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Boston honors basketball great Bill Russell with statue

Boston honors basketball great Bill Russell with statue
President Barack Obama is greeted by Bill Russell during a stop to view the statue of Russell at City Hall Plaza in Boston, Mass., on Oct. 30. The statue was publicly unveiled on Nov. 1.

Bill Russell addresses a crowd gathered to honor his legacy with a new statue at City Hall Plaza.

Martin Desmarais

City officials, NBA stars past and present and several hundred fans showed up for the unveiling of the city’s statue of Bill Russell last week on a windswept rainy day on City Hall Plaza.

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick was the most poignant in his tribute to Russell, speaking, he said, not as governor, but as an American and as a black man.

“Bill Russell came to Boston to join the Celtics in 1956 the year I was born,” Patrick said. “And from that time forward through his career, he has stood up for civil and human rights and social justice. And every time he did that it made America and my life better. And I want to thank you for that.”

Boston Mayor Tom Menino also lauded Russell for his efforts to bridge the racial barriers that stood in Boston during his professional basketball days.

“This is a guy we can all be proud of because when he played basketball in Boston it was not easy to be a black man in Boston, let me tell you,” Menino said. “It is a much different city today. Bill Russell made it. He broke that line.”

NBA Commissioner David Stern called Russell “one of the greatest ambassadors of our sport.”

The legend himself deflected his success – 11 NBA championships in 13 seasons – from himself and toward his former teammates and players, many of whom were gathered at the unveiling.

“I played for the Boston Celtics. The biggest honor I got to play for the Celtics is they made me the captain,” Russell said. “I played a team game and the only important statistic was who won the game. And so I have always thanked my teammates for letting me help them be champions.”

The larger than life sculpture of Russell is on a low base in game action, poised with basketball in hand about to pass the ball to a teammate. He aims towards a low-standing, open stone engraved with Russell’s quote, “The most important measure of how good a game I’d played was how much better I’d made my teammates play.”

Ten granite blocks surround the statue of Russell in City Hall Plaza for a total of 11 elements representing his 11 championships with the Boston Celtics. Each block features a key word and a corresponding quotation to illuminate the accomplishments spanning Russell’s career both on and off the court. The artwork is inscribed in a field of brick and granite pavers that reflect the proportions of a basketball court.

“In order to experience the whole artwork, visitors need to move around and through the field of plinths; like a basketball court, it is a forum for interaction,” explained Somerville-based sculptor Ann Hirsch. “It is appropriate that the conceptual experience of the artwork is arrived at through a physical interaction because one of the primary messages of the work, along with celebrating Bill Russell and teamwork, is to inspire change through mentorship. You get in the game and become a member of Bill Russell’s team when you visit the site and interact with the plinths.”

In addition to erecting the statue of Russell, the Bill Russell Legacy Project, along with the Boston Celtics Shamrock Foundation and Mass Mentoring Partnership developed a Mentoring Grant program in Russell’s name to ensure his passion for mentoring children is carried on. The grant’s main objective is to expand the resources for mentoring programs in the city of Boston. In the grant’s inaugural year, over $50,000 in grants were awarded to the following programs: Adoption and Foster Care Mentoring, Generations Inc. and The DREAM Program Inc.

Sculptures of children will be added in a second phase of the artwork around Russell’s statue as an extension of the mentorship program.

NBA greats that attended the statue unveiling included: Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Charles Barkley, Elgin Baylor, Clyde Drexler and George “The Iceman” Gervin. Former Celtics players included: Tommy Heinsohn, Sam Jones, Bill Walton and JoJo White.