Bill Russell, ranked by many as the greatest basketball player of all time, died in his sleep at age 88 on July 31, 2022. No cause of death was given, but a clue may come from his heart valve surgery more than ten years ago.
When Russell played on a team, the team almost always won.
• His high school team won two state championships
• His San Francisco University college team won two NCAA championships
• He captained the U.S. Olympic team in winning the gold medal in basketball in 1956
• When he played for the Boston Celtics, they won 11 NBA championships in 13 years (with Bob Cousy, Tommy Heinsohn, K.C. Jones, John Havlicek and others)
• As player-coach, Russell’s Boston Celtics won two NBA championships. The only season he did not win the NBA championship, Boston had the best regular-season record in the NBA but lost in the NBA finals.
Russell was the first black head coach of any North American pro sports team. He marched for civil rights with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 when King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Russell was:
• NBA’s Most Valuable Player five times
• NBA All-Star 12 times in the 13 seasons he played for the Celtics
• Voted the greatest player in the NBA history by basketball writers
Russell scored 14,522 points, had 12 consecutive seasons of 1,000 or more rebounds, averaged 22.5 rebounds per game in his 13-year career, led the NBA in rebounds four times and had 51 rebounds in one game.
Taller People Appear to Die Younger than Shorter People
Russell’s family has not given any cause of death for the apparently healthy former athlete. I have not seen his medical records and never met him, but a common cause of death in a very tall 88-year-old former athlete is heart disease. I do not think Russell died of an acute heart attack, but some of the best basketball centers have had heart attacks or heart failure:
• Daryl Dawkins died of an apparent heart attack at age 58
• Moses Malone died of an apparent heart attack at age 60
• Wilt Chamberlin died of heart failure at the age of 63
• Jack Haley died of heart disease at the age of 51
• Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had quadruple bypass surgery at age 68.
A study of nearly 1,700 deaths found that men shorter than 5’9” die at the average age of 71, while the average age of death in men taller than 6’4” is 64 (Bull World Health Organ, 1992;70(2):259-67). Several studies show that being tall is associated with reduced risk for heart attacks, but it is associated with increased risk for a type of irregular heartbeat called atrial fibrillation (PLoS Genetics, June 2, 2022). Russell should not have been at high risk for a conventional heart attack because he exercised all his life, never drank or smoked, and in later life became a vegetarian with a healthful diet. He may have had atrial fibrillation, which in taller people can cause sudden death by stopping the heart from pumping blood to the brain (Rev Cardiovasc Med, 2014;15(2):102-8). Having heart valve disease markedly increases risk for atrial fibrillation (J of the Am Heart Assoc, Dec 22, 2017;6(12):e006475; Pacing Clin Electrophysiol, 1997 Oct;20(10 Pt 2):2670-4). At age 78, in 2012, Russell had open heart surgery to replace a valve in his heart. In 2014, at age 80, he was hospitalized after collapsing at a speaking engagement, and in 2018, at age 84, he was hospitalized for a day. Each of these events could have been caused by an irregular heartbeat.
Atrial Fibrillation Increases Risk for Clots
Taller men are at significantly increased risk for forming blood clots anywhere in the body. Men shorter than 5’3” had a 65 percent lower risk of developing a venous thromboembolism, a type of blood clot that starts in a vein, than men taller than 6’2” (Circulation: Cardiovascular Genetics, 2017;10(5):e001651). It could be because taller people have longer leg veins to form clots.
I believe that Bill Russell lived to age 88 primarily because of his healthful lifestyle. His heart valve problems would be associated with increased risk for irregular heartbeats and clots. Everyone should work to avoid heart disease, the major killer of North Americans, by:
• eating lots of fruits, vegetables, whole (unground) grains, beans and nuts
• following a diet that is low in red meat, processed meats, sugar-added foods, fried foods and refined carbohydrates
• trying to exercise every day
• avoiding smoke, alcohol and recreational drugs
See my report on an Anti-Inflammatory Lifestyle
February 12, 1934 – July 31, 2022