A statue of Ted Williams has stood outside Fenway Park since 2004. A major tunnel bears the Red Sox slugger’s name, as do highways in Boston and San Diego. Williams won the Triple Crown twice and led the American League in batting six times. He’s a Hall of Famer who admirably served his country in two wars, and it would be ridiculous to argue that he doesn’t deserve the recognition.
But in his 19 major league seasons, Williams never played on a World Series-winning team.
Bill Russell won 11 NBA titles, all with the Boston Celtics. His playing career lasted 13 seasons. But Russell’s statue won’t be unveiled until the spring of 2012.
And he was more than just the linchpin of the greatest dynasty in American sports history. Russell was a passionate advocate for civil rights. He marched with Martin Luther King in 1963, and in his 1966 autobiography “Go Up For Glory”, he shared what it was like to be a black athlete in the ’50’s and ’60’s. He wrote about how he and his black teammates were systematically excluded from hotels and restaurants, and about how people in Massachusetts were often as unwelcoming as the Maitre D’s in Kentucky, if not worse. Russell once described Boston as “a flea market of racism.”
And though Boston has come a long way since those days, there’s no denying it’s taken far too long to honor Russell. The city has seen fit to erect statues of Bobby Orr, Red Auerbach, Bobby Doerr, Dom DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky, a corrupt mayor and several ducklings before it decided to do the same for one of its greatest athletes and most accomplished citizens. With the exception of the bronze waterfowl, all these statues honored white people.
My first awareness of what sports could mean beyond mere games came in 1969, during Russell’s last season playing for the Celtics. I was only six years old, but I remember watching a game on television with my grandmother. She had, at best, a passing interest in the local sports teams. “Watch this guy, Bill Russell, number six”, she advised. “He’s the best you’ll ever see.”
Since then, I’ve seen Michael, Magic, Larry and many others, and I think she was right about Russell the basketball player. But I’m not sure that four decades ago, my grandmother could have known just how much the word “best” would mean in describing Bill Russell.