Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell is widely known as one of the greatest players in NBA history, an 11-time champion and a revolutionary defender and rebounder. However, Russell's legacy is about much more than his on-court accomplishments. He has been a vocal activist for civil rights, which often created some discomfort in Boston and elsewhere at the peak of his basketball career. Despite achieving broader public acceptance that includes a Presidential Medal of Freedom, Russell is a complicated figure. Yet that's exactly what makes him so valuable.
On Friday, the city of Boston formalized Russell's contributions to its history by unveiling a statue in his honor at City Hall Plaza. First announced in May 2011, the work depicts Russell in Celtics uniform and includes 11 plinthes noting his accomplishments. You can take a look at Russell next to the statue above.
After the jump, join us for another angle of the statue and a few highlights from Friday's private ceremony.
While most statues of athletes are placed at arena sites, it makes lots of sense that Boston decided to include Russell with the various civic leaders at City Hall Plaza. His contributions to the civil rights movement had national importance, but Russell continues to be an important figure in Boston's racial evolution. As a player, he often bristled at what he perceived to be the city's racist attitudes, and his reconciliation with both that experience and Bostonians has been very positive to witness.
Thankfully, the talk surrounding Friday's event — which, again, was private — has reflected Russell in full. From a terrific piece by John Hareas for NBA.com:
"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." [...]
"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."
That last point is perhaps what makes this story as positive as it is. Because, while Friday's ceremony was invitation-only, a large number of Bostonians decided to show their support for Russell regardless:
This private ceremony has been crashed by more than 100 Bostonians, all giving Russell an ovation.
— Jay King (@ByJayKing) November 1, 2013
Robert Burgess of The Boston Globe estimated the crowd at a larger 200 people, but either way it's clear that a strong contingent came out to honor Russell. With this statue in such an important public space, it won't be the last time Boston remembers all that he has done for them.
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