores on] layups three times in a row. And I said, this does not make sense. So I went back to playing the way I knew how.”

As a Black athlete in the 1950s and 60s, Russell consistently spoke out against racial injustice. The civil right champion, who sat in the front row during Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., also supported Muhammad Ali when he refused to join the military during the Vietnam War.

With his courage to use his voice, Russell inspired other Black athletes to speak up for justice.

“Rather than just merely sticking to sports, we began to see athletes offer opinions about race, opinions about politics and things of that nature,” historian Damian Thomas said, according to NPR.

Russell continued to speak up throughout his life. Shortly after the death of George Floyd in 2020, the Hall-Of-Famer expressed his thoughts in an essay for Slam magazine.

“But what can we do about it?” he wrote. “Racism cannot just be shaken out of the fabric of society because, like dust from a rug, it dissipates into the air for a bit and then settles right back where it was, growing thicker with time.”

Police reform, Russell said, is a start, but it is not enough.

“We need to dismantle broken systems and start over,” he wrote. “We need to make our voices heard, through multiple organizations, using many different tactics. We need to demand that America get a new rug.”

Russell’s family said the social justice hero “will forever inspire teamwork, selflessness and thoughtful change.”

“For all the winning, Bill’s understanding of the struggle is what illuminated his life,” the family said. “From boycotting a 1961 exhibition game to unmask too-long-tolerated discrimination, to leading Mississippi’s first integrated basketball camp in the combustible wake of Medgar Evans’ assassination, to decades of activism ultimately recognized by his receipt of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010, Bill called out injustice with an unforgiving candor that he intended would disrupt the status quo.”