Former President Obama memorialized Bill Russell on Sunday in a statement on Twitter after the NBA legend’s family announced he had died at 88.
“Today, we lost a giant,” Obama wrote.
“As tall as Bill Russell stood, his legacy rises far higher—both as a player and as a person,” he continued.
The 11-time NBA champion was known not just for his skill in the sport, becoming a 12-time All Star and being named Most Valuable Player five times, but also for his record as a trailblazer. Russell was the first Black head coach of any North American professional sports team.
He also attended Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington in 1963, and Russell supported Muhammad Ali when he refused to be inducted into the military draft during the Vietnam War.
“Perhaps more than anyone else, Bill knew what it took to win and what it took to lead,” Obama wrote. “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.”
“For decades, Bill endured insults and vandalism, but never let it stop him from speaking up for what’s right,” Obama said. “I learned so much from the way he played, the way he coached and the way he lived his life. Michelle and I send our love to Bill’s family, and everyone who admired him.”
Obama awarded Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.
In 2017, Russell posted a viral photo of himself kneeling while wearing the medal, saying he was taking a knee to stand against social injustice.
Russell was a first-round draft pick in 1956 by the St. Louis Hawks, and he was later traded to the Boston Celtics.
While in Boston, Russell spent 10 years as a player and three as a coach, and the Celtics won 11 championships in that time.