It’s easy to remember the shots that Bill Russell blocked or the N.B.A. championships he won. After all, there were so many of each that he is considered one of the greatest basketball players in history, and in some corners, the greatest, period.
But after his nearly nine decades of life, his most consequential legacy has less to do with the sport he dominated than his work off the court. From the time he was a young man to his death at age 88 on Sunday, Russell was a civil rights activist who consistently used his platform as a celebrity athlete to confront racism, no matter whom it alienated or what it did to his public popularity. And he was one of the first to do so.
Now, it is common for athletes across many sports to be outspoken, no doubt inspired by Russell. The N.B.A. players’ union encourages its members to be passionate about their politics, especially around social justice. Without Russell’s risking his own livelihood and enduring the cruelties he did as a Black player in the segregated Boston of the 1950s and 1960s, athlete activism would look much different today, if it existed at all.