Doing The Wrong Thing: Does Bill Russell Really Deserve A Statue In Boston?
What do the
following public statues have in common?
Answer: They are
all statues of white athletes in one city: Boston,
Barack Obama recently bestowed The Presidential Medal of
black NBA legend Bill Russell, he decided lend the prestige of the Presidency to this trivial
“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.”
[Give him honor, Obama says, By Michael Levenson,
Boston Globe, February 16, 2011]
Suddenly, the city
of Boston is in a tizzy to erect a statue of Bill
Yes, the Boston
political class is in the midst of another
“Do The Right Thing“ moment. In
Spike Lee`s film, a group of black men enter a white-owned
pizzeria, and demand to know “Why aren`t there any
pictures of black folks on the wall”?
The trend is
apparently contagious. Across the Charles River, Harvard
University has established a
“Minority Portrait Project”
to create portraits of minority faculty and alumni, so that they may
hang beside portraits of the
Anglos who once
exclusively comprised its students and faculty.
The story on Bill
Russell goes something like this: Bill Russell was a
great athlete who continually endured racial slights and
slurs while playing for the Boston Celtics during the
1960s. And this (we are now told) is a wrong that Boston
must now right by dedicating a statue of Bill Russell.
Granted, it`s not
as if there are no
memorials to blacks in downtown Boston. There is a
statue of the poet
on Commonwealth Avenue, a
large high-relief bronze memorial to the
all-black 54th Regiment on the Boston Common, the
African Meeting House on Beacon Hill, a
“Black Heritage Trail“. You get the idea.
However, in my
opinion the most interesting statue in Boston is the
one in Park Square that commemorates the
Emancipation Proclamation. The statue features
Abraham Lincoln extending his hand over a crouched Negro
slave, who is shirtless, shackled, and has a zombie-like
surprised that no one ever complains about the benighted
depiction of the slave here. But to me, the statue
actually explains more about the
mentality of Boston elites than it does about
politics of racial guilt have long been a part of the
Massachusetts. And they never enjoy racial hand wringing more
than when it`s done at the expense of other whites—those
oppose mass immigration,
forced busing, and who like to root for local sports
teams, something many elites consider pedestrian.
This brings us to
the subject of
Bill Russell was
the centerpiece of the greatest dynasty in sports
history. The Russell-led Boston Celtics
won eleven NBA titles in thirteen seasons (1957-1969). What was
their secret? They excelled at what former NBA star
Darryl Dawkins (who is black) calls “white basketball.”
In his book, Chocolate Thunder: The Uncensored Life and Time of Darryl Dawkins
describes the difference between “white basketball” and
“black basketball.” According to Dawkins, “white
culture places more of a premium on winning” while
black culture indulges in too much “self indulgent
preening and chest beating.”
“White guys are more willing to do something when somebody else has the
ball—setting picks, boxing out, cutting just to clear a
space for a teammate, making the pass that leads to an
assist. In white basketball, there`s more of a sense of
discipline, of running set plays and only taking wide
For decades, the
Boston Celtics were the ultimate white basketball team.
And few played white basketball
better than Bill Russell.
As a center,
Russell excelled at rebounding, passing, setting picks,
and most of all, blocking shots. His emphasis on defense
virtually revolutionized the game.
Bill Russell, of
course, never could have excelled at black basketball
even if he tried. A mediocre shooter, he never averaged
more than 19 points per game in a season. But that
didn`t matter to Russell because, as one teammate put
it, he had a “neurotic need to win.”
But however much
Bill Russell may have been a great team player on the
court, he was an unabashed prima donna off of it.
He often refused to practice, preferring to sit in the
stands and drink tea as his teammates hustled through
drills. He wore fancy suits, draped himself in a grand,
flowing black cape, and drove a Lamborghini.
The Boston sports
media made much of Russell`s refusal to sign autographs,
and it led to considerable tension between himself and
In 1964, Bill
told the Saturday Evening Post
“What I`m resentful of, you know, is when they say that you owe the
public this and you owe the public that. You owe the
public the same thing it owes you. Nothing! . . . I
refuse to smile and be nice to the kiddies.”
Owe The Public Nothing, January 18, 1964]
Let`s face it: that
largely made up of white people. And their support for
the Celtics made Bill Russell the league`s highest paid
player, and one of the wealthiest black men in the
In an interview the
previous year with Sports Illustrated, Bill
Russell was even blunter: “I dislike most white
people because they are people. As opposed to dislike, I
like most black people because they are black.” [We Are Grown Men Playing A Child`s Game, by Gilbert Rogin, Sports Illustrated, Nov 18, 1963]
Bill Russell blamed
white racism for the crime, and who can argue? Still,
when you express such hostility for the fans, you
shouldn`t be surprised when some of them reciprocate. No
other black Celtics had their homes vandalized.
despite Bill Russell`s professed disdain for whites, he
has always preferred to live in white neighborhoods, and
to date white women. He even
married two white women, including
Miss USA 1968.
controversies, the Celtics made Bill Russell the first
African-American to coach a major league professional
sports team in 1966.
planned to retire to
Liberia. He had been involved in the Black Power Movement
and even named his daughter after Kenyan dictator
Jomo Kenyatta, a leader of the
rebellion against British rule. But he abandoned
the idea after he lost a fortune investing in a Liberian
In 1972, the
Celtics wanted to retire Russell`s number during a game
he was covering as a television commentator. But Russell
insisted that the Celtics do so before the game in an
empty Boston Garden so that no fans could attend.
In 1975, when the
NBA Hall of Fame made Bill Russell its first black member,
he again refused to attend the ceremony. Russell called
the Hall of Fame
“racist” and then later complained that his uniform
had been displayed on a
In his book, Second Wind: Memoirs Of An Opinionated Man,
Russell says this
“To me, Boston itself was a flea market of racism . . . If
were riding today, it would be for racism:
`The niggers are coming! The niggers are coming!` He`d
yell as he galloped through town to warn neighborhoods
The truth is that
while the Boston Celtics became a dynasty by playing
“white basketball”, they were a virtually color-blind organization.
In 1950, the Celtics drafted the NBA`s first black
player and in 1962 they had the league`s first all black
On one occasion,
Bill Russell brought his grandfather into the Celtics
locker room after a game, and the man broke down into
tears as he witnessed
the genuine camaraderie between the black and white players.
often speak as if fan enthusiasm
for Larry Bird`s Celtics was based on the
team`s whiteness. They tend to
overlook the fact that the Bird-led Celtics won three
NBA titles in one decade.
And it`s not hard
for a player to be popular when he doesn`t insult the
fans and actually
Boston political class and the local media continually
lecture the public on how Bostonians just won`t root for
So after Bird`s
retirement in 1992, the Celtic ownership relented and
made the switch to black basketball. They spent the next two decades
floundering in the NBA.
The famous “Celtic Mystique”
vanished and the team did not win another NBA title until 2008—a
22-year title drought.
As for Bill
Russell, he actually does sign autographs now—for a price. In recent years Russell has made millions
in the sports memorabilia business.
Not once has Bill
Russell ever once apologized for the way he has
disparaged the city that made him rich and famous.
Does it not seem
strange for a city to dedicate a statue to a man who
clearly loathes it?
location for a statue of Bill Russell would be outside
where the Celtics play. But I doubt that
Instead, in the
manner of the statue of Lincoln freeing the slaves,
Boston`s elites will place the Bill Russell statue
so that no one will be able to miss it.
They will do this
not because they seek to applaud Bill Russell, but to
themselves for recognizing him.
Around here, they
consider this “Doing The Right Thing“.
Matthew Richer (email
him) is a writer living in Massachusetts. He is the former American
Editor of Right NOW magazine.