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Bill Russell’s legacy blends basketball dominance, activism and laughter

NBA legend Bill Russell died at the age of 88. The Rush examines Russell’s larger than life basketball accomplishments, his work as a civil rights activist, how he’s impacted current and former NBA players and his wicked sense of humor.

Video Transcript

BILL RUSSELL: Being a high profile athlete, there was a forum there for me if I choose to use it. And I choose to use it.

JARED QUAY: The NBA lost perhaps its greatest champion on Sunday as Boston Celtics legend and civil rights activist, Bill Russell, died at the age of 88. Russell’s list of basketball accomplishments is enormous and singularly unique. He led the University of San Francisco to two national championships. And in 13 seasons with the Boston Celtics, Russell won 11 titles, 5 MVP awards, and appeared in 12 All-Star games.

On another time.

What a block by Bill Russell on Chamberlain’s dunks.

JARED QUAY: Of course, Russell is also an Olympic champion. And owns a 28 and 2 record in elimination games at the college, pro, and Olympic levels. Russell was a basketball pioneer on the defensive side of the ball functioning as a shot blocking machine. But Russell also broke barriers becoming the first African-American head coach in all of pro sports. And with two of his NBA championships coming as a player coach for the Celtics.

This guy just didn’t lose. Like there’s a reason the NBA Finals MVP trophy is named after him. But sportsman is one facet of who Bill Russell was. He stood for something much, much bigger and I’ll let President Barack Obama take it from here.

BARACK OBAMA: Bill Russell, the man, is someone who stood up for the rights and dignity of all men. He marched with the King. He stood by Ali. When a restaurant refused to serve the Black Celtics, he refused to play in the scheduled game.

He endured insults and vandalism. But he kept on focusing on making the teammates he loved better players. And made possible the success of so many who would follow. And I hope that one day in the streets of Boston, children will look up at a statue built not only to Bill Russell the player, but Bill Russell the man.

JARED QUAY: Russell received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. And two years later, a statue of Russell was erected in Boston. Bill Russell was a giant among us. Just take a look at the number of current and former players honoring the icon. His impact on future generations of hoopers just can’t be overstated.

BILL RUSSELL: Seriously. I couldn’t be more proud of you than if you were my own son. And that’s the truth.

KOBE BRYANT: Thank you. Thank you.

BILL RUSSELL: And you take care of yourself.

KOBE BRYANT: I will. Thank you.

JARED QUAY: The legend may be gone, but his presence will be felt forever. And Bill Russell will always be remembered as a winner and a champion. We’ll leave you with one of Russell’s greatest gifts, his sense of humor and his Hall of Fame caliber laugh.

But I remember as a kid I used to see fields of marijuana. Nobody knew what it was for.

BILL RUSSELL: Except all the animals were walking around smiling.

LARRY BIRD: The bigger the dream– sorry. A better chance you got to fulfill your–

BILL RUSSELL: Are you going to be all right?


RUSSELL WESTBROOK: I’m the all time greatest Russell in league history.

BILL RUSSELL: Oh, really?

RUSSELL WESTBROOK: OK. Second greatest Russell in league history.

BILL RUSSELL: Thought so.

MAGIC JOHNSON: I tried to get as many as him. I couldn’t get there. And then I was fighting this man.

BILL RUSSELL: It was a noble effort though.

MAGIC JOHNSON: Noble effort.

BILL RUSSELL: I would kick your ass.