Bill Russell receives 2010 Medal of Freedom from President Obama

Russell was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, by President Barack Obama in 2011.

The basketball world lost one of its biggest giants with the passing of Hall of Fame center Bill Russell. The former Boston Celtics great died on Sunday at the age of 88.

Plain and simple, Bill Russell was the greatest winner in the history of American team sports. He won championships at every level while being the dominant presence on every team he played for. He was the cornerstone of the great Celtics dynasty that won 11 National Basketball Association Association championships between 1956-1969.

As a collegian, Russell led the University of San Francisco to back to back NCAA Tournament championships in 1955 and 1956 while also leading the Dons on a 55-game winning streak. He was also the captain of the USA Olympic team that won the gold medal at the 1956 Summer Games in Melbourne, Australia.

He revolutionized the game with his defensive prowess and rebounding. He was an uncanny shot blocker who also finished his career with an average of more than 22 rebounds a game.

Russell’s accomplishments on the court put him in the conversation of best players to ever play the game of basketball. As great as he was on the court, he was just as big a giant off the court as a pioneer and civil rights leader. Russell became the first Black coach in the history of the NBA in 1967. As the player-coach of the Celtics, he led the franchise to back to back world championships in 1968 and 1969.

Russell was also a powerful voice in the civil rights movement as he was uncompromising and dignified in his activism. Even in the face of unspeakable acts of racism levied against him and his family in the city of Boston, where he put up championship banners, he never wavered. He was part of a prominent group of Black athletes who supported Muhammad Ali when he refused induction into the armed forces. He was part of that iconic picture which featured Ali, Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, which was taken at the Cleveland Summit in 1967.

In 2011, Russell was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the nation’s highest civilian award, by President Barack Obama.

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