Boston needed Bill Russell's statue more than he did
BOSTON -- Who owns an athlete’s legacy? It’s a simple question with a complex answer, made more complicated by the number of people invested in telling the story. There are teammates, contemporaries, the athlete themselves, not to mention the city where they played. But as they exit the arena, the observers are left to write the history.
Bill Russell never allowed anyone else to take ownership of his life story, and he certainly never let Boston define him. From the moment he appeared on the national stage, he was determined to be viewed as a man first and an athlete second. He was the ultimate individualist and the perfect team player. For that he was called bitter, angry and even a racist.
Yet Russell never allowed those voices to narrate his life. From "Second Wind" through "Russell Rules," he has insisted on writing his own story. This left him few friends, but far more admirers.
It helps that Russell’s career is unassailable. He is the greatest winner in team sports, with a history that includes two NCAA titles, a gold medal and 11 championships in 13 seasons. Russell is the reason the Celtics mystique exists. Everyone from Havlicek to Cowens to Bird to Pierce has simply carried on the tradition in their own manner. You can try to debate this any way you like and you will lose. No one ever won as much as Bill Russell.
It was the rest of Russell’s life that made him so compelling. Consider the eclectic list of people who were present for the long-awaited statue unveiling at Boston’s City Hall on Friday. The NBA was represented by several Hall of Famers, including Charles Barkley, Bill Walton and Clyde Drexler. Ex-Celtics like Sam Jones and JoJo White were in attendance. Commissioner David Stern and his deputy Adam Silver also made the trip.
But Russell’s basketball cohorts were only a small part of a dais that also included mayor Tom Menino and Gov. Deval Patrick. Actress Alfre Woodard gave a moving speech about civil rights, and Bill Withers and Johnny Mathis performed a song about Russell’s father Charlie, who remains his son’s greatest influence. Bill Russell has lived a life in full apart from the competition, and he has insisted that both are given equal weight by history.
During a 30-minute speech that touched on everything from the meaning of friendship and the value of education to the time he promised his father he’d win the All-Star MVP just to prove a point, Russell repeatedly said that he was embarrassed by the statue and that he didn’t know what this was all about. It was classic Russell. We came to honor him and he wanted to know why we were making a fuss.
He added that statues reminded him of tombstones when they weren’t providing a target for pigeons. As is his style, he fought the idea until it was presented as a partnership with a program that provides grants to youth mentorships.
After the ceremony, I took a walk back through City Hall to the site of the statue. Gusty winds and a driving rain had moved the festivities indoors. The weather was now clear and already people were gathering by the statue, snapping cell phone pictures and admiring the work of local sculptor Ann Hirsch. A few hours earlier at the official unveiling, a man yelled, "We love ya Bill!" Another added, "Long overdue!"
Russell doesn’t need a statue to validate his legacy, but Boston needed it. The statue is a celebration of Russell’s life work, but it is also an eternal refutation our own unfortunate past. Its placement at City Hall is a statement in and of itself.
In 1976, a few yards away from where Russell’s statue now sits, a black city attorney named Theodore Landsmark was impaled with an American flag by a bunch of thugs at the height of the busing crisis. The photograph that accompanied the assault has stood for almost four decades as a symbol of old racist Boston. In its place is now a lasting monument to education, achievement and understanding.
His legacy long secure, Bill Russell has finally found a permanent home in Boston. That’s what this was all about.
OvertimeMore thoughts from the week that was
I profiled Celtics team president Danny Ainge in the November issue of Boston Magazine, and even in a 4,000-word story, there were several anecdotes and nuggets that didn’t make the final cut. With the permission of the editors, here are a few other quotes and insights from Ainge.
On Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett:
"Paul and KG can’t carry a team right now to a championship through 82 games and multiple playoff series. But if they’re your third- and fourth-best players and you can pace them throughout the course of the season, and save them and have some fuel in the tank once playoffs come around, then you’re a pretty darn good team. We just weren’t able to do that. We’re not made that way. It was what we were trying to do, and last year we’ll never know because (Rajon) Rondo was a key part of that."
"You have to be opportunistic. You have to put yourselves in position to succeed, but a lot of time, to put yourself in position to succeed, some people feel like you have to make painful decisions to be really bad. I think there’s danger in that."
On LeBron James:
"I don’t see LeBron James sitting out there coming up in the next year, two, three, four. I mean, he’s maybe a once in a lifetime player. Unfortunately for the rest of the league he’s still only in his 20s."
On his confidence:
"I don’t know if I have any more confidence than a lot of guys. I do have a fear of failure that drives me. I’m not afraid to play against Michael Jordan knowing he’s a better player. I’m not afraid of it, but I’m afraid of being embarrassed.
"I always used to think I was really a confident person until I met Larry (Bird). On the court. I’m every bit as confident as Larry in our jobs that we do now."
On his baseball career:
"I was planning on playing pro baseball. I had every intention of playing pro baseball. I was playing college basketball because I loved basketball. I knew I was a good basketball player but I guess I didn’t realize I would win college player of the year. I loved basketball and basketball was a great love. It just seemed logical that baseball is a longer career."
The standoff between the Celtics and Blue Jays could have served as a whole separate story. At one point, Ainge heard rumors that he was going to be traded to Atlanta, where he would play for Ted Turner’s Braves and Hawks. There was another rumor that involved Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, who had a piece of the Bulls.
"The stumbling block was always Red (Auerbach)," Ainge said. "He wouldn’t trade me."
On the subject of advanced stats and metrics, Ainge has always said that he’s something of a skeptic. Yet his assistant GM Mike Zarren is acknowledged as one of the leaders in the field. Here’s how Zarren explained their relationship:
"I started an unpaid intern doing only that and now I’m an assistant GM and my office is connected to his, so he must pay some attention to it. Danny is a guy who’s looking for every advantage he can possibly find, and he wants to know that whatever he’s looking at has some good basis. He’ll test it, and he’ll challenge it. If it stands up, then he’s very interested in it. If it doesn’t, he still may be interested in it, but he’ll also be interested in the next thing, whatever that is.
"Advanced stats is a huge category of stuff. There’s some things that he relies very heavily on and some things that he doesn’t rely on as much, probably correctly. He’s pretty sharp. He knows what’s going on."
Viewers GuideWhat we'll be watching this week
MONDAY Rockets at Clippers
We’re already a little concerned about the Clips’ lack of depth inside, and it’s not like Dwight Howard and Omer Asik grabbed 68 rebounds in their first two games or anything. Considering how the rest of the Western Conference stacks up inside with Howard and Asik, Tim Duncan and the Grizzlies’ tower of power, this has the potential to be a major problem for the Clippers.
TUESDAY Pacers at Pistons
This will be an interesting test for the Pistons. Paul George is already doing Paul George things, so does Josh Smith check him? On the other end, can Roy Hibbert keep up with Andre Drummond?
WEDNESDAY Pelicans at Grizzlies
You’re Pierre the Pelican. You just had the worst entrance since the Goobledy Gooker debuted at the Survivor Series. You’ve made the Brooklyn Knight more tolerable. Pierre, you need some help. It’s nothing a night on Beale Street wouldn’t fix.
THURSDAY Clippers at Heat
The most exciting transition team in the West versus the best transition team in the world? Yes, please. If there aren’t 10 transition alley-oops by halftime, we’re going to be a little upset.
FRIDAY Cavaliers at 76ers
Andrew Bynum will finally suit up for a game in Philly. I’m sure the locals will welcome him back in the usual manner. And hey, how about those Sixers? If this keeps up, Sam Hinkie is going to trade Thad Young for the D-League rights to Ricky Davis.
The ListNBA players in some made up category
Each week, we’ll rank a random collection of NBA players in some kind of a made-up category. This week: The Most Important Supporting Cast Players Who (Probably) Won’t Make an All-Star Team This Season.
*Note* This whole category is basically printed on Shane Battier’s business cards, making him ineligible under our completely arbitrary rules.
Andrew Bogut: Even in a weakened, beat up state, Bogut made the Dubs a completely different team during the postseason. They were 15 points better per 100 possessions when he was on the court as opposed to off, per Basketball Reference. If he can stay healthy throughout the season and make it to April in one piece, we’ll truly believe in the Warriors.
DeAndre Jordan: Doc Rivers has already made his intentions clear to play Jordan in the fourth quarter, even though that’s where his lack of offense and atrocious free throw shooting become even more glaring. The depth behind Jordan consists of Byron Mullens and Ryan Hollins, so Doc better be right and Jordan has to be ready to handle the responsibility.
Andrei Kirilenko: For all the fuss over Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, this may have been Billy King’s best acquisition. AK can fill in at both forward spots and bring defense and scoring off the bench while giving the Nets’ lineup multiple looks. Be wary, Eastern Conference.
Danny Granger: He’s three years removed from averaging 24 points a game, but Indiana doesn’t need that player. If the Pacers are going to continue up the ladder of life, they’ll need an offensive spark from the bench. Granger’s just the player to provide it, if he can ever get healthy.
Ray Allen: His per-minute numbers were consistent with his last seasons in Boston, so it’s not as if Allen struggled in his first year with Miami. But the hunch here is that Ray-Ray is primed for a big season. He’ll become even more vital if injuries hit the wing.
ICYMIor In Case You Missed It
LeBron James didn’t just choose a new team in 2010, he set in motion a huge shift in the league’s history. Tom Ziller on how LeBron changed the NBA.
Jim Cavan goes deep into the geographic divide between Detroit and the Pistons.
When Derrick Rose returned to action in Chicago, Ricky O’Donnell was there to capture the moment.
Who is Xavier Henry? Drew Garrison investigates the rise and fall and maybe rise of a one-time phenom getting a huge chance with the Lakers.
Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs
"It will be a huge disappointment if we’re not in the playoffs this season. That’s the expectation." -- Pistons owner Tom Gores.
Reaction: Tom Gores is clearly a fan of statistical modeling that has ranked the Pistons among the top five teams in the East. Also, no pressure Joe Dumars.
"We have a love of comic books and Marvel Comics and we kind of debate about that. He’s a big Batman guy and I’m a big Wolverine guy. That can clash sometimes." -- Kevin Garnett on his teammate, Brook Lopez.
Reaction: KG identifies with a misunderstood sociopath, which is not terribly surprising. Will the Marvel vs. DC wars tear the Nets’ locker room apart? My column:
"We’re not OK. We’re 0-2. We’re not OK. We lose games by the way we come out with our intensity. You can’t play this game for 24 minutes. If it was easy to win in this league, everybody would." -- Randy Wittman after a loss to the 76ers.
"We got selfish. Instead of worrying about winning the ball game we were more worried about our stats and getting points. It showed." -- Gerald Wallace after a loss to the Bucks.
Reaction: The Wizards could use a wing defender like Gerald Wallace. The Celtics could use a whole lot of everything. Just thinking out loud here...
""I really don’t know, to tell you the truth. [Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie] just traded Jrue [Holiday] and Jrue is a walking legend, you know what I’m saying? Even Wilt Chamberlain got traded" -- Evan Turner on his future in Philadelphia. Reaction: Oooooookay
This is a nice way to make people forget about a poor performance. What a shot to win Thursday's Bulls-Knicks game.
How's this for pick and roll defense? What is Perkins trying to do? (Via Daily Thunder).
There's a lot to like about the second-year big man, but he clearly still can't shoot free throws, and that's a problem.
Something tells us that this is going to be a huge year for Chris Bosh memes.