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Statuesque: Bill Russell’s Complicated Legacy

 

Paul Flannery has a long, eloquent piece in this month’s Boston Magazine, arguing that Bill Russell deserves a statue in Boston, to go with the existing monuments to Boston sports legends Bobby Orr, Red Auerbach and Ted Williams.Two Of The Greats

The whole thing is must reading. A couple of excerpts:

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.”

Flannery makes a strong argument for a permanent tribute. The below struck me as particularly lucid reasoning:

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?

That’s all I’m going to excerpt.

Go read the whole thing.

Then come back and let us know your thoughts…

  • TedL

    Put up the statue. Outside TD Garden or next to Red.

  • Ross in Maine

    Great piece that I would have missed if not posted here, thank you.

    I'm convinced. (been conviced since the Bill and KG interview durring 2008 finals)

  • Batman

    Really this is a fact too often forgotten.
    Too many times Celtics fans will go, "Greatest Celtic? Oh clearly Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Bob Cousy, John H, or Paul Pierce". Too many forget to put a name there:: Bill Russell (I'm guilty of this too). Bill Russell may not really be in consideration for greatest player ever: That list seems to be full of names like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Alcindor, etc. (Although Bill should be in there). His stats were amazing, the way he won so many was amazing, his personality/leadership was amazing, and his drive was amazing.

    What was most amazing was the way he attempted to change things. Boston was extremely racist during his time, and still kind of is now (Of course I'm from New York so I don't have a first-hand source but I've heard this). Bill Russell kept on trucking through this racist mire, and although he supposedly left unhappy, he still stayed and laid the groundwork for the greatest basketball franchise in history.

    Give Bill a statue.

    • Tom W

      I agree. Our country is far from perfect from a racism standpoint now, but athletes today have to deal with NOTHING like what Russell had to deal with. And somehow, he did it with grace and class, and absolutely dominated the league. Red clearly deserves a statue, but without Russell, how many rings does he win?

      Russell deserves one as well.

    • What More Can I Say?

      I mean the guy definitely deserves a statue. The question is should it be in Boston. That's where his greatest accomplishments were, but I'd be shocked if Boston does it. It's sad to admit, but I can't see it happening.

      Maybe in San Francisco, outside of USF or in West Oakland, outside of McClymonds high school. Then again, California might be too broke. But I can actually see it happening there.

      Boston???

  • Chris B.

    All Bill Russell did was win and perform. In high school, college, professionally as a player and coach, and in the Olympics. In sports, we tend to value winning more than anything else and he did it like no other. How every conversation about the G.O.A.T. does not start with Russell baffles my mind. Most will start with Jordan and Magic who if you added their rings only equal that of Bill. Obviously. everything is debatable, especially in a society where we (as fans) and the media tend to pick apart every player, team, coach, etc.

    • JP-

      mostly because of the era he played in compared to Jordan and Magic. The NBA was super deep and talented in the Bird Magic era, and it was a smaller (both in number of teams and physically) league when Russell played. I think Russell is the Greatest Winner of All Time, but no the GOAT.

      • What More Can I Say?

        I disagree. I think it's more about offense getting more attention than the era.

        I mean…personally I do believe Jordan is the GOAT, but it's hard for me refute Russell. 11 in 13 years? I think he is overlooked tremendously.

        There are people that say Chamberlain is better than Russell, because Chamberlain's Offense was unstoppable. I believe Russell's defense was unstoppable, but in many people minds, that doesn't carry the same weight. 11 Championships to 1..and they will still tell you Chamberlain.

        I think it's because fans love offense and they appreciate defense (barely). It's not a level field and the end result is Bill getting overlooked.

  • CsFanInArkansas

    I certainly think that Russell should be honored by the Boston community with at least a statue.

    In the meantime, however, I think the local government should make it mandatory that with each annual vehicle registration renewal, a bobble-head doll in the likeness of the one and only Bill Russell be issued and placed on the dashboard of that vehicle – if violated, an offense punishable by having to wear a purple and gold Kobe/Rambis jersey for the remainder of the season.

    • carpenter

      lol

  • JP-

    Russell needs a statue outside the Garden, he is the consummate Celtic and a true winner.

  • Jeff L

    There's a great spot, with walkways leading to it and everything, next to the Garden where the Expressway comes off the Zakim Bridge to go underground. And the statue ought to be about fifty feet tall.
    More realistically and ideally, his statue should be standing near where the Aurbach statue is sitting, maybe standing with a hand on Red's shoulder.

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