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Bill Russell

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President Obama presents the Medal of Freedom Award to Bill Russell (By Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

As accomplished as NBA legend Bill Russell was on the court, he was also a giant off the court. Why else would President Obama see fit to present Russell with a Presidential Medal of Freedom Award in 2010?

On the hardwood, Bill Russell was the cornerstone of the Boston Celtics’ dynasty of the 1960s, winning an unprecedented 11 championships in his 13 seasons. A skilled shotblocker, Russell revolutionized NBA defensive concepts. A five-time NBA Most Valuable Player and a 12-time All-Star, Russell averaged 22.5 rebounds per game and led the league in rebounding four times. He had 51 boards in one game, 49 in two others and a dozen consecutive seasons of 1,000 or more rebounds.

William Felton Russell was born on February 12, 1934, in Monroe, Louisiana. His family later moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where Russell would go on to attend the University of San Francisco, where he blossomed. Russell would lead the University of San Francisco to 56 consecutive victories and NCAA Championships in 1955 and 1956. Russell was named the NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player in 1955.

Boston Celtics Coach and General Manager Red Auerbach drafted Russell to the Celtics in 1956, but Russell didn’t join the Celtics until December because he was a member of the 1956 U.S. Olympic basketball team, which won a gold medal at the Melbourne Games in November.

After another NBA Championship in 1965-66, Red Auerbach retired, and Russell took over as player-coach the following season, becoming the first African-American coach in the league. He led the Celtics to a 60-21 regular-season record, but Boston finally had their streak of championships snapped when they lost to a powerful Philadelphia 76ers team in the Eastern Division Finals.

Having witnessed racism and all its ugliness firsthand as a child growing up in segregated Louisiana, Russell took public stands against discrimination throughout his career. Before the 1961–62 NBA season, Russell refused to play in an exhibition game in Lexington, Kentucky when he and his black teammates were refused service at a local restaurant. Russell also joined other prominent black athletes like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in publicly supporting Muhammad Ali’s decision to refuse to be drafted.

Until the ascent of Michael Jordan in the 1980s and ’90s, Russell was considered by many as the greatest player in the history of the NBA.

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