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Bill Russell portrait
Boston will unveil a statue of Bill Russell on Friday at City Hall Plaza.

City of Boston celebrates Bill Russell: Player, activist, mentor

By John Hareas, for NBA.com
Posted Nov 1, 2013 8:04 PM

The greatness of Bill Russell isn't measured solely by the 11 NBA championships in 13 seasons, or five NBA MVP Awards, or the 55 consecutive wins at the University of San Francisco in midst of two NCAA championship runs, or how he redefined the sport. His impact looms larger than that.

There are the countless behind-the-scenes acts of kindness and mentoring, in which he's exerted his significant clout in opening doors for emerging talent -- artists, writers, musicians, entrepreneurs. There are the well-documented (and less-documented) pubic displays of support as a human rights activist that have made him one of the nation's most significant and iconic figures of the last 60 years.

Basketball is what Bill Russell did. He did it unlike any other player before him or after him. Yet basketball didn't define him. It's not who he is.

Resolve

"Never go out there and see what happens. Go out there and make something happen."

"Bill has always had the consciousness and intellect to understand what freedom and equality and justice meant for all people," said longtime friend, Pro Football Hall of Famer and activist, Jim Brown. "He's always represented all people, not by color or race or gender or anything but by the rights of people.

"In his sports career he represented it and outside of that, he did everything he could do as an individual, utilizing his status, his intelligence, his energy and time to affect the lives of others. From Medgar Evers' family way back in those days to a tremendous mentoring program today. And not only that, in my work, if I ever needed him, I can always call him and he's been very instrumental in a lot of the things I've done."

Way back in those days was 1963, when noted civil rights activist Evers was assassinated in Jackson, Miss. Russell, at that time, was at the peak of his basketball powers -- three consecutive NBA MVPs, five consecutive NBA championships with the Celtics -- and reached out to Evers' brother, Charles, and asked how he could help.

A racially charged environment, complete with death threats, couldn't prevent Russell from visiting Jackson to run the first integrated basketball camp in the state.

It wasn't the first time Russell used his celebrity to right injustices.

"Bill Russell is a difference maker," said Bob Lanier, whose own Hall of Fame career began two seasons after Russell's ended (1968-69). "He, Jim Brown, Arthur Ashe were the guys during that era who were celebrities and used their celebrity to the greatest good to try to define equality among mankind. They were very much leaders in that."

Listening

"Listening is more important than talking."

In 1967, when Muhammad Ali refused induction into the U.S. Army because of his religious beliefs and opposition to the Vietnam War, stars of various sports -- including Russell, Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bobby Mitchell -- gathered in Cleveland to hear the heavyweight champion's version of the story. Not surprisingly, Russell, according to Brown, played a crucial role in the meeting.

"John Wooten, who played for Cleveland, was the executive director of the black economic union, the organization, which I founded," said Brown. "I called John from England and told him that we should probably look into the Muhammad Ali thing because I think Ali is sincere. I asked John to contact the top black athletes in the country and asked them if they would come to Cleveland to meet with Muhammad, and we [could] make our own decision whether he should be supported or whether he should not be supported.

"At the time, it was the United States government -- you know, we had the strongest force in America who said that this young man was going to go to jail. And for anyone to step up at that time, they had to be a particular kind of person. For every individual that was there, we knew [he] had the courage of his convictions, otherwise he would not be there. Some people we didn't call. I'm not going to call their names because we knew they would not have the fortitude to stand up if they believe that this young man, Muhammad Ali, was serious.

"But Bill was there and played a leading role in the meetings, asked the right questions and we had the press conference after the meeting. We stood as a united group and we openly supported his particular position, which he later won his freedom in a higher court."

Resilience

"Rebounding is changing the flow of the game from defense to offense. It is about developing the highest level of resilience."

Forty-four years after he last led the Celtics to an NBA championship, the city of Boston is celebrating the greatness of 79-year-old Bill Russell, the basketball player, activist and mentor, with the unveiling of a statue outside Boston City Hall Plaza.

"About seven or eight years ago, I said if Ted Williams has a tunnel, Bill Russell ought to have something here," said former teammate Tom Heinsohn, who shared the same rookie season with Russell (1957-58). The pair won eight NBA titles together.

"Finally they came to grips with the fact that Bill Russell won 11 championships in 13 years in an area that was socially divided. Finally he's got his recognition as the greatest winner in any sport."

The irony is that the greatest winner in all of professional sports wasn't always beloved in the city where he lived and raised a family.

"I can remember going to a dinner that was thrown for him by the people of Redding, Mass.," said Heinsohn. "He said, 'I'm going to spend the rest of my life here in Redding.' He felt that he was welcomed. [But] when he went to buy a new house, there were people who were circulating positions against him in Redding.

"He withstood all of this and didn't really make a big point of it at the time. But it certainly hurt him.

"Bill was a leader in standing up for individual rights. All of this stuff about him not signing autographs, which was made a big deal of over the years. He wanted to be recognized as a person and not just a basketball player and he would spend more time explaining to somebody why he wouldn't sign than it would take for him to actually sign the autograph and live his life.

"Part of that was ... people who really were not in his corner, for sure. I can vouch. I can remember two sportswriters, who I respected up to that point, when they voted for Jerry Lucas as MVP of the [1965] All-Star Game, when Russell [was] clearly the guy who should have been named MVP. But they weren't going to vote for him because he was a black guy. Stuff like that was going on."

Almost 50 years later, don't look for bitterness or indifference from Russell.

"My dad doesn't spend a lot of time reflecting on the past," said Russell's daughter, Karen Kenyatta Russell. "I think he is someone who very much lives for the moment."

In many respects, Friday's ceremonies in Boston are the culmination of a long journey for Russell.

"To me, this represents the closing of a very virtuous circle," said NBA Commissioner David Stern. "Everyone knows that Bill had some issues -- with respect to treatment by fans and businesses in the greater Boston area that were racially motivated -- and yet, Boston has grown in so many ways to its present status as a world class city. It's a homecoming of types for Bill, and a wonderful welcoming by the city and its citizens."

Teamwork

"The most important measure of how good a game I'd played was how much better I'd made my teammates play."

Why did it take so long for the city to honor a man who is celebrated all over the world?

"I can't answer that question, really, why it took so long," said Boston Mayor Thomas Menino. "It's just an oversight. But we're doing it."

Another lefty jump shooter and a celebrated basketball enthusiast, President Barack Obama, may have planted the seed when he awarded Russell with the highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2011.

"I hope that one day in the streets of Boston, children will look up at a statue built not only to Bill Russell the player," Obama said, "but Bill Russell the man."

Said Russell's daughter: "That got the ball rolling."

"When the President said that there should be a statue in Boston at the Presidential Medal of Honor ceremony, the mayor called us at the Celtics," said Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca. "The mayor always wanted a statue as well, so he used that as a catalyst to make a plan to get the statue up as soon as we possibly could. He offered us support to find a place and we jumped on board."

As nice as that gesture was by the President, having a statue of himself was never on Russell's bucket list.

"The city of Boston does not owe me anything," said Russell, who in 1966 became player-coach of the Celtics, the first African-American coach in a major professional sports league. "I don't need the validation. My satisfaction comes from doing what I wanted to do and I don't need anything else."

But mentoring is near and dear to Russell's heart, so when the mayor and the city stepped up to establish the Bill Russell Mentoring Grant Program, Russell warmed to the idea.

"He only considered to agree to the statue once a grant program for mentoring was developed," said Menino. "That tells you what kind of man Bill Russell is. The grant has raised about $50,000 in the first year."

While it's customary for traditional sports statues to reside outside arenas, home to past glories, Russell had different ideas.

"The mayor gave me some locations and my first preference was the Boston Public Library. But the place where they wanted to put it was a landfill and you can't put a statue on a landfill because over a period of time it will tilt.

"My second choice was in front of Boston City Hall, but there's more to it than being in front of Boston City Hall. It's within sight line of the Freedom Trail and the Old State House."

The location raises the prestige factor to another level, where it is assured to be seen by a greater cross section of the population.

"Boston is an inclusive city and Bill wanted to be a part of that," said Menino. "He wanted to make sure that everybody had the opportunity to see his statue and see his devotion to the young people of our city. That's why the statue is in the City Hall Plaza.

"TD Garden, sure, it would be great down there but it's just athletes and sports fans. Bill wants to see a little kid from West Roxbury or Dorchester come and be able to see the statue and see what Bill Russell represents and what his real drive in life is about -- mentoring young people and giving hope and opportunity for a better future."

Not by design, the Russell statue is also within viewing distance of another iconic Boston figure.

"Red [Auerbach] has a statue three blocks from this one," said Russell. "You could see from one to the other."

And what would Auerbach think about Russell's latest honor if he were around to see it?

"He would say, 'Russell, you know you're full of it.' "

Craftsmanship

"Craftsmanship is a way into what's best in yourself. The real mastery is always of yourself."

The daunting task of sculpting and capturing the essence of an icon fell on the talented shoulders of local artist Ann Hirsch.

"I was so blown away, so honored, so overwhelmed, so afraid!," said Hirsch, who submitted concepts in an open competition sponsored by the Boston Arts Commission. "Mr. Russell is a man of so many accomplishments, on and off the court. To take all of that, all of the knowledge and documentation and everything he says and put it into in a piece of art that is dedicated to not just to him but his legacy, to that which he has dedicated himself to, that was really, a really big challenge. So, I was, yeah, blown away."

Hirsch immersed herself in extensive Russell research -- articles, photos, autobiographies ("Those were crucial", she said). Yet something was missing. To gain even greater insight into Russell, Hirsch spent time with him in an impromptu visit to his home in Seattle.

"I flew out ... in the beginning of January," said Hirsch. "We hung out, we talked about everything. It was the most incredible day of my life."

The benefits of that meeting paid off.

"I noticed things about him that I couldn't have seen in photographs," said Hirsch. "For instance, the size of his hands relative to his body. It's different to actually look at someone's hands attached to their bodies in a physical space. The physical details I was able to contend with from meeting him.

"Then there is Mr. Russell's incredible sense of humor. He has got to be the funniest guy I have ever met. So funny. You hear his laugh. That humor, and that likeness and that kind of openness is something I don't think I was aware of, and it entered into the sculpture at the end."

And how involved was Russell in the actual process?

"He's not particularly interested in the sculpture of himself. He's interested in the mentorship programming."

After reviewing various pose options, including rebounding, shooting and shot-blocking, Hirsch said the chest pass was most appropriate, given the project's theme.

"Chest pass -- it's a metaphor for helping other people," said Hirsch. "Teamwork applies to his mentorship programming and it applies to his activism. How do you make us all better? If everyone has equal rights, then we are all better for it."

The sculpture features 11 elements, representing the number of titles Russell won with the Celtics. Ten mountain green colored granite blocks imported from Ausable, N.Y., surround the sculpture. Each block will be inscribed with a Russell quote.

The statue -- which measures 33 ½ feet by 17 ½ feet -- also includes two children, a boy and a girl, alongside Russell.

Once the statue is unveiled, phase two of the project begins.

"We are really excited that this process will continue," said Hirsch. "I will be working with a group of mentees to create two more sculptures. Basically, we'll be studying Mr. Russell's work, his legacy and we'll be studying how to make a work of art and put it out in a public space. It's a monumental effort to install a sculpture in a public space. The kids that are involved in this program will always have that to look back on, knowing that they will have helped make that sculpture and help place it permanently. We will actually be using mentorship to make more sculptures for the site."

Working on this project has special meaning for Hirsch.

"I have been mentored throughout my life. I've just been incredibly lucky that way. I wouldn't have been able to do anything without those people in life. People who choose to, for one reason or another, turn to a child and say, 'I believe in you,' can be so enabling, especially if the child doesn't have the ability to do that for him or herself, yet," Hirsch said. "The child needs someone to believe in him or herself. That's something Mr. Russell has been advocating on so many different levels."

"One of the things I asked myself at the beginning of the process was "I know that Mr. Russell doesn't want a statue of himself out there, that wasn't really important to him. What does he want?' He wants us to make a sculpture about helping other people. That's why we are doing it at City Hall Plaza. All of these things he's dedicated himself to, that's what this work is about. The legacy looms as a basketball legend, but it's even bigger than that."

Friendship

"Friendship depends on what you give to each other, not what you get from each other."

David Stern Bill Russell portrait 2009 All-Star
Stern and Russell, 2009

Stern is one of the Russell admirers who will be present Friday afternoon at the unveiling.

"We've been friends for a long time and it goes back before he was commissioner," said Russell. "I was with the guys that threatened to boycott prior to the 1964 All-Star Game in Boston, so the owners would recognize the Players Association. David came to the league after that. What really struck me -- and he was sincere about it -- he did not consider the Players Association his adversary. He looked at the Players Association as his business partner."

Having traveled all over the world, Russell appreciates how the league has grown globally under Stern's watch.

"David has been a visionary about basketball and I can see that and appreciate it," said Russell, who at the age of 25 went on a Goodwill trip to Africa on behalf of the State Department.

Russell fondly reflects on a gift Stern gave him for his birthday, one that he treasures to this day. "On my birthday, sometime ago, David gave me a ring with a logo of a clover leaf 6 in it, and that's my own personal logo," said Russell.

"I used to wear the 1957 NBA championship ring and the 1969 championship ring because I was the only guy on both of those teams. From 1957 to 1969, we had a complete change of personnel. I used to wear the rings as brackets.

"The ring David gave me has all 11 championships on it, so I don't have to go through the process of determining which ring do I want to wear this year."

"In a lot more ways than just about basketball, he's been a good friend to me. For me personally, I value friendship over anything."

Stern was honored to have Russell present him with Harvard's distinguished W.E.B. Du Bois Medal for outstanding contributions to African-American culture just a few weeks ago.

"Bill Russell was at the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King's speech 50 years ago and he was there to celebrate the anniversary as well. Who better than this winner of the Presidential Medal of Honor would there be to honor the NBA and me by agreeing to introduce me," Stern said. "Because the award was for the NBA and its efforts, not for me."

Imagination

"Imagination and creative thinking are simply the realization that there is no particular value in doing things the way they have always been done."

In step with him during this entire process has been Russell's daughter, who marvels at her father's accomplishments and especially the number of people he has helped over the years.

"I grew up and spent a year with writer Taylor Branch living at our house, which was amazing, and he wanted to write the Martin Luther King trilogy and he wasn't getting any traction in meeting the Kings so my dad made an introduction and the rest is history. And later, he would win a Pulitzer Prize for history," said his daughter Karen. " Artist Phoebe Beasley, William hosted her first art show and she would eventually create art work for President Bush and President Clinton. When William was at the Sonics, he hired Rick Welts, who went from ball boy to his assistant and he also hired the first female ball girl [Russell's daughter] and first female Asian scorekeeper for the Sonics ... When he was a broadcaster at ABC and worked the Munich Olympic Games, Dick Ebersol was his production assistant ... My dad helped discover Earth, Wind and Fire. He knew them, brought them up to Jim Brown's house and that's where they first met Joe Smith and the rest is history.

"William always talks about being with people who raise your game. That's been my experience working on this project, whether it's been learning about art with Ann Hirsch or working with Mayor Menino and Steve Pagliuca, the driving forces behind this project. I'm lucky to have Steve as my mentor and the work he and Bain Capital and the Celtics have done to make this a reality has been amazing.

Education

"Learning is a daily experience and a lifetime mission."

Brown, who will be in attendance Friday, appreciates the full-circle aspect of the Bill Russell statue unveiling, something that would have been difficult to imagine in the turbulent 60s.

"I was talking to Bill the other night and I was laughing," said Brown. "I told him, 'Well, you finally won. The population finally caught up with you. Here you are being honored, probably by some of the same people who finally caught up to you. But maybe a greater statement would be that ... we always talk about America and the greatness of the country -- I think only in America could that happen, the way it's happened.

"And that's a great symbol to me because there is never going to be a situation where things are always going to be correct. But when some people of the powerful population, or the ruling body, decide to recognize a person that 50 years ago they would not recognize ... I think that takes great people to say that they were wrong and stand up and honor that person."

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