A Likeness to Fit the Bill

Bill Russell’s finally getting the damn statue. But what should it look like?

Illustrations by Jesse Lenz; Photographs by Fawn DeViney

Illustrations by Jesse Lenz; Photographs by Fawn DeViney

Bill Russell is a civil rights activist, bestselling author, and passionate education advocate who, by the way, also happened to win 11 NBA championships in 13 years. In the process, he established the Celtics dynasty and became the first African American to coach a team in one of the country’s major pro sports.

So, how do you design a statue that symbolizes all of that?

That’s the question facing the Bill Russell Legacy Committee, assembled by the Celtics and the city of Boston in a joint effort to come up with a sculpture that captures the breadth of this complex man’s accomplishments. This May, the committee putout a call for artists to send in their credentials. Eventually, three finalists will submit proposals (due August 1), and the winner of the competition will be granted $250,000 to make his or her vision a reality.

The real challenge will be combining Russell the man — proud, defiant, courageous — with Russell the consummate team player. That won’t be as simple as just casting a likeness of old Number 6 in his uniform. While there are many memorable photos of Russell, there isn’t a particular iconic image that neatly encapsulates his life. Bobby Orr’s statue portrays him famously aloft and Ted Williams is depicted, naturally enough, with a bat. But Russell’s greatness was confined to no singular act or skill; it was evident in his consistency and perseverance both on the court and off.

For his part, Russell, who at 77 is still going strong, seems indifferent to the design. “I can wait and see,” he says. “Tommy has been bugging me about this statue.”

Tommy, of course, is Tommy Heinsohn, Russell’s teammate and now a beloved Celtics broadcaster. Heinsohn is also an accomplished artist, so it was a natural fit when he was asked to join the committee. Unlike Russell, he has definite ideas about the statue. It should be “very unique for all of sports,” he says, although he declines to reveal his specific vision.

But he does offer some clues. For Heinsohn, capturing Russell’s humanity is the key. As Heinsohn says, “He taught the city teamwork and how people could get along.”