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Bill Russell Hailed Across Basketball Generations

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Bill Russell had more N.B.A. championship rings than he had fingers and as many Most Worthwhile Player Awards as all other Boston Celtics players combined.

But within the hours after Russell’s family announced his death on Sunday, N.B.A. players remembered him as so far more.

Legend. Trailblazer. “The whole lot all of us aspired to be,” Isiah Thomas, the Hall of Fame point guard from the Detroit Pistons, said in a post on Twitter.

Russell, 88, spent 13 seasons with the Celtics within the Fifties and Sixties, including three as a player-coach. He was the primary Black coach within the N.B.A., and he was known for his civil rights activism during and after his playing days. He has remained visible across the N.B.A. as a fan, mentor and symbol of greatness. The finals M.V.P. trophy is known as after him, and he would often attend games wearing a purple hat with the initials of considered one of his favorite players, Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash in 2020.

Players across basketball generations hailed him on Sunday.

From the Eighties, there have been Thomas and one other Hall of Fame point guard, Magic Johnson of the Lakers.

“Bill Russell was my idol,” Johnson said on Twitter, citing Russell’s basketball talent and position on the “front line fighting for social justice.”

He continued: “Despite all of his achievements, he was so humble, a mild giant, a really intelligent man, and used his voice and platform to fight for Black people.”

Michael Jordan, who dominated the Nineties with the Chicago Bulls, said in a press release that Russell was a “pioneer.”

“He paved the best way and set an example for each Black player who got here into the league after him, including me,” Jordan said. “The world has lost a legend.”

Notable players from the 2000s also spoke of Russell with reverence and a warmth that showed the Celtics icon’s lasting influence within the league.

“I can go on all day about what u meant to me,” Paul Pierce, the Celtics Hall of Famer, said in a tweet.

Pierce, too, called Russell a “pioneer” and “trailblazer.” He also mentioned his “great laugh” and shared an image of Russell talking with Pierce and other N.B.A. players. “I’ll always remember today we was like kids sitting around a camp fire listening to your stories,” Pierce wrote.

Pau Gasol, whose Lakers faced Pierce within the finals twice, shared an image on Twitter of himself with Russell, calling him “one of the dominant players in @NBA history.”

“I’ll without end be honored to have met you,” he said.

Players from the 2010s and present day also pointed to Russell’s humor, activism and basketball skill.

Noting on Twitter that there was no 3-point line or social media during Russell’s heyday, Celtics guard Marcus Smart posted an inventory of Russell’s accomplishments.

“Just played and dominated in a day and a league that was def not soft,” Smart said.

Smart’s teammate Jaylen Brown shared a photograph of Russell with Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jim Brown in 1967, when a gaggle of Black athletes were showing support for Ali’s refusal to fight within the Vietnam War.

Calling Russell “considered one of the best athletes ever,” Brown said: “Thanks for paving the best way and provoking so many Today is a tragic day but in addition great day to rejoice his legacy and what he stood for.”

In recent times, N.B.A. players — Brown included — have more prominently carried on Russell’s legacy of civil rights activism. Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul, who was the president of the players’ union during its social justice efforts after George Floyd’s murder in 2020, also posted about Russell on Twitter on Sunday.

“Unapologetically himself in any respect times!! The last word leader and just happened to be among the finest hoopers ever! RIP Mr Russell, you might be dearly missed,” he wrote.

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