It’s impossible to quantify the impact NBA icon Bill Russell had both on and off the basketball court. But with his passing, the people he affected the most have done their best to express his importance and greatness.
G. Scott Uzzell, president and CEO of Converse — one of the brands Russell laced up on the court — is one of many who have shared thoughts on the sports and civil rights icon, who died Sunday at the age of 88.
“Bill Russell was a true all-star: he stands in a league of his own and is the full embodiment of sportsmanship, on and off the court,” Uzzell said in a statement emailed to FN. “From his prowess on the hardwood — leading our hometown of Boston to an incredible 11 championships in 13 years with the Celtics — to his unflinching dedication to the civil rights movement and relentless pursuit for equality, Russell opened doors and set standards of excellence that have personally inspired me, our Converse team and generations to come.”
Russell was an 11-time NBA champion with the Boston Celtics, locking up 12 NBA All-Star appearances and five Most Valuable Player awards during his time on the court. What’s more, Russell was the league’s first Black head coach, winning two of his NBA championships as a player-coach.
Aside from his accomplishments off the court, Russell was a pioneer in athlete activism, and was always active in the fight against racial inequality. For instance, Russell marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the March on Washington in 1963, and in 1961, he led a boycott of a preseason game in Kentucky after two of his Black teammates were refused service in a restaurant before the game.
Former President Barack Obama in 2011 — alongside politician John Lewis and poet Maya Angelou, who were also both civil rights activists — presented Russell with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
But his fight never stopped. In September 2020, Russell penned a letter for The Players’ Tribune as tensions ran high throughout the country over issues of racial injustice.
“Racism in America doesn’t simply affect Black and Brown people. It seeps into American institutions, shows, music, news, sports and minds,” Russell wrote in the letter. “We can’t change America’s foundation, but we can reckon with it. Or, we can continue (as we have for hundreds of years) claiming to be the land of the free, when it’s clear that the sentiment only applies to white people.”
Russell’s passing was confirmed publicly yesterday via his social media accounts.
“Bill’s wife, Jeannine, and his many friends and family thank you for keeping Bill in your prayers. Perhaps you’ll relive one or two of the golden moments he gave us, or recall his trademark laugh as he delighted in explaining the real story behind how those moments unfolded,” the statement read. “And 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. That would be one last, and lasting, win for our beloved #6.”