Boston, Bill Russell, the Celtics, and a Statue

Bill Russell’s Hall of Fame friends, like Tommy Heinsohn and Bob Cousy, think this is an honor long overdue in Boston for the intrepid leader of the Boston Celtics in Boston before desegregation, bussing, and the dark underbelly of the Hub was revealed to the world.

A few souls may now want to honor the man on whom President Obama bestowed this year’s Medal of Freedom. The President himself raised the issue, not the Celtics organization, not the Chamber of Commerce, not the Mayor of Boston. As soon as it tweeted through the airwaves, all the major Boston forces were suddenly in favor of it.

Should Bill Russell have a statue sitting beside his mentor and friend, Red Auerbach, at Fanueil Hall?  Would he be better served at the Boston Common, near Paul Revere’s famous galloping monument?  The debate shall now rage, as those taxpayers in Boston and Massachusetts may well join the current Tea Party in opposing any state or municipal money expended in this cause.

Twice in the 1960s my own tie to the legendary Russell occurred. Each convinces me he deserves a monument, but each also makes me think it won’t happen in Boston ever.

Once long-ago, deep in the doldrums of the failures of the Boston Red Sox, I sat in a box seat one afternoon. Not far from me, alone, sat Bill Russell. He was always a fan of sports like baseball. In those days there were few people of color on the Red Sox, and Russell stayed for the entire game. When we were heading out, after a loss, I was behind him, unable to catch up to speak to him. He was in the midst of a quiet crowd, tall and imperious, the only black person it seemed to me at Fenway Park. No one spoke to him, and no one asked for his autograph. The all-white crowd around him was silent too, perhaps depressed by another Red Sox loss. But, Bill Russell seemed especially solitary in his thoughts. I wanted to tell him I was delighted that he came out to support the Red Sox, but I never had the opportunity.

About five years later, I saw Bill Russell driving down Arlington Street in Boston, perhaps heading to Storrow Drive to go over to the old Boston Garden one afternoon. I was driving in the car directly behind him. Once again, I watched as people on the street stopped and looked at him when we came to a red light. Then, the man who had brought so many championships to Boston suffered the indignity of having a hooligan screaming slurs at him from the sidewalk. I was stunned. For the first time in my life I actually saw racism in Boston first-hand.

In later years the incidents were far more serious and far more frequent during the turbulent 1970s.  Now, of course, that is a dim memory, except perhaps for a few old-timers who shall pass soon enough.

Those two memories of Bill Russell have stayed with me for decades. I hope they erect a statue for Bill Russell in Boston before another decade passes.

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