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Bill Russell was a winner. Basketball fans remember his 11 championships with the Boston Celtics. They’ll also remember his battles against Wilt Chamberlain. How about his five MVPs?

With his shot-blocking ability and his tenacious defense, Russell revolutionized the game of basketball. While he changed the way the game was played, his legacy extended well beyond the basketball court. He was a pioneer on the court and in life. Russell died Sunday. He was 88.

Bill Russell was much more than a Boston Celtics champion

The statement on Russell’s verified Twitter account announcing his death Sunday said it all. It mentioned basketball and his individual achievements. It also mentioned his 11 championships. The statement also included his actions as a civil rights activist.

“But for all the winning, Bill’s understanding of the struggle is what illuminated his life,” the statement read in part. “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 (Evers’) assassination, to decades of activism ultimately recognized by his receipt of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Bill called out injustice with an unforgiving candor that he intended would disrupt the status quo, and with a powerful example that, though never his humble intention, will forever inspire teamwork, selflessness, and thoughtful change.”

Russell also became the first Black coach of an American sports team, taking over for the legendary Red Auerbach. Russell was a player/coach in Boston for three years, beginning with the 1966-67 season. He won championships in 1968 and 1969.

Michael Jordan called Russell a ‘pioneer’


Bill Russell Was Tough but Not Nearly as Tough as Getting His Autograph

A 12-time All-Star, Russell averaged 22.5 rebounds in his 13-year NBA career. Blocked shots weren’t an official statistic during his playing days, but he mastered the art of the blocked shot.

“Basketball is a game that involves a great deal of psychology,” Russell said during the early part of the 1963 season, according to Sports Illustrated. “The psychology in defense is not blocking a shot or stealing a pass or getting the ball away. The psychology is to make the offensive team deviate from their normal habits. This is a game of habits, and the player with the most consistent habits is the best. What I try to do on defense is to make the offensive man do not what he wants but what I want.”

Michael Jordan, the man many believe is the greatest basketball player ever, said Russell paved the way for guys like himself.

“Bill Russell was a pioneer — as a player, as a champion, as the NBA’s first Black head coach, and as an activist,” Jordan said in a statement, per ESPN. “He paved the way and set an example for every Black player who came into the league after him, including me. The world has lost a legend. My condolences to his family, and may he rest in peace.”

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