President Biden remembered NBA legend Bill Russell, who passed away on Sunday at 88, as a “great American” and an “all-time champion of champions,” joining a chorus of U.S. leaders in commemorating the life of one of the greatest basketball players in history.
In a statement released Sunday, Biden noted Russell’s 11 NBA championships were the most of all time, and that he was an Olympic gold medalist and the first Black head coach of a North American professional sports team.
But the president also celebrated Russell’s leadership outside the arena, remembering the Boston Celtics star as a trailblazer for the political activism among athletes.
“From a childhood in segregated Louisiana to a career playing on the biggest stages in sports at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Bill faced the hostility and hate of racism embedded in every part of American life,” the president said in a statement. “Yet, he never gave up. Throughout his life, he forced us to confront hard truths.
“On this day, there are generations of Americans who are reflecting on what he meant to them as someone who played for the essential truth that every person is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect,” Biden added.
Former President Obama tweeted Sunday, “today we lost a giant.”
“As tall as Bill Russell stood, his legacy rises far higher—both as a player and as a person,” wrote Obama, who awarded the presidential medal of freedom to Russell in 2011.
And former President Bill Clinton remembered Russell as a “legendary player and coach, and an even better person.”
Russell, a five-time MVP who was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975, fought for civil rights throughout his career, including boycotting games because of discrimination and leading integrated basketball camps.
His activism set the stage for many athletes today, from Colin Kaepernick kneeling on the sidelines of NFL games to Lebron James regularly speaking out on social justice.
Biden on Sunday also noted Russell attended Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 1963, where he was a “towering champion for freedom, equality, and justice as Dr. King delivered a dream for the Nation.”
“Bill Russell is one of the greatest athletes in our history – an all-time champion of champions, and a good man and great American who did everything he could to deliver the promise of America for all Americans,” the president said.