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Adrian Walker

Give Russell his due

By Adrian Walker
Globe Columnist / February 19, 2011

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Every so often, Boston turns its lonely eyes to Bill Russell, and the spectacle is always fascinating to watch.

One of those rediscoveries occurred in 1999 when the Celtics great assented to a night in his honor at what was then the Fleet Center. Thirty years after his last game, he was celebrated before a packed house, most of which had never seen him play. Legendary adversary Wilt Chamberlain joined in the celebration, and a deep old wound between Russell and Boston began to heal.

Another sign of thaw came during the Celtics’ championship run in 2008, when Russell not only appeared at the Finals, but did television interviews with his newfound buddy, Kevin Garnett.

And now, once again, Russell and Boston are in the news. The idea of a tribute to Russell is everywhere: Cedric Maxwell has been lobbying on talk radio for a statue, and even President Obama took up the cause Tuesday, when he presented Russell with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

For once, people stand united in pursuit of a great idea. Russell is, in the words of my colleague Bob Ryan, “the greatest team athlete this country has ever produced.’’ And he is much more than that: a longtime activist, the first black head coach in a major professional sport, an outspoken champion of human rights. America, let alone Boston, has never seen anyone quite like Bill Russell.

The difficult relationship between this justly proud man and Boston has often been chronicled. He arrived in 1956 in a city that had never before had a star black athlete. While leading the Celtics to a mind-boggling string of 11 championships in 13 years, Russell never really embraced a city in which he was a perpetual outsider. His home was vandalized. Teammates like Bob Cousy have said they never appreciated, back then, the racism Russell faced.

Russell wrote about it — sometimes movingly, sometimes sardonically — in his 1979 memoir, “Second Wind.’’

“Boston itself was a flea market of racism,’’ he wrote. “It had all varieties, old and new, and in their most virulent form. The city had corrupt, city hall-crony racists, brick-throwing, send-’em-back-to-Africa racists, and in the university areas phony radical-chic racists. . . . Other than that, I liked the city.’’

The flea-market line — which rankled a city still in the throes of the busing crisis — long ago took on a life of its own. But, typically, his feelings were more complicated than that line might convey. He would also say this:

“I’ve stood in Boston Garden after making a big play in a playoff game and literally felt fifteen thousand people cheering for me — the whole Garden shaking with waves of emotion washing over me so strongly that it felt as if my spinal column were immersed in sparkling champagne. And I have felt the personal abuse of those same fans — sometimes right after the game. How can a young kid who gives his life to basketball prepare himself for the idea that the cheers and boos are not permanent? Or that you can’t take one without the other?’’

Boston can be a tough town, even for heroes, and even without the added combustible element of race. Ted Williams died as a beloved figure, but he didn’t really retire as one. Appreciation for him deepened over time.

Much the same has happened with Russell. Once wary, he now visits occasionally, has given the Celtics pep talks, and even threw out a first pitch at Fenway, though, reportedly, not before grilling the owners about social justice. When he walked into the TD Garden during the 2008 Finals, he fittingly got a hero’s welcome. He is now simply, Bill Russell, Celtics icon. Bill Russell, champion.

In a city that loves winners, Russell leads the pantheon. More than that, the evolving relationship between Russell and Boston mirrors a city that itself has changed. Russell belongs to Boston, and we should be glad that it isn’t too late to embrace him.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.

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