BOSTON — On Friday, 44 years after basketball great Bill Russell ended a 13-year career with the Boston Celtics that included 11 NBA titles, the city honored him with a statue.
Gusting winds and the threat of rain forced city and team officials to cancel the official unveiling ceremony of the statue on City Hall Plaza. Still, many fans waited.
Beverly Tabet took a personal day off from work to be at the plaza. She wore a Russell jersey, shamrock earrings and carried a poster. “It says: ‘Ultimate mentor, champ, legend, Bill Russell, best No. 6 ever,’ ” she said.
But then, unexpectedly, the rain lifted and No. 6 himself showed up, shaking hands with cheering fans and squeezing his 6-foot-9 frame out of a golf cart.
Then, as reporters, photographers and officials jockied for position, a green tarp was pulled away, revealing the eight-foot-tall statue.
Somerville artist Ann Hirsch designed the statue to be slightly-larger-than-lifesize, symbolic of the basketball great’s oversized achievements — on the court and off.
The 79-year-old Russell shyly stood behind the statue. It features him in his prime, wearing his No. 6 Celtics uniform, making a chest pass.
He had to be coaxed to say a few words.
“Bill, what do you think?” he was asked.
“Bad pass,” he said to laughs.
With his children and grandchildren looking on, he thanked the sculptor who stood nearby.
“For Ann Hirsch to come out with this, that’s true genius, with what she had to work with.”
The monument Hirsch designed features 11 green granite bases, representing the 11 NBA championships Russell brought to Boston. Each stone is also marked with a keyword and corresponding quotation to illuminate Russell’s many accomplishments — as a friend, team player and civil rights leader; he marched with Martin Luther King Jr., and during his first NBA championship was the only African-American on either team. Many feel he never got the respect he deserved as a player and a man.
Russell recalled what he said to Thomas Menino when the Boston mayor called two years ago to say he thought it was time for a Bill Russell statue.
“Well, two things about statues: First, they remind me of tombstones, and second, [it’s] something for pigeons to crap on,” he said to some nervous laughter.
Russell only decided to endorse the monument after Menino promised to help create and fund a mentoring program in the city.
Then Russell pointed to one of the granite bases engraved with one of his favorite sayings:
There are no other people’s children in the United States. There are only next-generation Americans.
The Russell monument stands on Boston’s City Hall Plaza, near the very spot where Boston’s racial tensions reached a flashpoint in 1976. That’s when an anti-busing demonstrator attacked a young black man with an American flag.
The Russell statue and legacy will endure long after that image of Boston fades.