Bill Russell is the greatest winner in sports history. Dwarfing that is his impact as an activist. He marched with Martin Luther King Jr. He participated in the Cleveland Summit in 1967, supporting Muhammad Ali in one of the most important civil rights acts in sports history. And as Boston began desegregating its school systems, Russell didn't shy away from taking a stand in the name of justice and speaking out for what's right.
Never one to lose sight of what he was working to accomplish, after Medgar Evers, one of the country's leading civil rights activists, was assassinated in Jackson, Mississippi, Russell called Evers' brother, Charles. Determined to keep Medgar Evers' fight for freedom alive, Russell acted on Charles Evers' advice, went to Jackson, and held the first integrated basketball camp in Mississippi.
Russell was on the front lines at every turn, changing the world for the better. It's why he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2011.
While Russell demonstrated that no matter the circumstances or conditions, one need not sit idly by on the sidelines, he was also building his on-court legacy as the consummate winner.
Russell's Celtics celebrated 11 championships in his 13-year career. That included eight-straight titles from 1959-1966. And in his two years as a player-coach, the first Black head coach in the history of major team sports, Russell led Boston to the top of the mountain in 1968 and 1969.
In the process, Russell forever changed the game of basketball. By blocking shots with more precision than force and tipping the ball to a teammate, he gave birth to the fast break. That vehicle was paramount to the Celtics' success.
So was Russell's calculated decision to sacrifice some of his scoring so that Boston had a more balanced attack, making them harder to stop. And the Celtics would not have repeatedly triumphed over, most notably, a loaded Lakers team featuring Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, and Jerry West, if not for Russell learning how to play all five positions within Boston's offense. That way, no matter how a particular game unfolded, the Celtics could effectively counter what the opposition was doing defensively.
With Russell, a chess grandmaster and arguably the greatest defensive player in basketball history, leading the way, the Celtics went 11-0 in winner-take-all games. As Bob Ryan noted and Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News conveyed on Twitter, Russell's success in series-deciding contests is even more impressive.
Who Russell, a five-time Most Valuable Player and 12-time All-Star, was on and off the court made him Jackie Robinson's favorite athlete.
His on-court accomplishments also led to basketball writers in 1980 voting Russell as the best player in NBA history. Never one to act in a way that wasn't true to his character, five years earlier, he got inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame but refused to attend the ceremony. Russell expressed that another revolutionary Celtic, Chuck Cooper, who broke the NBA's color barrier, should be the first African American elected. Finally, in 2019, with Russell in attendance, Cooper got enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
And while in Russell's playing days in Boston, he dealt with assault, vandalism, and racial epithets hurled his way, he helped turn a city which has made significant strides but still has a long way to go.
It's why he went from having his number six retired in an empty Boston Garden before fans arrived to being present around the franchise he's an architect of, in the city he starred in, quite a bit.
That began in 1999 with Bill Russell's night of appreciation at what's now the TD Garden but was then known as the Fleet Center. On his way there, he told Michael Holley, now of NBC Sports Boston, "he was excited by the changes he saw in the city."
After that, he wasn't just somewhat of a regular at Celtics games, but he made trips to Fenway Park, Patriots training camp, where he'd speak with the team, sharing wisdom that left a lasting impact. And, of course, he became a regular attendee of the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, MA, coming to see old friends and support the newest class of inductees.
The world will never forget William Felton Russell, a man who carried himself in a way that led to him making an everlasting impact on sports and society. While the heights he reached are why he stands alone, which is ironic for the best teammate in sports history, the principles that guided him and how he chose to act on those represents a northern star to follow on one's journey through life.