Should we give Bill Russell a statue? The easy answer is yes.
He won 11 championships in 13 seasons, becoming the greatest winner in team sports history. He delivered the Boston Celtics their first dynasty, the most impressive dynasty in professional sports history. He personified team basketball, preferring to rebound and block shots rather than score. He kept his blocks inbounds, so that his teammates could run the fast break.
He was obsessed with winning, and every movement and decision Russell made on a basketball court was designed to earn a ‘W’. He won five MVP trophies, played in twelve All-Star games, and, while he was doing so, revolutionized the game. When Russell came into the NBA, the average center was a big, white stiff with Zydrunas Ilgauskas’s athleticism. By the time Russell left the game, teams wanted their centers to imitate the grace and mobility Russell displayed, to affect a game on both ends of the floor.
If Bobby Orr, Ted Williams and Red Auerbach all have statues standing in Boston, why not Bill Russell? The answer to that could be simple — private funding is necessary to fund these statues, and I doubt statues come cheap. Or it could be a lot more complicated — one word, race.
I’m not normally one to pull the race card, but in this case it’s difficult not to. Russell’s the greatest winner in Boston history (which is natural, since he’s the greatest winner in sports history), and arguably the greatest individual athlete ever to play in the city. Yet he doesn’t have a statue, while two other (white) athletes do. Really, though, did Boston ever call Bill Russell its own? Even when Russell won 11 rings, there was a racial dynamic, a complicated tension, between Russell and the city.
By all accounts, Russell was a hard-headed man willing to stand for his beliefs, no matter what reaction those beliefs encouraged from the public. In an interview with Sports Illustrated in 1999, Russell was asked whether he would deal with Boston’s racism differently if he had a second chance. Would he still be the same hard-headed man, desperate to fight his own battles rather than stay away from controversy? Would he have changed if he knew it would have spared him the humiliation and cruelty he encountered?
Russell replied, “Well, there was never any humiliation; I’d never let anybody do that to me. I am 100 percent sure I did things the correct way. People will observe and say, ‘Well, there’s a better way.’ And most of the time they don’t know what they’re talking about; they haven’t been trying. And there’s no such thing as a better way.”
Russell continued, “For my life experiences, for my intelligence or lack of, the things that I did for me, that was the best and only way to do what I did. And I don’t brag or apologize. That’s it. It’s neither good nor bad; it’s different.”
Russell wasn’t going to let anyone wrong him just because he wanted to avoid controversy. Once, because of Russell’s skin color, a Kentucky restaurant refused to serve Russell a meal. He refused to play in the Celtics exhibition game in that city.
In those days, Boston was seen as a racist city. Russell himself once called it a “flea market of racism.” In fact, Russell experienced so much racially-motivated hatred Sports Illustrated once quoted him as saying, “I dislike most white people because they are people… I like most blacks because I am black.” When he left Boston, Russell claimed the city’s media was corrupt and racist. He couldn’t even accept his fans’ adoration; he felt the white folks who asked for his autograph only liked him because he played basketball well. If he couldn’t block shots at a phenomenal rate, Russell felt, the same fans clamoring for his signature would have seen him as just another black man.
Clearly, the issue of race has been a complicated one in Russell’s life, and especially during his time in Boston. Unlike many other beloved Boston sports stars, Russell bumped heads with the city he helped to so many championships. His basketball career should be remembered strictly for winning, which was the only thing Russell cared about on a basketball court. But by leaving behind a wake of racial unrest, Russell and the city of Boston grew apart in a way that never should have been necessary.
I’m not here to impart blame on either the city or Russell. The city was wrong for judging black people and treating Russell poorly. Maybe Russell shouldn’t have reacted so strongly, though his personality was formed by the injustices he grew up with and continued to experience in Boston. Whatever the reasons, a rift grew between Russell and Boston. While Russell was busy building the Boston Celtics into the NBA’s most successful franchise, he and the city distanced from each other.
I bring this question up — does Russell deserve a statue? — because Paul Flannery wrote a brilliant piece about it for Boston Magazine. In Flannery’s piece, he discusses a conversation he shared with C’s owner Steve Pagliuca about the subject. Pagliuca said he would talk about the subject with his co-owners, and Flannery soon received a statement from the team in the mail:
“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.”
Flannery confirmed the mayor’s office would be onboard with a Russell statue, and he also shared an optimistic view that Delaware North — the company which owns the Bruins and the TD Garden, and would need to sign off on the statue — might okay the statue, as well.
Russell, by visiting Boston rather frequently in recent years and reconnecting with the Celtics, has shown forgiveness for the city’s past transgressions. The city should meet him halfway, and reward the greatest winner in the city’s history with a statue in his likeness. It’s time for Boston to move on from its racism-marred past and embrace the man who led the Boston Celtics to greatness, the man who has done more for Boston sports than any other player.