Bill Russell had more N.B.A. championship rings than he had fingers and as many Most Valuable Player Awards as all other Boston Celtics players combined.
But in the hours after Russell’s family announced his death on Sunday, N.B.A. players remembered him as so much more.
Legend. Trailblazer. “Everything we all 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 in the 1950s and 1960s, including three as a player-coach. He was the first Black coach in the N.B.A., and he was known for his civil rights activism during and after his playing days. He has remained visible around the N.B.A. as a fan, mentor and symbol of greatness. The finals M.V.P. trophy is named after him, and he would often attend games wearing a purple hat with the initials of 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 1980s, there were Thomas and another 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 gentle giant, a very intelligent man, and used his voice and platform to fight for Black people.”
Michael Jordan, who dominated the 1990s with the Chicago Bulls, said in a statement that Russell was a “pioneer.”
“He paved the way and set an example for every Black player who came 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 in 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 a picture of Russell talking with Pierce and other N.B.A. players. “I’ll never forget this day we was like kids sitting around a camp fire listening to your stories,” Pierce wrote.
Pau Gasol, whose Lakers faced Pierce in the finals twice, shared a picture on Twitter of himself with Russell, calling him “one of the most dominant players in @NBA history.”
“I’ll forever 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 a list 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 photo of Russell with Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jim Brown in 1967, when a group of Black athletes were showing support for Ali’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War.
Calling Russell “one of the greatest athletes ever,” Brown said: “Thank you for paving the way and inspiring so many Today is a sad day but also great day to celebrate his legacy and what he stood for.”
In recent years, 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 at all times!! The ultimate leader and just happened to be one of the best hoopers ever! RIP Mr Russell, you will be dearly missed,” he wrote.