‘We Owe Him a Debt of Gratitude’ – NBC Boston

William Felton Russell died on Sunday at age 88. The 6-foot-10 center played in the NBA for 13 seasons, wearing No. 6 on his back.

He’s credited with changing the game with his defensive skills including his shot blocking – challenging the status quo, on and off the court. He was drafted by the Boston Celtics in 1956 and helped earn their first title in 1957.

But Bill Russell was winning even before he got to the NBA.

He was born in Louisiana and moved to California when he was 8 years old. When he was a teenager, he won two state championships playing basketball. He then went on to the University of San Francisco where he helped win two NCAA titles. Then he brought back gold in the Olympics of 1956.

Once in the NBA, Russell won 11 NBA titles and five MVPs. After, he became the first black coach for a major US sport.

“It will only be important to me when coaches are hired and fired and race is not one of the ways they describe them,” he said in 2012. “Then it would mean something.”

Russell left such a mark on the sport of basketball, that the NBA renamed it’s MVP trophy after him.

Off the court, Russell was a civil rights activist, exposing discrimination in the league and injustice in society. That led former President Barack Obama to award him the presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.

“I hope that one day in the streets of Boston children will look up to not only the statue of Bill Russell the player but Bill Russell the man,” Obama said during the award ceremony.

Through his Twitter account, Russell’s family thanked fans for keeping him in their prayers. The hall of famer died with his wife Jeannine by his side.

“I would be perfectly at ease and at peace to be buried in an unmarked grave,” Russell previously said in 2012.

“If you really believe in God – really believe – he does not need a marker to find you – and I don’t care if anyone else finds me,” he joked a the time.

The Russell family has not revealed his cause of death, but they did say he died peacefully.

Following his death Sunday, the Bill Russell statue in the shadow of Boston City Hall has become a memorial, with many fans coming out to pay tribute. And for them, the loss of Russell is about so much more than sports.

As the sun set on a sad day for the sports world, Boston is mourning the loss of a legend — but not because of his many titles. The Hall of Famer’s legacy goes far beyond the basketball court.

“No one was ready for this day that was coming,” one man said.

“This guy was a hero,” Jumaane Morris said. “”I don’t cry for any celebrity but he was more than a celebrity especially for many and specifically many that look like myself.”

“Bigger than basketball, you know? He’s not just an athlete,” Diego Veliz said.

“He tried to stand up for everybody no matter what your color was, religion or where you were from,” Scott Doyle said. “Just a true gentleman who happened to play basketball.”

But with everything he did for civil rights and social justice, Russell was embarrassed when his statue went up in 2013 — he didn’t want the accolades. He wanted to stand up for what’s right. And even though he’s gone, he will forever stand in Boston.

“It’s history and he’s history, and everyone should know how great he was,” Bonnie Doyle said.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation said the Zakim Bridge, the Longfellow Bridge, the Fore River Bride and the Burns Bridge will all be green tonight in honor of the civil rights icon.

City Hall is also lit up Celtics green Sunday night in honor of Russell, with Mayor Michelle Wu calling Russell a role model who fought for justice, equality and labor rights.

“Bill Russell gave so much to the city of Boston,” Wu wrote on Twitter. “We owe him a debt of gratitude & we will miss him.”

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said Boston and Massachusetts were lucky to be a part of Russell’s life story, calling him the greatest of all time.

“Bill Russell was the definition of a legend,” Baker wrote on Twitter. “He was a consummate winner and a trailblazer who broke barriers in the game of basketball and the game of life for Black athletes and Americans throughout his career and life.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren called Russell “a legend on and off the court,” noting how he was a “trailblazer for justice and equality.”

“My heart goes out to his loved ones as we all honor his powerful legacy and look to his example,” the senator wrote on Twitter.

Sen. Ed Markey said Bill Russell will always be, “a hero, a disruptor, a leader, a giant.”

“Brilliance, fairness and justice personified,” Markey wrote on Twitter. “The greatest winner in the history of all sports and the conscience of our city.”

Attorney General Maura Healey, who is hoping to be elected governor in November, said Russell knew what it meant to lead — on and off the court — to stand tall and firm when confronted by injustice.

“We lost a giant today, but his legacy will live on in all those inspired by his example,” Healey added.

Massachusetts Senate President Karen Spilka said not only was Russell successful both personally and professionally, but he used his success to advocate on behalf of others and to call out injustice in many forms.

“Both in Basketball courts and the court of public opinion, Russell changed our country for the better,” she wrote in a tweet.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley called Russell an “undisputed champion and unapologetic advocate for a more just & equitable world” — standing tall both on and off the court.

“Most importantly, he was a man with a family and beloved community,” she added.

Former congressman Joe Kennedy III said Russell was a champion in every sense of the word.

“We won’t see another like him,” he added.

The Red Sox, who played a home game versus the Milwaukee Brewers on Sunday, held a moment of silence at Fenway Park.

“Bill Russell gave so much to Boston,” the Red Sox wrote on Twitter. “He is a legend in every sense.”

“Bill Russell epitomized the success that we aspire to achieve – a quintessential champion who used his platform to stand up to the injustices of society and advocate for those whose voices are not always heard. His lifelong dedication to helping young children find mentors motivated us to develop the Red Sox Mentoring Challenge in his honor, and his strength in combating racism as a civil rights leader continues to resonate today,” the Red Sox wrote.

“Our hearts are heavy as we send our deepest condolences to the Russell family. Please know that the fire that burned so bright in him will continue to inspire us at Fenway Park.”

PHOTOS: The Life of NBA, Celtics Great Bill Russell

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