Basketball Legend William “Bill” Russell Presented with James Smithson Bicentennial Medal

May 4, 2005

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History presented Hall of Fame basketball legend William “Bill” Russell with the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal for his two-and-a-half decades of service to the museum during an evening reception on May 5. The Smithson Medal is awarded under the Secretary of the Smithsonian’s authority to persons who have made distinguished contributions to the advancement of areas of interest to the Institution.

Russell began his career in basketball at the University of San Francisco from 1952-1956. He led USF to two NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956 and led the U.S. Olympic basketball team to a gold medal in the 1956 Olympics. He spent his entire professional career as a player with the Boston Celtics, which he led to 11 NBA championships in 13 seasons from 1956 to 1969. Following his successful playing career, Russell became the first-ever African American NBA head coach, spending two years as a player/coach with the Celtics, and another 15 seasons coaching the Seattle Supersonics and the Sacramento Kings. He was inducted into the basketball hall of fame in 1975. 

Russell’s relationship with the museum began in 1979, with the donation of items from his illustrious career to the museum’s sports collections. In 2001, he was asked to serve on the museum’s Blue Ribbon Commission, which advised the museum on the most timely and relevant themes and methods of presentation for exhibitions in the 21st century. In 2004, Russell was named ambassador for the exhibition “Sports: Breaking Records, Breaking Barriers,” which opened at the museum in October 2004 and is presently on tour as part of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. The exhibition includes the basketball he was given after his 10,000th rebound and his 1967 Boston Celtics jersey.

The James Smithson Bicentennial Medal, named after the British scientist who endowed his estate for the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution, was introduced in 1965 to honor the 200th anniversary of Smithson’s birth. Past recipients include Artie Shaw, Celia Cruz, Julia Child and Walter Cronkite.

The National Museum of American History traces American heritage through exhibitions of social, cultural, scientific and technological history. Collections are displayed in exhibitions that interpret the American experience from Colonial times to the present. The museum is located at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W. and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., except Dec. 25. For more information, visit or call 
(202) 633-1000 or (202) 357-1729 (TTY).