The basketball community lost an all-time legend on Sunday as Bill Russell died at age 88, his family announced.

Russell, who won a record 11 NBA titles with the Celtics, was a trailblazer as a black superstar in the 1950s and ’60s, and became the first black head coach of any North American professional team when the Celtics hired him in 1966 as a player-coach.

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In a statement announcing his death, his family called Russell “the most prolific winner in American sports history.” By any measure, that is correct.

Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1975 as a player and in 2021 as a coach, Russell won two NCAA titles at San Francisco, an Olympic gold medalist and two NBA titles as a coach, in addition to his 11 as a player.

Comprised of a core that included Russell at center along with fellow Hall of Famers Bob Cousy, Tommy Heinsohn, K.C. Jones, Bill Sharman and Sam Jones, the Celtics won a stunning 11 of 13 championships from 1956-1969.

In 10 Game 7’s, Russell was undefeated in his career. Extended to any winner-take-all game — in NCAAs, Olympics and best-of-five playoff rounds — he was 21-0. The Finals MVP Award is named after him, and Russell was often on hand to give it out.

In addition to his basketball credentials, Russell was also a leader in the area of civil rights, enduring racist abuse throughout his career in Boston, where his home was once broken into and graffitied.

“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 recognised by his receipt of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010, Bill called out injustice with an unforgiving candour 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,” his family said in a statement.

“Bill’s wife, Jeannine, and his many friends and family thank you for keeping Bill in your prayers. Perhaps you’ll relive one or two of the golden moments he gave us, or recall his trademark laugh as he delighted in explaining the real story behind how those moments unfolded. And we hope each of us can find a new way to act or speak up with Bill’s uncompromising, dignified and always constructive commitment to principle. That would be one last, and lasting, win for our beloved #6.”

Russell’s relationship with Boston was complex — he didn’t attend his jersey retirement in 1972 and once described himself as “playing for the Celtics, not for Boston.” Eventually, in 1999, the team re-retired his number in a ceremony at which he attended.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement that Russell was “the greatest champion in all of team sports.”

“Bill stood for something much bigger than sports: the values of equality, respect and inclusion that he stamped into the DNA of our league. At the height of his athletic career, Bill advocated vigorously for civil rights and social justice, a legacy he passed down to generations of NBA players who followed in his footsteps,” Silver said. “Through the taunts, threats and unthinkable adversity, Bill rose above it all and remained true to his belief that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity.”

It was just the start of the tributes as the likes of Michael Jordan weighed in on the Russell’s death.

“Bill Russell was a pioneer—as a player, as a champion, as the NBA’s first Black head coach and as an activist,” Jordan wrote. “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.”

Lakers legend Magic Johnson was also quick to pay tribute, posting a series of images of the pair together.

“I’m heartbroken to hear about the passing of the greatest winner the game of basketball has ever seen, a legend, hall of famer, mentor and my friend for over 30 years, Bill Russell,” Johnson said.

“Bill Russell was my idol. I looked up to him on the court and off. His success on the court was undeniable; he was dominate and great, winning 11 NBA championships. Off the court, Bill Russell paved the way for guys like me.

“He was one of the first athletes on the front line fighting for social justice, equity, equality, and civil rights. That’s why I admired and loved him so much. Over the course of our friendship, he always reminded me about making things better in the Black community.

“Despite all of his achievements, he was so humble, a gentle giant, a very intelligent man, and used his voice and platform to fight for Black people. Since the day we met, he mentored me and shared advice.

“Later in life, he never missed an opportunity to tell me how proud he was of me for what I was doing for Black America throughout the country. I will forever remember his cackling laugh, sense of humor and love for the game of basketball.

“This is a tremendous loss for the entire basketball world. Cookie and I are praying for the Bill’s family and loved ones, our NBA family, and the entire basketball community.”

Ten-time NBA All-Star Carmelo Anthony posted: “A champion who revolutionized the game for all of us. Bill Russell was an inspiration to me in so many ways. May he Rest in Power.”

76ers star James Harden wrote: “RIP to the Legend Bill Russell”.

Lakers owner Jeanie Buss added: “Bill Russell was a treasure as a player, coach and especially as a human being. @Lakers and @celtics fans can agree on this today.”

Born in Monroe, Louisiana, Russell’s family moved to San Francisco, where he parlayed a spot on the McClymonds High School basketball team into a scholarship at San Francisco. Though Russell never averaged over 20 points in an NBA season, he is considered one of the greatest defensive players of all-time, with a 6-foot-9 frame that made him one of the greatest shot blockers ever, and a career average of 22.5 rebounds per game.

In 2011, then US President Barack Obama awarded Russell the Medal of Freedom.

“Bill Russell, the man, is someone who stood up for the rights and dignity of all men,” Obama said at the ceremony. “He marched with King; he stood by Ali. When a restaurant refused to serve the Black Celtics, he refused to play in the scheduled game. He endured insults and vandalism, but he kept on focusing on making the teammates who he loved better players and made possible the success of so many who would follow.”

Arrangements for his memorial service have yet to be announced.

This article was originally published by the New York Post and reproduced with permission

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