Remembering Bill Russell: Notable tributes to Celtics legend


If you're unfamiliar with the monumental legacy of Bill Russell, you need only to revisit the tributes that poured in following Russell's passing last summer.

When Russell died on July 31 at age 88, the entire NBA community mourned the loss of the Boston Celtics legend, who to this day is the winningest player in North American team sports with 11 championships over 13 seasons.

Russell's impact extended far beyond the court, however: He was a passionate advocate for racial justice, both in the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement and in the 21st century when he supported modern-day athletes in their boycotts against social injustice.

Celebrating Bill Russell: On-court achievements | Legacy as Civil Rights activist

In many ways, Russell changed the game both on and off the court. To capture his enduring legacy, we've compiled some of the most touching tributes to the Celtics legend from those who knew him best and those who admired him from afar.

Editor's Note: Bill Russell will be honored on several occasions in February, first in a Netflix documentary titled, "Bill Russell: Legend" that drops Feb. 8, and again on Feb. 12 with "Bill Russell Night" at TD Garden during the Celtics' game against the Memphis Grizzlies. NBC Sports Boston is publishing a three-part series honoring Russell's incredible life both on and off the court.

Mike Gorman, Celtics play-by-play announcer

Gorman grew up watching Russell thrive on the court for the 1960s Celtics, but the longtime NBC Sports Boston broadcaster hopes fans remember Russell just as much for his contributions away from basketball.

"For young players, I hope they understand who this man was off the court," Gorman told Chris Forsberg on the Celtics Talk Podcast last summer. " ... I hope that kids will understand that this was a man who wanted to change our culture for the good, and he was willing to go out and do it, even though that was not a popular thing to do." 

Here's more from Gorman on how he hopes Russell is remembered:

Doc Rivers, former Celtics and current 76ers head coach

Russell became the first Black head coach in NBA history in 1966 when he took over for Red Auerbach as the Celtics' player-coach. Russell won two championships over the next three seasons as Boston's head coach and paved the way for Black head coaches of generations to come.

That included former NBA player and 24-year coaching veteran Doc Rivers, who summed up Russell's impact succinctly:

"Without Bill Russell, I'm not coaching."

Brad Stevens, Celtics president of basketball operations

If winning is your goal, then you should probably be studying Bill Russell. That was Stevens' thought process even before he came to the Celtics, as he told Chris Forsberg last summer that Russell helped define the "Butler Way" when Stevens was coaching there.

"Half the stuff in our locker room at Butler, in a school of 4,000 in central Indiana, was written and defined by Bill Russell and his runs with the Celtics," Stevens told Forsberg. "I just think that's the legacy and the (impact on the) game that is just immeasurable."

Paul Pierce, former Celtics star

As the Celtics' franchise player for more than a decade, Pierce got to develop a personal relationship with Russell, who would occasionally stop by Boston's practices and games to offer Pierce advice and encouragement.

But as Pierce recalled earlier this season, Russell couldn't resist having some fun at Pierce's expense.

"You know that infectious laugh that he had? He'd come in, give you the middle finger and start laughing," Pierce recalled during a recent appearance on Celtics Pregame Live. "When he first did it to me, I was like, 'Woah.' And then I'd laugh, and that kind of brought the tension back down."

Here's Pierce relaying that story and discussing Russell's impact on the game of basketball:

Bill Belichick, Patriots head coach

Bill Belichick was only in his second year with New England when Russell actually came to Foxboro to speak with the Patriots in 2001. New England went on to win the Super Bowl that year to launch a dynasty that spanned the next two decades, and we'd like to think Russell's advice to Belichick and his team played a role in developing that winning mentality.

Here's Belichick recalling that meeting and sharing his thoughts on Russell the person and unparalleled champion:

Grant Williams, Celtics forward

After the Golden State Warriors defeated the Celtics in the 2022 NBA Finals, Russell tweeted a short but direct video message:

"Congratulations Warriors. Enjoy it. Next year, the Celtics will be back."

Just over a month later, after Russell's death, Grant Williams vowed that the Celtics would do all they could to deliver on Russell's promise.

"(We're) looking to make what he said in a simple tweet come to fruition and dedicating this season to him," Williams said.

We can think of few better ways to honor Russell's legacy than the Celtics capturing Banner 18 this summer.

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