A great on and off the court, Russell's legacy will live on beyond basketball

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Bill Russell will go down as a sporting great
Bill Russell will go down as a sporting great

Every NBA championship-winning team has been led by a superstar, and at the centre, both literally and figuratively, of the greatest dynasty in not just the NBA, but in American sports history stood Bill Russell.

An 11-time NBA champion, a five-time league MVP and a 12-time All-Star during a 13-year professional career with the Boston Celtics, Russell is one of the United States’ most decorated basketball players.

He died on Sunday at the age of 88. His family confirmed the news on social media.

"Bill Russell, the most prolific winner in American sports history, passed away peacefully today at age 88, with his wife, Jeannine, by his side," a statement read.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a tribute that Russell was ''the greatest champion in all of team sports.''

Russell, six feet and 10 inches tall, helped revolutionise basketball, taking a hard-nose, defense-first mentality to the court, frustrating opponents with his vast wingspan. He is widely considered one of the greatest basketball players of all time.

Born in Monroe, Louisiana on February 12, 1934, Russell and his family moved to Oakland, California when he was eight years old. His legend on the court began at McClymonds High School, where his menacing defense helped his team to back-to-back state championships in his junior and senior years.

Lightly recruited by colleges, Russell accepted a scholarship to the nearby University of San Francisco, where his game took off as he led the Dons to consecutive NCAA championships as a junior and senior. He was named the NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player in 1955 and the NCAA National Player of the Year in 1956.

One of the most highly coveted prospects of the 1956 NBA Draft, the Celtics acquired Russell in a draft-day trade with the St. Louis Hawks, who selected him with the second pick. A trade that would shape the NBA landscape for the next 13 years.

Before his Celtics debut, however, Russell helped the United States Olympic men's basketball team win the gold medal at the 1956 Melbourne Games.

Once he joined Boston, he made an immediate impact, averaging 14.7 points and 19.6 rebounds during his rookie season in 1956-57 as Boston captured their first NBA title.

In 1958-59, he led the Celtics to the first of an unprecedented eight consecutive NBA championships, culminating with legendary coach Red Auerbach retiring after the last of those titles.

Russell then took over as player-coach, becoming the first African-American coach in the NBA. The Celtics' winning streak was interrupted in the 1966-67 season, before Russell helped guide Boston to two more titles in his final two campaigns in the NBA in 1967-68 and 1968-69, serving as coach in those seasons as well.

Russell ended his career with averages of 15.1 points and 22.5 rebounds and his 21,620 total rebounds trail only Wil Chamberlain for the most in NBA history. When he was enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame on April 28, 1975 he became the first African American to be inducted.

For his postseason achievements, his legacy lives on as the NBA Finals MVP trophy was named the Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award in 2009.

While he may be most remembered for his dominance on the court, he is also regarded as a pioneer in sports activism.

A civil rights advocate during his playing days, Russell used his platform later in life to speak out against social injustices, and in 2011, President Barack Obama awarded him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Russell is survived by his wife Jeannine. He had three children – Karen Russell, William Russell Jr. and Jacob Russell.

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