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Basketball Dignitary Bill Russell Passes At 88

by Ezekiel J. Walker
Basketball Dignitary Bill Russell passes at 88
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Bill Russell, a man who could say he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King and dapped up LeBron James, has passed at the age of 88.

lJesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Bill Russell played at a time when fellow Black players didn’t have loc’s or tattoos, they didn’t collect astronomical contracts,  nor did they switch teams when the expectations to deliver became unbearable. Russell played smack dab in the middle of the Civil Rights Era and excelled beyond imagination, all while playing in a town where he would never be wholly embraced.

During Russell’s playing career, racism in America was at a fever pitch, Blacks were being beaten for sitting at lunch counters, walking down Edmund Pettus Bridge, and hosed down and bitten by German Shepards sicked on us by policemen.

Russell walked into Boston Garden most nights understanding regardless of the feats surpassed, he could never score enough points or block enough shots to defeat the racism he experienced firsthand.

On June 4, 1967 at 105-15 Euclid Ave. in Cleveland, a collection of some of the top black athletes in the country met with — and eventually held a news conference in support of — world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali (front row, second from left), about Ali’s refusal to be drafted into the U.S. Army in 1967. Photo: AP.

That’s why he joined other prominent Black athletes of the time to show support of Muhammad Ali after he refused to fight in Vietnam on America’s behalf. Russell always understood the importance of connectivity and used his platform to speak out for those treated unfairly, whether the average Joe or a man as revered by the culture as Ali.

Russell, a proud member of Kappa Alpha Psi, Fraternity, Inc. also achieved more than in his time in the NBA than any player before or after him. A Hall of Famer, five-time Most Valuable Player and 12-time All-Star, Russell in 1980 was voted the greatest player in the NBA history by basketball writers. He remains the sport’s most decorated champion — he won two college titles and an Olympic gold medal. Russell’s Boston Celtics dynasty won 11 championships in 13 years, Russell earned his last two NBA titles as a player-coach — the first Black coach in any major U.S. sport.

President Obama reaches up to present a 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom to Celtics legend Bill Russell on Tuesday at the White House. (AP)

In 2012, Commander-In-Chief Barack Obama awarded Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Last night, Obama responded to his death. “Today we lost a giant,” he tweeted. “As tall as Bill Russell stood, his legacy rises far higher — both as a player and as a person.” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver issued a statement calling Russell “the greatest champion in all of sports.”

Though a die hard and lifelong Boston Celtic, Russell was a man of empathy and kindness before anything. So when Kobe Bryant of the rival Los Angeles Lakers abruptly passed in 2020, Russell supported the legacy of a man he grew to respect in life and honor in death.

Russell transitioned with his wife, Jeannine, at his side, his family said in a statement posted on social media. No cause of death was immediately available; Russell, who had been living in the Seattle area, was not well enough to present the NBA Finals MVP trophy in June due to a long illness. Russell’s presence on the Finals stage had become a staple for NBA fans and players alike. He was missed then and he will be missed forever.

RIP Bill Russell.

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