Buckley: Bill Russell and Boston’s great loss

There is an urge to create an alternate history in which the Boston Red Sox are so impressed with Jackie Robinson after watching his April 1945 tryout at Fenway Park that they offer him a contract on the spot.

What’s certain is that the Red Sox would have been a better ballclub had they signed Robinson, and perhaps Sam Jethroe and Marvin Williams as well, instead of going through the motions and then sending the three Negro Leagues ballplayers on their way. Who knows, maybe the Ted Williams-Bobby Doerr-Dom DiMaggio-Johnny Pesky-Jackie Robinson Red Sox might have won a World Series or two.

But Robinson’s presence in a Red Sox uniform would have done nothing to soothe the racial tensions that were destined to plague Boston in the years to come. We know this to be true because of the way things played out when Bill Russell pulled into town.

Here was a supremely gifted young man, a Black man, who joined the Celtics for the 1956-57 season and established the first dynasty in NBA history. The Celtics produced other great players over the years — from the Cooz and Hondo to the Joneses and Jo Jo — but they comprised a Hall of Fame supporting cast. The star was Russell, who led the Celtics to 11 championships in his 13 seasons in a Boston uniform.

If casual sports fans know just one thing about Bill Russell, that’s it right there. The 11 championships in 13 seasons.

As for hardcore New England sports fans who love to wage arguments about a mythical “Mount Rushmore of Boston Sports,” the debate always comes down to Williams, Russell, Bobby Orr, Tom Brady and, now, David Ortiz. But Richard Johnson, the longtime curator of Boston-based Sports Museum, sees it this way:

“There’s a Mount Rushmore, and then there’s Bill Russell. No disrespect to the others, but he gets his own mountain. And it’s for the man, not just the champion.”

And yet Russell, who was 88 when he died on Sunday, was a man, and a champion, who was the target of racial prejudice in Boston. That’s what he got for all that winning. One such episode was particularly jarring: Vandals broke into his home north of Boston and scratched out epithets on the walls and littered his bed with feces. But so often has this horrible story been cited that, in a way, it perversely underreports what Russell went through in Boston. Suffice to say that other stuff happened.

And so when Bill Russell retired from the Celtics, he retired from Boston. He later coached the Seattle SuperSonics and eventually settled in Washington, buying a home on Mercer Island.

What a loss that was for Boston; what a loss that he didn’t stay on as head coach of the Celtics, or do his TV work from Boston, or transition from the hardwood to the boardroom and become a powerful member of the local business community. Close your eyes and imagine Bill Russell using that infectious, cackling laugh of his to close a deal.

With his fame, his smarts, his voice, his laugh, his gravitas, his willingness to speak out about what he believes is right and wrong, perhaps he could have been in a position to broker peace in the 1970s when the city was torn apart over court-ordered school desegregation. Years later, perhaps Russell’s presence would have dissuaded people from saying and doing the things that have been reported by various visiting athletes of color.

But as former Boston Celtic Cedric Maxwell told me Sunday night, “Things ran out the way they were going to run out. Bill Russell spoke his truths, but he didn’t see a way to go any further in Boston. People literally shit in his bed when he went to speak someplace. And how long did it take to have a statue of Bill Russell around here?”

Maxwell speaks the words of a man who has himself lived in the Boston area for going on 27 years. The late Celtics star K.C. Jones, who would later coach the team, began his coaching career by staying locally to run the Brandeis University program. Tom “Satch” Sanders, another former Celtic, coached Harvard. Jim Rice, the Hall of Fame Red Sox left fielder, remained in Boston and has been a pre and postgame host on NESN for years.

All of them are Black. What they are not is Bill Russell.

But as Maxwell put it, “There was no olive branch — on both sides. Bill decided he was going to move on.”

The olive branch would be extended, on both sides, many years later. An aging Russell returned to Boston with greater frequency to be honored by this or that organization, including honorary degrees from Harvard University, Suffolk University and other schools.

A long-awaited statue in Russell’s honor was unveiled outside City Hall in 2013. He attended the ceremony.

Maxwell is probably right when he says that things were going to play out the way they did, Bill Russell or no Bill Russell. That he wasn’t here to be a leader, a spokesman, an activist, is Boston’s loss.

And while nobody has a right to legislate a person’s emotions, it’s not unfair to wonder if it was Bill Russell’s loss as well.

(Photo: Ethan Miller / Getty Images)


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