Bill Russell Passes Away, Leaving A Legacy As An Original Social Justice NBA Superstar

Image Credit: Twitter @BleacherReport

The world has lost a trailblazing pioneer in sports and activism in former Boston Celtics legend William Felton Russell, known worldwide as Bill Russell. According to his family, the legend passed away on Sunday after a life of service and athletic greatness that had come full circle before he died.

The 88-year-old, who won 11 championships in twelve years, was the most vocal advocate for civil rights in the NBA during the 1960s. He was an integral part of why the Celtics under coach Red Auerbach were considered an almost unbeatable team of their era, creating an unmatched dynasty until later generations of players.

“The Yankees won 26 championships,” Russell once famously said. “What did it take them, 100 years?”

Russell helped the Celtics win eight consecutive championships and even though the NBA didn’t have a Finals MVP designation until 1969, the Finals MVP trophy is named after him. In 2014, Russell was so beloved that the city gave him a statue at Boston’s City Hall.

“I played a team game, and the only important statistic was who won the game. So, I would always thank my teammates for letting me help them be champions. There are some things I’m proud of,” Russell said at the unveiling. “For instance, I never once led the Celtics in scoring. I heard guys on other teams say; you ought to lead your team in scoring. So I’d look at where their team was.

“When you’re playing a team game, the only important statistic is the final score. Some nights, I’d have four points, but if we won the game it wouldn’t matter.”

However, Russell’s courageousness in the fight for civil rights set the tone for athlete activists like LeBron James and Colin Kaepernick. Russell was part of the iconic Cleveland Summit on June 4, 1967, where a collection of iconic athletes met to support Muhammad Ali. After becoming an adherent to the Nation of Islam’s tenets, Ali refused to serve in the Vietnam War and was stripped of his heavyweight title and boxing license.

Russell, along with meeting organizer and Cleveland Browns legend Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then named Lew Alcindor, and more, the stars met with the press and showed a Black line of support that has remained iconic to this day.

There was a kinship between Russell and Ali, and where “The Louisville Lip” was outspoken, Russell was steadfast and supportive when it was inconvenient.

“He has something I have never been able to attain and something very few people I know possess,” Russell wrote in Sports Illustrated. “He has an absolute and sincere faith. I’m not worried about Muhammad Ali. He is better equipped than anyone I know to withstand the trials in store for him. What I’m worried about is the rest of us.”

The news rocked the NBA, which Russell became a staple spokesman for over the years.

“Bill Russell was the greatest champion in all of team sports,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “The countless accolades that he earned for his storied career with the Boston Celtics – including a record 11 championships and five MVP awards – only begin to tell the story of Bill’s immense impact on our league and broader society.

“Bill was the ultimate winner and consummate teammate, and his influence on the NBA will be felt forever.”

Rhett Butler is a Boxing Writer Association of America Journalist, Play-By-Play Commentator, Combat Sports Insider, and Former Mixed Martial Arts and Boxing Promoter. The New York City native honed his skills at various news outlets including but not limited to: TIME Magazine, Money Magazine, CNN's Wolf Blitzer Reports, and more. Rhett hosts the PRITTY Left Hook podcast, a polarizing combat sports insider's take featuring the world's biggest names.