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.

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.