Bill Russell grins at announcement that he had been named coach of the Boston Celtics basketball team, April 18, 1966. The NBA great Bill Russell has died at age 88. His family said on social media that Russell died on Sunday, July 31, 2022. Russell anchored a Boston Celtics dynasty that won 11 titles in 13 years.

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Bill Russell just did not lose. The legendary Boston Celtics center had more NBA championship rings than fingers. He won two NCAA championships, and an Olympic gold medal.

Russell needed a trophy case as big as his presence around the rim. And he didn’t only break records; he also broke barriers. Russell was the first Black coach in NBA history, while he was still playing for the Celtics. He led the team to two championships as a player-coach.  

And now we’ve lost the man who didn’t lose. Russell’s family announced his death, at the age of 88, in a statement on Sunday. His family’s statement spoke not just of his prowess on the basketball court, but perhaps more importantly, about his power as a civil rights leader.

“But for all the winning, Bill’s understanding of the struggle is what illuminated his life,” Russell’s family said in the statement. “From boycotting a 1961 exhibition game to unmask too-long-tolerated discrimination, to leading Mississippi’s first integrated basketball camp in the combustible wake of Medgar Evans’ assassination, to decades of activism ultimately recognized by his receipt of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010, Bill called out injustice with an unforgiving candor that he intended would disrupt the status quo, and with a powerful example that, though never his humble intention, will forever inspire teamwork, selflessness and thoughtful change.”

He didn’t just win championships. He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He stood with Muhammad Ali when the boxer refused to be drafted during the Vietnam War. He was not afraid to call out racism around the country or in his backyard.

And make no mistake, some people hated the way he called out hate.

In a  1979 autobiography, Russell described Boston as a “flea market of racism” and said that the “city had corrupt, city hall-crony racists, brick-throwing, send-’em-back-to-Africa racists, and in the university areas phony radical-chic racists.” Later, he recalled one particular past instance when people broke into his house, spray-painted the n-word on the walls and defecated in his bed.

Russell’s relationship with the city of Boston was strained as he called things as he saw them, and worked to make them better. To quote from a cringeworthy recent criticism of athletes who use their platforms for activism, Russell refused to “shut up and dribble.” And the world is ultimately a better place because of it.

“I have never worked to be well-liked or well-loved, but only to be respected,” Russell wrote in his 1966 book Go Up For Glory.” “I believe I can contribute something far more important than mere basketball.”

Sports can sometimes be a wonderful source of inspiration and even escapism from an often confusing and dispiriting world. But some hard truths are inescapable, and must be confronted. There is great power in athletes using their platforms to educate, and not just entertain.

Russell also inspired and supported the next generation of athletes as they continued to push for change. He knelt in support of NFL players like Colin Kaepernick taking a stand against social injustice. When NBA players refused to take the court in 2020 after Jacob Blake was shot by police in Wisconsin, Russell said he was “so proud of these young guys” and compared it to his own walkout in 1961 to protest the racist treatment that two of his Black teammates received in Kentucky.  

In their statement after his death, Russell’s family said they “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.”

Athletes not only show us the greatness that people are capable of, but can also help open our eyes to the injustices that we all must overcome together. Among a mountain of accolades, that may have been Bill Russell’s greatest accomplishment.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...