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Encore: Bill Russell, basketball legend with record 11 NBA titles, dies at 88

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

Basketball has lost one of its legendary players and coaches. Former Boston Celtics center Bill Russell died yesterday at 88. Russell had won more NBA titles than any player in history. All 11 were with the Celtics. He was also a five-time league MVP who changed the game, making shot blocking a key component on defense. And as NPR's Tom Goldman reports, he was a Black athlete who spoke against racial injustice when that was much more difficult to do.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: To understand this man and superlative athlete, it helps to remember a parent's lesson. One day, when Bill Russell was 9, he was outside his apartment in the projects in Oakland, Calif. Five boys ran by. One slapped him in the face. He and his mother went looking for the group, and when they found them, young Bill expected mom justice. Instead, Katie Russell said, fight them one at a time. He won two, lost three. In a 2013 interview for the Civil Rights History Project, Russell said his mother's message to her teary son changed his life.

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BILL RUSSELL: She says, don't cry. Doesn't matter whether you won or lost. The matter is you stood up for yourself. And that's what you must always do.

GOLDMAN: He certainly did on the basketball court, where he blossomed late but ended up revolutionizing the game.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Krebs from the corner. His outside shot blocked by Russell. And now Russell has made three big plays in the last three minutes of the game. Barnett goes in, and Russell blocks it.

GOLDMAN: By 1963, in this NBA Finals game, Bill Russell was a shot blocking menace, which represented a sea change in the game. The adage always had been no good defensive player leaves his feet. In the 1950s, his coach at the University of San Francisco believed that, but Russell didn't. He was also a track and field high jumper, and to him, it made perfect sense to elevate in basketball as well.

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RUSSELL: Basically what I was doing was bringing the vertical game to a game that had been horizontal.

GOLDMAN: The results were convincing. Russell led San Francisco to NCAA titles in 1955 and '56. In 1956, he also led the U.S. to an Olympic gold medal and then a historic NBA run.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Basketball in Boston. It's the NBA Finals, with Bill Russell, number 6, brilliantly spearheading the Celtics before a capacity crowd of 14,000.

GOLDMAN: From 1957 to '69, the Celtics won 11 titles, including eight straight. There were great players like Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn, Sam and K. C. Jones and so many others, but none like Russell. He was the bridge to all 11 championships - a competitor so fierce he'd often throw up before games. Success, though, couldn't hide a difficult relationship with the city where he played. Russell didn't trust some of Boston's white fans who'd cheer the winning but then complain the team had too many Black players. In a Boston Globe documentary, former teammate Tom Heinsohn remembered how the Boston suburb of Redding, where Russell lived, held a dinner to honor him.

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TOM HEINSOHN: He was so taken aback that he broke down and started to cry, and he said that he wished he could live in Redding for the rest of his life.

GOLDMAN: But not long after, people broke into Russell's house, destroyed trophies and defecated in his bed. His relationship to those outside the Celtics locker room became chilly. He got a reputation for being surly. He refused to sign autographs. On the other hand, Russell loved the Celtics and the progressive white people who ran the franchise. During the dynasty years, the Celtics became the first NBA team to have an all-Black starting lineup, and in 1966, more history as heard in this NBA TV documentary.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Here he is, the new coach of the Celtics. The best to you.

GOLDMAN: When legendary head coach Red Auerbach retired, he named Russell to take his place - the first Black head coach in the NBA. It was historic, but Bill Russell said he didn't care. He simply believed he was the best man for the job, although a reporter questioned that at a press conference after the announcement.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The first Negro coach of a major league sport - can you do the job impartially without any racial prejudice in reverse?

RUSSELL: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: How?

RUSSELL: Because the most important factor is respect. In basketball, respect a man for his ability, period.

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MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: I have a dream...

GOLDMAN: The Celtics dynasty dovetailed with the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and Bill Russell fully engaged. He sat in the front row at Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic "I Have A Dream" speech. He and Black teammates boycotted a game in Kentucky when a restaurant denied them service. He joined other prominent Black athletes in supporting boxer Muhammad Ali, who refused to join the military during the Vietnam War. And Russell wrote a book, "Go Up For Glory."

DAMIAN THOMAS: It really changed how athletes wrote about themselves and society.

GOLDMAN: Damian Thomas curates the sports exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. He says Russell's book, part of the exhibit, was a transformational autobiography.

THOMAS: Rather than just merely sticking to sports, we began to see athletes offer opinions about race, opinions about politics and things of that nature.

GOLDMAN: Bill Russell's life was long - at times profound, at times messy. He had a falling out with longtime friend and fierce competitor Wilt Chamberlain. Russell didn't like the word rival. Later in life, they reconciled. Russell also reconciled his feelings, somewhat, about the city of Boston. Through it all, there was this constant.

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RUSSELL: (Laughter).

GOLDMAN: A laugh for the ages - as recognizable a part of Bill Russell as the image of him in his number 6 Celtics jersey rising above the court, grabbing a rebound or swatting a shot. The laugh came from another Katie Russell lesson. His mother told him, never hold back on anything. Once again, her son listened well. Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.