SAN FRANCISCO — Bill Russell, who led the University of San Francisco (USF) to back-to-back NCAA Championships in 1955 and ’56 and won 11 NBA Championships in his 13-year professional career with the Boston Celtics, has been selected as one of three recipients for the Sports Illustrated Muhammad Ali Legacy Award, which is presented to individuals for their incomparable athletic career and decades as social activists.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jim Brown join Russell as this year’s recipients. The group will be honored during SI’s Sportsperson of the Year event on Dec. 12, 2016 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.
Chris Stone, Sports Illustrated Group editor in chief said of the honorees: “In 2016 we learned that the consequences of speaking out on hard issues were often painful ones, but also how deeply athletes can impact and advance the conversation on those same, hard issues. Jim Brown, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar all recognized, and acted on this in a far harder time in America. That was the example of their friend, Muhammad Ali, and the torch they’ve carried for the more than a half-century.”
Abdul-Jabbar, Brown and Russell are beacons of thoughtful discourse on racial and social inequality and their impact has been felt worldwide. In one profound example, the three came together nearly five decades ago in what became known as the “Ali Summit.” The 1967 meeting, organized by Brown, was attended by many top athletes of that era to support Muhammad Ali’s fight against induction into the U.S. Army as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. It was a time of civil and social unrest in the U.S., and the public display of unity was a transformational moment in the fight for civil rights and for the notion that athletes’ voices should be heard beyond the field of play.
On this year’s award winners Lonnie Ali said: “Congratulations to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jim Brown and Bill Russell for their numerous athletic successes and more importantly, the leadership they all have displayed to make this world a much better place. Particular recognition this year goes to Kareem for being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama and Jim for the new statue that sits outside of Cleveland Browns stadium that was dedicated to his achievements with the organization. In times of hardship and adversity, these three remarkable individuals continued to stand up as activists to pave the way for those that followed. I honor you for that and I know Muhammad certainly would be proud that you are receiving the award that bares his name.”
Russell was a passionate spokesman for social and racial injustice throughout his playing career and following his retirement in 1968. One of the most influential figures in sports history, Russell challenged social injustices while becoming one of the greatest winners in sports history. He was a prominent voice among athletes during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s and took part in the March on Washington in 1963 and was in attendance when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” on the National Mall. He was a staunch supporter of Muhammad Ali’s anti-Vietnam War stance.
Russell has received the NBA’s National Civil Rights Museum Sports Legacy Award, and in 2011 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama.
“To be a true influence of positive change in the world often means that you have to stand up against injustice and fight through adversity,” said Russell. “I am honored to be recognized alongside some of the great cultural icons of our time who have used their platforms to fight for civil rights and social justice, regardless of the risk, including my good friend Muhammad Ali to whom the award is dedicated. Our work has just begun.”
One of the greatest players in the history of the game, Russell became the centerpiece of USF’s back-to-back NCAA Championship teams in 1955 and ’56, despite being largely ignored by national recruiters. He was a two-time first team All-American and earned Helms Foundation National Player of the Year honors following his junior and senior seasons. A two-time West Coast Athletic Conference Player of the Year, Russell helped the Dons to a then-NCAA record 60-game winning streak and scored 1,636 points and grabbed 1,606 rebounds in his three-year varsity career.
Drafted second overall in the 1956 NBA Draft by the St. Louis Hawks and then was traded to the Boston Celtics. He led the Celtics to 11 NBA Championships in 13 seasons, was a five-time NBA Most Valuable Player, a twelve-time All-Star and was named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA history in 1996. Russell was also a member of the 1956 United States’ Olympic Team which won a gold medal. Born in Monroe, La., Russell is enshrined into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame, the FIBA Hall of Fame and the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame. The NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award is named in his honor.
The Sports Illustrated Legacy Award was born in 2008, when Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder and driving force behind the Special Olympics, was the inaugural honoree. In 2014, Earvin (Magic) Johnson was honored for his two decades as an entrepreneur, philanthropist, social and political activist. Last year SI renamed the award in honor of Ali in recognition of his decades as a boxing legend, humanitarian, civil rights activist and icon. Jack Nicklaus was the first to receive the rededicated award, during the 2015 Sportsperson of the Year ceremony.
Time Inc. contributed to this release.