The question is so simple, yet the answer is nearly as elusive as the man himself.
In this age of effusive deification of sports personalities and in a city that loves to build shrines to its heroes, how the hell has the most dominant defensive player in NBA history not gotten his proper due?
By the time a young defenseman named Bobby Orr arrived on the scene and altered the NHL game in the 1970s with his end-to-end rushes and exhilarating offensive prowess for the Boston Bruins, Bill Russell had already won 11 championships with the Celtics. That dominant stretch, from 1956-57 through 1968-69, included a stunning run of eight straight titles, the last three with Russell serving as player-coach. With two straight NCAA championships with the University of San Francisco and a gold medal as captain of the 1956 U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team, Russell is arguably the most decorated athlete ever.
But the “glory” years in Boston were far from glorious off the court. At a time when the city was swirling in a cesspool of racial unrest, Russell often found himself a target. It certainly didn’t take him by surprise. Russell’s parents moved into a housing project when he was a child to escape nearly daily verbal attacks, and he and his black teammates at USF were often jeered by white fans.
As a member of a team barnstorming NBA All-Stars in 1958, Russell and other black player were denied rooms by white hotel owners in North Carolina. And Russell refused to play in an exhibition game in Lexington, Kentucky, prior to the 1961-62 season when he and several black teammates were turned away from a local restaurant.
Russell became extremely sensitive to racial prejudice and intolerance and his heightened defiance was viewed negatively in Boston. He alienated many fans and reporters as he became more militant, and didn’t help himself when he said: “You owe the public the same it owes you, nothing! I refuse to smile and be nice to the kiddies.”
The caustic relationship between Russell and Boston reached its low point when his home was vandalized, with racist graffiti etched on his walls. The incident became increasingly personal when the burglars defecated on his bed.
In his memoir, Go For Glory, Russell spoke of the divide between white and black. “It stood out, a wall which understanding cannot penetrate. You are a Negro. You are less. It covered every area. A living, smarting, hurting, smelling, greasy substance which covered you. A morass to fight from.”
Russell described Boston as a “flea market of racism.” When he retired, he left Boston with not a thought of returning. He didn’t come back when the Celtics retired his No. 6 in 1972, and he didn’t attend his Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 1975.
But in 1996, when the Celtics moved into the new Boston Garden (nee FleetCenter), the Celtics extended an olive branch by re-retiring Russell’s number, and Russell accepted. At the ceremony, Russell was driven to tears by an extended standing ovation.
In 2008, when the city honored Russell with a We Are Boston Leadership Award, he noted that the city had changed. The icy relationship, it seems, had thawed.
In February, Russell was presented with a Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, who said he hopes Boston would build a statue to honor Russell.
For years, plans for a statue never went beyond the discussion stage, but Boston Mayor Tom Menino is pressing to get the measure approved. In a recent editorial, The Boston Globe called on Boston philanthropists to get involved to help defray the costs of a statue, calling Russell a “basketball immortal, a true American hero, and a unique figure in Boston history.”
I couldn’t agree more. It’s a shame that Celtics fans walking along Causeway Street on their way into the Garden don’t see a symbol of not only athletic greatness but a fierce fighter for racial equality.
That day can’t come soon enough. Bobby Orr has his statue. Boston owes it to the now 82-year-old Russell to make sure there’s another erected in front of the Garden as soon as possible.