“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,” the family said. “That would be one last, and lasting, win for our beloved #6.”
Russell, the most prolific NBA player ever, marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr., stood beside Muhammad Ali, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
The star of the Boston Celtics dynasty that won 11 titles in 13 years, won his final two NBA championships while serving as a player-coach, becoming the first Black coach in a major American sport.
“Bill Russell was the greatest champion in all of team sports," NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. More importantly “Bill stood for something much bigger than sports: the values of equality, respect and inclusion that he stamped into the DNA of our league," Silver added.
In a statement released by the White House, President Joe Biden praised Russell for his lifelong work in civil right as well as in sports, and called him “a towering champion for freedom, equality, and justice.”
“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,” Biden said.
Reactions rolled in on Sunday, from Michelle Wu, the mayor of Boston, to Barack Obama, Michael Jordan, and Magic Johnson.
“Today, we lost a giant,” Obama said. “As tall as Bill Russell stood, his legacy rises far higher — both as a player and as a person. Perhaps more than anyone else, Bill knew what it took to win and what it took to lead.”
A Louisiana native, Russell also left a lasting mark as a Black athlete in a city — and country — where race is often a flash point. He was at the March on Washington in 1963, when King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, and he backed Ali when the boxer was pilloried for refusing induction into the military draft.
In 2011, Obama awarded Russell the Medal of Freedom alongside Congressman John Lewis, billionaire investor Warren Buffett, then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel and baseball great Stan Musial.
“To be the greatest champion in your sport, to revolutionize the way the game is played, and to be a societal leader all at once seems unthinkable,” the Celtics said on Sunday. “But that is who Bill Russell was.”
Russell’s No. 6 jersey was retired by the Celtics in 1972. He earned spots on the NBA’s 25th anniversary all-time team in 1970, 35th anniversary team in 1980 and 75th anniversary team. In 1996, he was hailed as one of the NBA’s 50 greatest players.
“Bill Russell was a pioneer — as a player, as a champion, as the NBA’s first Black head coach and as an activist," the former Chicago Bulls star and current Charlotte Hornets majority owner Michael Jordan said. “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.”
Russell's family said arrangements for the memorial service will be announced in the coming days.