Russell was one of the most important figures in basketball history, leading the Boston Celtics to 11 NBA championships (including two as a player-coach) in 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 footballer Jim Brown – who were known for their deep devotion to civil rights and to social justice.
“Perhaps more than anyone, Bill knew what it took to win and what it took to lead. On the court, he was the greatest champion in basketball history. Other than that, he was a civil rights pioneer – marching with Dr. King and standing with Muhammad Ali,” Obama said in his statement, referring to Russell’s presence at the 1963 March on Washington and his support for Ali when the champion of boxing was stripped of his title and prosecuted for refusing to serve in the US military.
Biden also cited the March on Washington in his statement on Russell: “On the historic day of August 28, 1963, he stood there on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as a great champion of freedom, equality and justice as that Dr. King was delivering a dream for the Nation. It 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 day, Bill Russell came to define the word ‘winning,'” Obama said at the time. “I hope one day on the streets of Boston, children will look up at a statue built not just for Bill Russell the player, but Bill Russell the man.”
Russell continued his activism throughout his life.
“I find 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 rife in every sector of American society, from education to health care to sports, and the fact that it remains surprising to many reveals exactly how Black and white life experiences in America are different.”
Obama noted Russell’s lifelong commitment to the cause of racial justice.
“For decades Bill endured insults and vandalism, but that never stopped him from standing up for what is right. I learned so much from the way he played, the way he coached and the way which he lived his life,” he said.