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Give him honor, Obama says

‘I hope that one day, in the streets of Boston, children will look up at a statue built not only to Bill Russell the player, but Bill Russell the man.’

Celtics legend Bill Russell was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom yesterday. Celtics legend Bill Russell was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom yesterday. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)
By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / February 16, 2011

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President Obama said yesterday that he hopes Boston will build a statue of Celtics legend Bill Russell, gently nudging the city to honor one of its greatest sports heroes and acknowledge its history of racial strife.

Obama embraced the idea at the White House, just before giving Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

The backbone of a Celtics dynasty in the 1950s and ’60s, Russell was an outspoken crusader for civil rights who had a complicated and often bitter relationship with the city to which he brought 11 championship banners.

“Bill Russell, the man, is someone who stood up for the rights and dignity of all men,’’ Obama said. “He marched with King; he stood by Ali. When a restaurant refused to serve the black Celtics, he refused to play in the scheduled game. He endured insults and vandalism, but he kept on focusing on making the teammates who he loved better players, and made possible the success of so many who would follow. I hope that one day, in the streets of Boston, children will look up at a statue built not only to Bill Russell the player, but Bill Russell the man.’’

For years, Mayor Thomas M. Menino, the Celtics owners, Russell’s former teammates, and many fans have supported the idea of a statue, but it has never made it past the discussion stages. Menino said the president’s endorsement yesterday would kick-start efforts to raise the several hundred thousand dollars in private donations needed to build a statue and find an appropriate location, perhaps on Causeway Street in front of the TD Garden.

“This mention by the president will give us the impetus to start a campaign to make sure we have a statue,’’ Menino said. “Bill Russell is one of the individuals who really made Boston work. He was here when Boston wasn’t a city friendly to minorities, and he led our city, and led our basketball team, and he was a great example.’’

A dominant shot blocker and rebounder, Russell played for the Celtics from 1956 to 1969. He was a five-time MVP and 12-time All-Star, and became the league’s first African-American coach, for the Celtics in 1966.

But he had a famously fraught relationship with Boston. He once called the city a “flea market of racism’’ after vandals broke into his home and wrote racist slurs on the walls. Russell avoided the Boston Garden when the team retired his number 6 in 1972 and did not show up in 1975 when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in Springfield.

“Bill Russell became the villain of Boston, which is totally unjustified after he did more to bring praise to the city than anybody,’’ said Tommy Heinsohn, a Celtics Hall of Famer who won nine championships with Russell. “He was standing up as a black person in the Boston area, which was very difficult in those days, and somebody ought to recognize that. . . . It’s long overdue.’’

Russell could not be reached for comment. But the mayor and others who have supported a statue said they believe he would welcome the honor, because his relationship with the city has improved in recent years.

Steve Pagliuca, a managing partner and co-owner of the Celtics, noted that Russell flew into Boston in 2006 for the funeral of Red Auerbach, his former coach, and has grown close with the latest generation of champions, in particular with Celtics forward Kevin Garnett.

“I’d be very surprised if he didn’t welcome something like this and this kind of honor,’’ Pagliuca said. “We’ve had a great relationship with him.’’

When Boston hosted the Democratic National Convention in 2004, Russell was there, and told the mayor that the city had become a “much more tolerant and diverse city,’’ according to Menino.

Even now, Boston has no shortage of statues to its sports heroes. A monument to Ted Williams greets fans outside Fenway Park, a likeness of Auerbach holds a stogie outside Faneuil Hall, and a bronze Bobby Orr, unveiled last year, raises his stick in triumph outside the Garden.

But many said the absence of a statue honoring Russell feels like a particular oversight.

“I don’t think 11 championships in 13 years will ever be matched by anyone in American professional sports history and the key member, the one most responsible, was Russ,’’ said Bob Cousy, a Celtics Hall of Famer who won six championships with Russell. “He was underexposed and underpromoted when he played, and I’m very happy to see he’s getting the acknowledgement and the recognition he deserves.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.

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