Give Bill Russell a Damn Statue!
BILL RUSSELL’S CAREER is ridiculously incomparable. He won 11 championships, and only injuries kept him from an even dozen. Russell was the Celtic sun around which all the other celestial bodies orbited, from Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman to Sam Jones and John Havlicek. “Anyone who played on our teams will tell you, he was the guy primarily responsible,” says Hall of Famer Tommy Heinsohn, who broke into the NBA with Russell in 1956.
The way Russell did it — subverting individual success for the glory of team triumph — was as important to his legacy as what he managed to accomplish. “It’s amazing how we can talk about who’s the greatest player,” says Celtics coach Doc Rivers, “but there’s no argument about who’s the greatest winner.”
Russell’s winning is stunning in its own right, but that’s only part of his story. Throughout his life, Russell has spoken out about injustice and has stood firm in the face of withering racism. A man of both action and intellect, he is an author and an art collector whose favorite childhood refuge was not the gym but the public library. Russell was, and is, a Renaissance man in full. As the author and social activist Dave Zirin puts it: “Bill Russell is on the Mount Rushmore of great athletes who made a difference. He’s there with Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, and Arthur Ashe. That’s Bill Russell’s legacy.”
This legacy did not come without a cost. In a city with a racial dynamic as complex as Boston’s, Russell’s refusal to back down or mince words made him the subject of intense criticism and naked bigotry. There are two stories everyone tells when the topic is Russell and racism in Boston. The first is about vandals breaking into his home, destroying his property, and smearing his walls with racial epithets and his bed with excrement. The second is about how Russell responded to the attack by writing in his book Second Wind that Boston was “a flea market of racism.”
As Bethlehem Shoals notes in the recently released book FreeDarko Presents: The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History: “Russell insisted on being viewed as much more than a dumb jock, scary specimen, or hapless bouncing body. What speaks of the real Bill Russell, though, is the fact that he did so when it was both impossibly bold and almost certain to backﬁre.”
“Bill Russell got tagged with being antiwhite and rude and everything else,” Heinsohn says, “but all he really wanted to do was be recognized as an individual. He had been slighted several times, and he was smart enough to recognize it.”
It should never be said that Russell handled these moments with humility. Drawing inspiration from his grandfather, who stared down the Klan, and from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, Russell responded to the basest levels of racism with defiance — which tended to only further infuriate his critics. The cycle went on and on.