Commentary

Bill Russell statue long overdue

Boston finally will honor quintessential winner, civil rights advocate

Updated: May 4, 2011, 9:36 PM ET
By Peter May | ESPNBoston.com

If there are going to be statues of athletes in Boston, and we have a few already, doesn't it make sense to have one of the single greatest winner in the history of team sports? One who also happened to play for the Boston Celtics?

Of course it does. The overwhelming reaction to the news that a statue of Bill Russell is in the works for the city of Boston simply has to be, "Well, it's about time." (The Celtics didn't say where the statue would be erected, but assured that one is coming.)

Bobby Orr has a statue. Deserved. Larry Bird has one. Deserved. Red Auerbach has one. Deserved. Ted Williams, who never won a World Series, has a friggin' tunnel named after him.

[+] EnlargeBill Russell
Chip Somodevilla/Getty ImagesBill Russell is presented the Medal of Freedom by President Obama in February.

Russell? Nada. All he did was win 11 championships in 13 years, and it would have been 12 had he not been injured during the 1958 NBA Finals. The Celtics won eight straight NBA titles in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1980, he was named the greatest player in NBA history by the Professional Basketball Writers of America.

No one, not even the sainted Michael Jordan, comes close to this record of winning. I'll throw this out as well: Bill Russell, from his days at the University of San Francisco through the 1956 Olympics and throughout his NBA career, played in 21 games in which the winner advanced and the loser went home. His record in those games: 21-0, including 11-0 in the NBA.

OK, we all think we know why it has taken this long. Russell never embraced the city of Boston when he played here -- it was always "the Celtics" -- and, from what we know, for pretty good reason. Boston was not a hospitable place for African-Americans in the 1950s and '60s (or, as we would discover with court-ordered busing, in the '70s, either). And God forbid that an African-American might be smart, outspoken, defiant and a great basketball player yet refused to sign autographs.

Vandals broke into Russell's suburban Boston house, wrote racial epithets on the walls and left feces on his bed. Sports fans in Boston preferred the Bruins, who were pretty terrible while Russell was winning titles, or the inept Red Sox, who were the last team to integrate in Major League Baseball.

So, no, it wasn't a mutual love affair. When the Celtics retired Russell's number in 1972, Russell insisted it be done in an empty Boston Garden with only his teammates around. When the Hall of Fame called in 1975 to induct him, he declined to attend the ceremony. He has since come around, OK'ing a "re-retirement" of his number in a public ceremony replete with the obligatory "We love ya, Bill" chorus.

There's absolutely no question that Russell's bearded visage belongs on any Mount Rushmore of Boston athletes. If you picked one per major sport, he'd be joined by Williams, Orr and Tom Brady. But if there is a Zeus on this Olympus, it's Russell. Why do they play the game? To win, duh. Did anyone win more than Bill Russell? Not even close. And we won't even mention the five MVP awards because, well, those are individual awards and Russell didn't especially care about those.

In a wonderful story in Boston Magazine, Paul Flannery, arguing for a statue for Russell, quoted author and social activist Dave Zirin as saying, "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."

Yes, Russell also was important off the court. He marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. He was, as noted earlier, outspoken for civil rights, even if the words were painful to some ears. The last time I laid eyes on Bill Russell, he was walking around the gardens of the Palace of Versailles, surrounded by hundreds of unaware tourists. I decided not to disturb him, knowing how he dislikes such things. But I couldn't help but think: "Don't these people know who that it is?" And "How many athletes would take the time to tour the palace that Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette called home before they were sent to the guillotine?"

In February, President Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Russell. He was one of 15 recipients. It's the highest civilian honor the nation can bestow and recognizes contributions to peace, security, the arts or "other significant public or private endeavors."

But Russell also revolutionized the game of professional basketball while coming to epitomize the concept of what the 2008 Celtics would call "ubuntu." He was an athletic freak (he was a high jumper at USF) who combined speed, agility, timing and, above all else, intelligence. On most nights, if Bill Russell looked into the mirror, he would see the smartest player on the floor. Stats were unimportant to him. All that mattered was who won the game.

Before Russell, few other than Red Auerbach thought a defensive-minded, athletic big man could dominate the game with shot-blocking, intimidation, rebounding and passing. But that's exactly what Russell did. And he didn't fit into any mold. He set it.

So bravo to the city of Boston, the Celtics and to all concerned. Who knows? Russ might even consent to attend the unveiling.

Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.

Peter May

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

SPONSORED HEADLINES

EDITORS' PICKS

ALSO SEE

MORE BOSTON HEADLINES