Give Bill Russell a Damn Statue!
The greatest (and most complicated) Celtic of them all, may not care one way or the other if his bronzed image goes up outside the Garden. But in a city with a past as complicated as our own, we should.
WITH A NEW CELTICS SEASON under way, it’s remarkable to think about the change that has taken place in the four decades since Russell retired, when there was still talk of roster quotas, and when he was asked if, as a “Negro coach” — the first in the league, by the way — he could be fair to his white players. Every meaningful player on this year’s Celtics team is black. Rivers, who is African American, is generally regarded as one of the best leaders in his field, unburdened with the usual coded racial qualifiers like “player’s coach.” In Rajon Rondo, the Celtics have a black athlete who is poised to become Boston’s next signature star.
These are milestones made all the more striking by their normalcy. But there is a legacy attached, and the legacy belongs to Russell, the Celtics, and the city of Boston.
So I presented the statue idea to Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca in late August. Russell needs a statue, I told him. He was intrigued but wanted time to talk with the other owners. The team is a partnership and its policy is to speak with one voice. Fair enough.
A few weeks later, the team sent me a statement:
“Bill Russell is one of the greatest basketball players and Celtics of all time, and perhaps the greatest winner in the history of team sports. Creating a permanent tribute to Bill is something that we have discussed internally and would like to pursue over the course of the upcoming season.”
There are still hurdles to clear. No doubt private funds will have to be raised, as was the case with Orr’s statue. Delaware North, the company that owns the Garden and the Bruins, would have to be onboard. But relations between the two teams are said to be strong these days, and the mayor’s office told me they would be supportive of the effort.
These are powerful forces aligning. Now let’s give the man his due.