It’s difficult to explain how much of an impact Bill Russell had on the sport of basketball throughout his career as a collegiate player, a gold-medal-winning Olympian and a professional. Of his 13 seasons as a player with the Boston Celtics, he won 11 championships. His final two seasons there were as a player-coach, making him the first Black head coach in a major American sport. He was inducted into the NBA’s Hall of Fame twice — once as a player and once as a coach. And he was the first winner of the NBA’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
ESPN reports that Russell died at his home on Sunday at the age of 88. A statement posted to his Twitter account cited his work off the court as being crucial to his life: “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, and with a powerful example that, though never his humble intention, will forever inspire teamwork, selflessness and thoughtful change.”
Russell’s impact on the sport went above and beyond his skills on the court. He also led a successful effort to get the NBA to implement a pension plan in 1964. On Sunday afternoon, NBA commissioner Adam Silver released a statement on Russell’s passing, writing that Russell “stood for something much bigger than sports: the values of equality, respect, and inclusion that he stamped into the DNA of our league.”
“Bill was the ultimate winner and consummate teammate, and his influence on the NBA will be felt forever,” Silver added.
Russell’s life and career were not easy — accounts of the racist abuse he faced during his time in Boston is especially harrowing to read. But his impact as a force for equality over the decades is undeniable. His legacy as an athlete and an activist helped to shape the world in which we live today.