Give Bill Russell a Damn Statue!
Russell played for the Celtics, he liked to say, making sure to leave out “Boston.” And when his playing days were over, he relocated to Mercer Island, near Seattle, about as far from the Hub as he could physically get.
There is nothing, not even time itself, that can heal all those wounds. Nor should it. Yet time does allow for growth and change. In recent years, starting with the re-retirement of his number, the public image of Russell has undergone something of a metamorphosis. Gone is the fire-breathing militant, and in its place stands an almost mystical, sagelike figure. These days, Russell expresses himself in a sort of Zen-koan style. “I do not ask for understanding,” he wrote in his latest book, Red and Me. “I have never worked to be understood, or accepted, or liked. So no explanations are necessary. I care only about what you do.” Actually, his message hasn’t changed all that much, but now his words are fawned over rather than condemned. And with Red gone, it’s Russell who is the living embodiment of Celtic mystique.
Excuse the heretical underpinnings, but the Celtics dynasty has evolved into something of a trinity, with Russell as the father, Larry Bird as the son, and Auerbach as the spirit. Consider Russell’s memorable television interview with Kevin Garnett during the 2008 NBA playoffs, when he essentially blessed KG as a true Celtic. “I always said you were my favorite player to watch,” Russell told Garnett, who looked away sheepishly. “And you’ve never disappointed me.”
Again, it’s not entirely clear that Russell himself has changed much. He is still generally regarded as aloof and unwilling to suffer fools. Yet a fuller appreciation of the man has emerged. Consider that second, more public ceremony to retire his number. Mixed with the tributes from teammates and rivals was an air of contrition that settled over the proceedings. It was, in essence, an apology, one that culminated in a fan yelling, “We love you, Bill,” and a choked-up Russell responding, “I love you, too.”
That’s progress. But what must not be forgotten or glossed over is that Russell has never fully made peace with Boston, nor it with him. That fact is a part of history, and what’s more, it’s our history.
Russell doesn’t need a statue for pride, ego, or validation. When I reached out to Karen, his daughter, she politely declined the invitation for an interview, offering, “Good luck with your piece.” This isn’t about Russell, or even the Celtics, although they are the caretakers of their history. This is about us.
The city of Boston has been known to get defensive about the old days. “We’re past that” is the operative phrase. Well, if that’s true, what better way to show it than by embracing this complex, fascinating, and proud man in some tangible way?