Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar shared moving tributes to NBA legend Bill Russell

Bill Russell, NBA star and civil rights activist
AP Photo/Matt York

NBA legend Bill Russell, the former Boston Celtic who won 11 championships, died on July 31 at the age of 88. As word of Russell’s death spread via social media, countless friends, fans and fellow athletes paid tribute to the man who not only was a towering presence on the basketball court but also in our nation’s civil rights movement.

One of the basketball legends who followed in Russell’s footsteps, Hall of Famer Michael Jordan (now the owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets), released a statement on Twitter through his team’s account.

“Bill Russell was a pioneer—as a player, as a champion, as the NBA’s first Black head coach, and as an activist,” Jordan said in the post, which included a photo of the pair. “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. My condolences to his family and may he rest in peace.”

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar shared his early reaction to the news of Russell’s death, calling him “my friend, my mentor, my role model.”

Russell began making his mark on history with his outstanding skill on the basketball court. The 6 feet, 10 inches tall center was a five-time Most Valuable Player, a 12-time NBA All-Star, a two-time college national champion, and an Olympic Gold Medal winner.

The Boston Celtics paid tribute to their former player and coach on social media, recognizing his status as “the greatest champion in your sport,” a revolutionary in the game, and a “societal leader.”

“Bill Russell’s DNA is woven through every element of the Celtics organization,” the team continued in the 4-tweet thread conversation.

But, it was Russell’s efforts beyond his playing days that made him a pioneering force for the Black community in a time when the civil rights movement was taking the national stage.

In 1961, when two Black teammates on the Celtics were refused service at a Kentucky restaurant before a pre-season game, Russell relayed the details to the team’s coach and the team decided to boycott the game, according to a report by NPR.

He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington and was in attendance for the “I have a dream” speech. He joined a coalition of Black athletes who supported Muhammed Ali when the boxer refused to fight in the Vietnam War, and Russell opened an integrated basketball camp in Jackson, Mississippi, following the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, according to The New York Times.

Starting in 1966, Russell won two of his NBA championships as the nation’s first Black head coach in an American sports league, all while still keeping his place on the court as the center.

In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Upon news of Russell’s death, the former president shared his condolences and reflected on the champion’s life.

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

“For decades, Bill endured insults and vandalism, but never let it stop him from speaking up for what’s right,” he shared on his Twitter account. “I learned so much from the way he played, the way he coached, and the way he lived his life.”

The Russell family thanked fans and friends via Twitter for their support of the NBA legend over the years and said arrangements for a memorial service “will be announced soon.”

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About the Author
Marie Rossiter
Marie is a freelance writer and content creator with more than 20 years of experience in journalism. She lives in southwest Ohio with her husband and is almost a full-fledged empty nest mom of two daughters. She loves music, reading, word games, and Walt Disney World. Visit Scripps News to see more of Marie's work.

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