Russell statue finds home; creator next

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By Laura J. Nelson
Globe Correspondent / July 12, 2011

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A statue of Bruins hero Bobby Orr shines outside TD Garden.

The likeness of Red Sox star Ted Williams towers outside Fenway Park’s Gate B.

Now, the image of Celtics great and civil rights activist Bill Russell is one step closer to permanence, too.

A statue for the 6-foot-10-inch center, one of the dominant forces in NBA history, will be installed next spring in an open, bricked area on the south side of City Hall Plaza, about 50 feet from a Planet Fitness gym and just west of Congress Street.

The location reflects Russell’s work both on the court and in his city, Mayor Thomas M. Menino said during a press conference at the site yesterday.

Three local artists are finalists to design the statue and will present their proposals Oct. 10 to Russell, 77, and the Bill Russell Legacy Committee, which is overseeing the installation of the statue.

“The mayor brought Bill here and, when they came to look at the site, literally hundreds of kids surrounded him and were taking pictures,’’ said Stephen Pagliuca, managing partner of the Boston Celtics. “It was as if he was a live statue here.’’

Russell, the backbone of a Celtics dynasty in the ’50s and ’60s and the first black head coach of a major professional sports team, was an outspoken civil rights advocate who had a delicate, sometimes bitter relationship with the city that celebrated 11 NBA championships during his 13-year reign.

Russell has been an advocate for children and education for years, and now works with the Mass Mentoring Project, a statewide mentoring organization that works with more than 23,000 students. Russell could not be reached for comment yesterday.

A committee selected the artists, who officially toured the site for the first time yesterday, based on portfolios of previous work. The finalists are Fern Cunningham, who created the Monument to Harriet Tubman in the South End; Antonio Mendez, whose Players Statue stands at Fenway Park; and Ann Hirsch, a Somerville sculptor who has done work for the National Constitution Center.

The statue will be paid for with public and private donations, Pagliuca said. The cost will depend on which design is chosen.

Menino said renovations to the plaza will coincide with the statue’s installation.

“Bill is very pleased with it. He’s been in Boston to look at several locations,’’ Menino said, citing the proposed site’s proximity to the Freedom Trail, Faneuil Hall, and other popular historic sites. “Thousands and thousands of young people travel it every year.’’

While presenting Russell with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in February, President Obama suggested Boston honor the legend with a statue.

“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,’’ Obama said. “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.’’

Russell was at the National Mall in Washington in 1963 for Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream’’ speech, and benched himself in protest after his black teammates were denied service during the heyday of the civil rights struggle. He became the NBA’s first black coach when he took over for Red Auerbach in 1966.

Sculptors Cunningham, Mendez, and Hirsch are charged with creating a monument that showcases Russell’s legacy as a player, but also a mentor and activist, Pagliuca said.

“The committee is asking the artist to design it so that people can sit, reflect, and think about the contributions Bill made,’’ Pagliuca said. “We want it to be interactive, not just a walk-by.’’

All other details will be left up to the artists, Pagliuca said. But he hopes a phrase often tied to Russell, speaking to the need to mentor children in one’s own community, could be showcased: “There are no other peoples’ children in the United States of America - that’s the next generation.’’

The announcement of the statue’s site is another episode in the once-rocky relationship between Russell and Boston. During his time with the Celtics, the West Monroe, La., native often complained about the city’s treatment of people of color and once called Boston a “flea market of racism’’ after vandals broke into his home and wrote racist slurs on the walls.

When the Celtics retired Russell’s No. 6 jersey in 1972, he did not go to the ceremony, nor did he show up in 1975 when he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield.

Recently, the Russell-Boston relationship has softened. In 1999 during a Celtics ceremony to commemorate the 30th anniversary of his retirement, a standing ovation brought him to tears.

Laura J. Nelson can be reached at

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