Former President Barack Obama on Sunday remembered basketball great Bill Russell as “the greatest champion in basketball history” and as “a civil rights trailblazer.”
“Today we lost a giant,” Obama tweeted shortly after Russell’s family announced that he had died on Sunday at 88. “As tall as Bill Russell stood, his legacy rises far higher — both as a player and as a person.”
President Joe Biden spoke of Russell in similar terms. “Bill Russell is one of the greatest athletes in our history — an all-time champion of champions, and a good man and great American who did everything he could to deliver the promise of America for all Americans,” he said in a statement.
Russell was one of the towering figures in basketball history, leading the Boston Celtics to 11 NBA championships (two of them as a player-coach) in a span of 13 years, a level of success unmatched in professional sports. But, as Obama noted, he was also an activist, part of a coterie of 1960s greats — including boxer Muhammad Ali and football’s Jim Brown — that was known for its deep devotion to civil rights and social justice.
“Perhaps more than anyone else, Bill knew what it took to win and what it took to lead. On the court, he was the greatest champion in basketball history. Off of it, he was a civil rights trailblazer — marching with Dr. King and standing with Muhammad Ali,” Obama said in his statement, referencing Russell’s presence at the 1963 March on Washington and his support for Ali when the boxing champion was stripped of his title and prosecuted for refusing to serve in the U.S. military.
Biden also cited the March on Washington in his statement on Russell: “On the historic day of August 28, 1963, there he was at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as a towering champion for freedom, equality, and justice as Dr. King delivered a dream for the Nation. That was Bill Russell.”
In February 2011, Obama presented Russell with the Medal of Freedom, part of a group that also included civil rights activist John Lewis, poet Maya Angelou, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former President George H.W. Bush.
“More than any athlete of his era, Bill Russell came to define the word ‘winner,’” Obama said at the time. “I hope that one day in the streets of Boston, children will look up at a statue built not only to Bill Russell the player, but Bill Russell the man.”
Russell continued his activism throughout his life.
“I find that white people are often surprised that racial injustice still exists outside of a few ‘bad apples,’” Russell wrote in The Players’ Tribune in 2020. “This surprise is particularly dangerous because racial injustice is rampant throughout every sector of American society, from education to health care to sports, and the fact that this remains surprising to many reveals exactly how different Black and white people’s experiences of life in America are.”
Obama noted Russell’s lifelong commitment to the cause of racial justice.
“For decades, Bill endured insults and vandalism, but never let it stop him from speaking up for what’s right. I learned so much from the way he played, the way he coached, and the way he lived his life,” he said.