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Hub to honor Russell with statue

Obama’s words accelerate effort on behalf of Celtics’ legend

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By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / May 5, 2011

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After several years of discussion and debate stretching from sports talk radio to the White House, Bill Russell, the Celtics’ legend and civil rights activist, will be honored with a statue in Boston.

In February, when President Obama invited Russell to the White House to award him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, he could not help but ask a simple question: How was it possible that a city that had honored so many of its sports legends had yet to commemorate the legacy of one of its most transcendent ones?

“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,’’ Obama said.

The words will ring true.

The Celtics announced plans yesterday to build a statue of Russell, the player who not only helped bring 11 NBA titles to Boston but also served as a symbol for the racial tension in the city during the civil rights movement and the progress ever since.

“I think the president’s comments certainly catalyzed a lot of thoughts and efforts that were going on in the city,’’ said Celtics co-owner Stephen Pagliuca, who collaborated extensively with Mayor Thomas M. Menino to honor Russell. “The mayor was in favor of this. The governor was in favor of this. We were looking at doing this. So I think those comments really helped catalyze this group coming together and continuing to work to get this done. Now it’s going to become a reality.

“When the president talks, people listen.’’

The city is looking at several potential sites for the statue and will seek input from the community, according to Dot Joyce, spokeswoman for Menino.

Tommy Heinsohn, a Celtics great and a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame who is also an artist, will lead a committee to determine the statue’s designer.

The Celtics will also launch the Bill Russell Legacy Project, which will work with the Mass Mentoring Partnership to fund grants for mentoring programs throughout the city.

Other statues of Boston sports legends already dot the city.

The one of Red Sox great Ted Williams stands outside Gate B at Fenway Park. The Bruins’ Bobby Orr’s bronzed image was unveiled last May at TD Garden. Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie is forever frozen outside Conte Forum in the pose from his famous “Hail Flutie’’ pass that gave the Eagles a victory over Miami in 1984.

Last month, Russell met with Pagliuca, Menino, and others from both the city and the Celtics to discuss the plans. “He was very pleased, very honored,’’ Pagliuca said. “Everything has its time, and I think it was fortuitous that this all came together with the Medal of Freedom and with our group and the mayor, everyone being for this. It’s come at the right time. I think this is just the right time to do it. He’s very excited.

Fans outside TD Garden for last night’s Bruins-Flyers game were equally as excited.

“He needs a statue just like Bobby Orr does because he’s been an influence in every kid’s life and in every Bostonian’s life,’’ said Dan Rigo of Fall River.

Angelo Frangiosa of Norwood said: “It’s about time they got a statue put up; he’s one of the cornerstones of the franchise that’s given us so many memories. I really hope he’s in defensive stance because that’s what he was about.’’

Over the course of his career, Russell defined winning, hanging championship banners in 11 of his 13 NBA seasons. He had a then-unheard-of ability to control a game with shot-blocking, rebounding, and defense. His close friendship with Celtics coach Red Auerbach stemmed largely from their mutual desire to win.

But it was his social consciousness that set him apart from other athletes.

He was at the National Mall in Washington in 1963 for Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream’’ speech.

When teammates were denied service in certain cities, he sat out games in protest.

He became the NBA’s first black coach when he took over for Auerbach in 1966.

In 1964, Russell was part of the NBA’s first all-black starting five, along with Sam Jones, K.C. Jones, Willie Naulls, and Tom “Satch’’ Sanders.

“Russell helped the Celtics reach their peak at a time when the country was having its difficulties with civil rights, with war efforts,’’ Sanders said. “It was the perfect time for his kind of man, a man who would step out, not be afraid to say what he thought, what he believed in, and to also provide some direction for a lot of people not only in the sports world.’’

Russell’s relationship with the city was tenuous.

He once called Boston a “flea market for racism.’’ But over time, his impression of the city changed. He told Menino in 2004 that the city had become “much more tolerant and diverse.’’

“There’s no one I can think of more worthy than Bill Russell,’’ Sanders said. “In fact, it’s taken a fair amount of time for it to happen. It’s taken a long time for folks to wrap their minds around it.

“There isn’t anyone who’s brought more fame, sports-wise, to Boston on a national level than Bill Russell in all of the sports here. So there’s no question that if one has to look at a statue acknowledging the accomplishments of any athlete, certainly Bill Russell is the one.”

Pagliuca said Boston has been “blessed in the fact that we’ve had many sports heroes here at the top of their professions and many of those transcended the games . . . We’ve been more fortunate than most cities to have these kinds of heroes. The Bill Russells, the Larry Birds, the many, many Celtics.

“But I think if you look at all the sports, I can’t think of anyone who’s won 11 championships in 13 years of playing. I don’t know of anybody who’s had that kind of success on the court and then had a very large impact off the court as far as being an advocate for civil rights and I think again this statue and legacy project are well deserved.’’

Andrew Ryan of the Globe staff and correspondent Seth Lakso contributed to this report; Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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