Obama on Bill Russell: ‘Today we lost a giant’

“Perhaps more than anyone else, Bill knew what it took to win and what it took to lead. On the court, he was the greatest champion in basketball history. Off of it, he was a civil rights trailblazer — marching with Dr. King and standing with Muhammad Ali,” Obama said in his statement, referencing Russell’s presence at the 1963 March on Washington and his support for Ali when the boxing champion was stripped of his title and prosecuted for refusing to serve in the U.S. military.

Obama added: “For decades, Bill endured insults and vandalism, but never let it stop him from speaking up for what’s right. I learned so much from the way he played, the way he coached, and the way he lived his life.”

In February 2011, Obama presented Russell with the Medal of Freedom, part of a group that also included civil rights activist John Lewis, poet Maya Angelou, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former President George H.W. Bush.

“More than any athlete of his era, Bill Russell came to define the word ‘winner,’” Obama said at the time. “I hope that one day in the streets of Boston, children will look up at a statue built not only to Bill Russell the player, but Bill Russell the man.”

Russell continued his activism throughout his life.

“I find that white people are often surprised that racial injustice still exists outside of a few ‘bad apples,’” Russell wrote in The Players’ Tribune in 2020. “This surprise is particularly dangerous because racial injustice is rampant throughout every sector of American society, from education to health care to sports, and the fact that this remains surprising to many reveals exactly how different Black and white people’s experiences of life in America are.”

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