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.

By Paul Flannery | Boston Magazine |
bill russell statue illustration

Illustration by Jesse Lenz

LAST MAY, THE BRUINS finally unveiled a fitting tribute to the biggest star in team history. It was a statue outside TD Garden of the legendary Bobby Orr flying through the air. That famous, frozen-in-time image is from right after Orr scored the goal in 1970 that clinched the Bruins’ first championship in nearly 30 years. It’s as ubiquitous on tavern walls around town as posters commemorating the Easter Uprising of 1916. The Orr statue was long overdue, entirely appropriate, and perfectly rendered, which sort of made you wonder why no one had ever thought to do it before.

[sidebar]In Boston, we now have statues of three sports figures — Orr, Red Auerbach, and Ted Williams — sprinkled throughout the city. (Williams, oddly, also has a tunnel named after him.) That’s quite a list, actually. But there’s one glaring omission: the one sports star — no disrespect here to Teddy Ballgame or Tom Brady — who left a bigger mark on this city than any other. I’m talking about a guy who won 11 championships in 13 seasons. Whose name has become synonymous with victory, hard work, and shared sacrifice. I’m talking about Bill Russell.

This is a disappointing oversight — absurd, really, given Russell’s accomplishments — but a correctable one. What we need is a Bill Russell statue outside the Garden, where the greatest Celtic of them all will stand watch over the franchise he helped build.

Now, it’s true that this whole business of honoring sports stars with statues has gotten out of hand lately. I mean, Bud Selig — the commissioner of baseball, for Pete’s sake — just got one in Milwaukee. But it’s also true that a statue can be an elegant way to celebrate an athlete who meant something in a certain time and place. Michael Jordan has one in Chicago. There’s one for Joe Louis near the arena that bears his name in Detroit. Roberto Clemente’s got one in Pittsburgh. A statue doesn’t simply commemorate the heroics of an athlete. It bonds him for generations to come with the city where he played.

And if ever there were a city and a player that could use a little bonding, it’s Boston and Bill Russell. Look, I’m not saying the man himself is going to be open to the gesture. He remains…unpredictable. When the Celtics first tried to retire Russell’s Number 6, he kept saying no — until the team agreed in 1972 to conduct the ceremony in an empty Garden, with only his former teammates in attendance. (He also declined to attend his own Hall of Fame induction three years later. Pomp and circumstance is evidently not his thing.)

But after a long and conspicuous absence, Russell has been spotted around the team more often lately. He comes back to the Garden sometimes for big games. And in 1999, he attended a public ceremony to re-retire his jersey (after some nudging from his daughter, Karen, and a charitable tie-in with the National Mentoring Partnership.) It seems that the time is right.
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.
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?
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.

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