- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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BOSTON -- A star-studded cast from the worlds of basketball, politics, and music converged on Boston's City Hall Plaza on Friday as Bill Russell helped unveil the long-awaited statue in his honor.
Inclement weather was supposed to curtail a plan for a public viewing, but light rains and wind couldn't keep a small crowd from forming on a mild November afternoon to cheer as Russell, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, NBA commissioner David Stern, and members of Celtics ownership, including Steve Pagliuca and Wyc Grousbeck, gathered to formally unveil the multielement tribute highlighted by the statue of Russell depicting his playing days. One fan bellowed, "Long overdue, Bill!" as the cloak came off the statue.
Local artist Ann Hirsch crafted the piece that also features 10 granite blocks surrounding Russell for a total of 11 elements, representing his NBA championships. Each plinth features a word and corresponding quotation that highlight Russell's accomplishments on and off the court.
When Menino called Russell to tell him about the city's desire to craft a statue of him, Russell joked that he didn't want it because statues remind him of tombstones. What's more, he told Menino, pigeons tend to defecate on statues. Russell finally warmed to the idea when told it would incorporate his work with Boston's mentoring program.
Earlier this week, Russell accompanied President Barack Obama, who had previously rallied behind the idea of building a statue for Russell, for a sneak peek at it.
Asked after Friday's unveiling about what he wanted his legacy to be, Russell responded, "That I cared about the children and the country in a meaningful way."
Asked about Russell's legacy, Menino echoed that sentiment.
"Of course basketball ... [but Russell was also a] great friend to the young people of our state," he said. "Nobody knows that about him, everybody talks about his 11 championships, nobody knows about the mentoring he did.
"Generations will come see [the statue] and say, 'Geez, that guy made a difference in a lot of kids' lives.'"
After the outdoor unveiling, the group relocated to an area ballroom for a speaker series. Russell closed the event by offering powerful stories from all phases of his life. Despite having the audience enthralled, Russell's daughter, Karen, playfully stood up in front of him late in his speech and he asked if she wanted him to "shut up." Russell told one more story, eliciting constant laughter from the crowd, before getting a second ovation.
Among those in attendance were Celtics first-year coach Brad Stevens, who had planned to sneak out early given Friday's home-opener against the Milwaukee Bucks, but elected to stay to listen to Russell, someone who had a profound impact on Stevens' coaching philosophies.
"It was great," Stevens said. "You're around and listening to the greatest winner of all time in the history of team sports. I mean, it's really remarkable when you think of it in that way. What he had to say was phenomenal, the other speakers were phenomenal. I just thought it was a neat event, and I'm really really glad that I went to it.
"At one point I was going to go early and kinda make my way out because we have the game and I wanted to make sure I was as prepared as I needed to be prepared. But nothing could have been more important than standing there through that, and making sure that I heard every word of it because it really was special."
Stevens got a chance to meet Russell on Friday and said he simply shook his hand with everyone eager to say hello to the Celtics legend. But the speech resonated with an enthralled Stevens.
"I thought that the way that he started, where he talked about, 'I am my father's son and my parents love me,' and I felt like I could accomplish anything because of that,'" Stevens said.
Russell's event even included a performance by music legends Johnny Mathis and Bill Withers. The latter penned a song in honor of Russell's father, and Mathis sang for the crowd.
"That's pretty powerful stuff right out of the gates," Stevens said. "And he followed it up with the team person that he is all the way through."
The Celtics plan to honor Russell at the end of the first quarter of Friday's game. Maybe not coincidentally, a new mural decorates the hall outside the team's locker room at TD Garden. The main image above the door is of Russell blocking a shot.
7dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann