On Friday, November 1, the greatest athlete in the long and celebrated annals of Boston’s sports history will be immortalized with a statue in City Hall Plaza. But the shame of it is that William Felton “Bill” Russell had to wait this long to be honored.
For unlike other Beantown athletic legends like hockey’s Bobby Orr and baseball’s Ted Williams who already have impressive public edifices erected in their name (Williams even has a downtown traffic tunnel named after him), Russell never had so much as a bronze plaque in the old Boston Garden where he jumped center for the Celtics from 1957 to 1969. All the five-time NBA Most Valuable Player did in that time span was lead his team to 11 championships, including a record eight in a row from 1959 to 1966.
But then again, Russell, who one awed opponent dubbed the “eagle with a beard,” was never comfortable with honors or the trappings of celebrity. Indeed, he refused to be even present when he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1975.
“I have very little faith in cheers, what they mean and how long they will last, compared with the faith I have in my own love for the game,” Russell wrote in “Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man,” his acclaimed 1979 autobiography with co-author Taylor Branch. “The Basketball Hall of Fame is the biggest cheer of all, and it means testimonials, dinners, souvenirs and memories. As an ex-athlete, I don’t think that diet is good for me, or for my relationship with others.”
Such candor often got him in trouble with members of the provincial Boston media, who resented his fierce independence and refusal to play by their rules. And by rules, this meant kowtowing to their favored public image of star athletes as being a cross between the fictional Frank Merriwell and the saintly Mahatma Gandhi. In other words, a wholly inaccurate portrait.
“What I’m resentful of,” Russell once told the Saturday Evening Post, “is when they say you owe the public this and you owe the public that. You owe the public the same thing it owes you. Nothing. Since I owe them nothing, I’ll pay them nothing. I’m not going to smile if I don’t feel like smiling, and bow my head, because it’s not my nature. I’d say I’m like most people in this type of life, I have an enlarged ego. I refuse to misrepresent myself. I refuse to smile and be nice to the kiddies. I don’t think it’s incumbent upon me to set a good example for anybody’s kids but my own.”
Russell did set a good example when it came to the promotion of civil rights among African-Americans in the turbulent decade of the 1960s. Unlike other professional athletes of his day and afterward, he was not afraid to become publicly identified with the movement. He, for example, did not hesitate to travel to Mississippi when civil rights leader Medgar Evers was killed in 1963. He fearlessly stood front and center with those activists protesting the racial injustice that led to Evers’ martyrdom. He later supported world champion boxer Muhammad Ali’s decision not to register for the military draft in 1967 on religious grounds. Ali saw his title taken away for this action. “I don’t think he has been treated fairly or justly,” Russell said. “There is nothing that says the heavyweight champion of the world must belong to a particular religion or not be a conscientious objector to war. Muhammad’s right to be a Black Muslim — or a Catholic or a Protestant — is guaranteed by the Constitution.”
Nor did Russell shy away from embracing his own cultural heritage. “This was when it was an insult to call a man ‘black,’ when it was similar to calling a man a ‘n—-,’” former Celtics teammate and Georgetown University basketball coach John Thompson later confessed to sportswriter Tony Kornheiser. “Bill Russell called himself a black man. He was one of the first men I ever saw to truly acknowledge the fact that he was black, and to identify very strongly with his roots in Africa.”
Hopefully with Russell’s new statue, Bostonians from all walks of life will finally get the chance to identify with him and his noteworthy life.