Bill Russell: NBA community mourns death of Celtics great

The NBA community and sports fans reacted with sorrow at the news of NBA legend Bill Russell’s death on Sunday at the age of 88.

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Russell led the Boston Celtics to 11 NBA championships during his 13-season career and became the league’s first Black head coach. He also led the University of San Francisco to back-to-back NCAA men’s basketball titles and won a gold medal for the U.S. team at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.

Three current Celtics players -- Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Grant Williams -- were among the first to offer their condolences.

“Thank you for everything! R.I.P. Legend,” Tatum tweeted.

“Thank you for paving the way and inspiring so many,” Brown tweeted. “Today is a sad day but also (a) great day to celebrate his legacy and what he stood for.”

In 1961, Russell led a boycott against racist behavior after Celtics teammates Sam Jones and Thomas “Satch” Sanders were refused service in a coffee shop at their team hotel in Lexington, Kentucky, The Washington Post reported. His other four Black teammates walked out, along with two Black players for the Celtics’ opponent in an exhibition game that night, the St. Louis Hawks.

In 1969, Russell debated Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox on television about racism, ESPN reported.

“Real change takes time -- lots of it,” Russell wrote in an essay for The Players’ Tribune in September 2020. “This is infuriating but not surprising when considered in terms of foundations. America is a country of contradictions because of its foundation. On the one hand, there’s the idea of what America is supposed to be, and on the other, what America really is.”

“You allowed me to be in the position I am in today,” Williams tweeted. “You changed not only the league but the world. Forever 6.”

Mike Zarren, the Celtics’ vice president, said that “we’ll never see a greater winner in basketball -- and maybe not in any other walk of life, either.”

The Athletic wrote that the Celtics under Russell “did not let anyone else have a turn.”

“More than 50 years after he played his final game, one can debate where the center stands on the list of NBA greats,” Athletic staff writer Jay King wrote. “He wasn’t as physically imposing as Shaquille O’Neal or as dominant a scorer as Wilt Chamberlain. He didn’t have Hakeem Olajuwon’s dream shake or Kareem Abdul-Jabaar’s sky hook. He didn’t play in today’s era, with guards who can let it fly from 35 feet and big men who can’t always keep up. In an argument with your friend, uncle or cousin, you might hear reasons why Russell would fail to thrive the same way in today’s game. So much about the NBA has changed since the days he owned it.

“This truth cannot be debated: Russell and the Celtics owned the NBA like no other team ever has or ever will. He cared only about winning and he did it better than anyone -- in any team sport -- ever has. He encountered 10 Game 7s and left each one with a victory. How improbable is that? The likelihood of flipping a coin the same way 10 times in a row is 0.098%. Russell’s teams were literally the NBA’s 1%. He has as many rings as Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson combined.”

Basketball Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas said that Russell was “everything we all aspired to be.”

“Thank you for your words of wisdom,” Thomas, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2002, wrote in a tweet.

Los Angeles Lakers President Jeannie Buss, whose franchise lost to the Celtics six times in the NBA Finals during the 1960s when Russell played and coached, called the Boston star “a treasure.”

“@Lakers and @Celtics fans can agree on this today,” Buss wrote on Twitter.

The New York Knicks, who were conference rivals to the Celtics during the 1960s, also posted a tribute to the Boston center, calling him an “all-time great.”