Bobby Orr has a statue.
Makes sense, right? For all the reasons we know about. Changed the game, maybe the best player ever, flying through the air vs. St. Louis, all that stuff. A statue for No. 4 is the no brainer to end all no brainers.
Larry Bird has a statue.
Well, of course. This is Larry Freaking Bird we are talking about here. I'll tell you what: I'm 36 years old and saw Bird, Magic and Jordan all play in their primes. And if we're drafting I'll pick the 1986 Larry Bird first and take my chances. Three MVP's, three NBA titles, the all-time killer when the game was on the line and he flat-out owned the city of Boston in the 1980s, just as Orr did the decade before.
Ted Williams has a statue.
Coin flip between Teddy Ballgame and George Herman Ruth for the title that Roy Hobbs wanted so badly. You think Albert Pujols is the best hitter in baseball today? So do I. Pujols has a career OPS of 1.050, tops among active players and fifth all-time. And he has yet to have a season with an OPS as high as the career OPS of Ted Williams. The Splendid Splinter led the league in slugging percentage at age 22 and did it again at age 38. And also seven times in between. Would have done it more, but he had the nerve to take five prime years off. Nothing gets in the way of 750 home runs and 3,500 hits like that whole war hero thing.
There you go. Don't know if we needed to list credentials, but just wanted to make sure that we all realize that this is three of the four guys on the Mt. Rushmore of Boston athletes.
The fourth, of course, is Bill Russell.
The other three fellas -- each at least in the conversation for best player ever at his respective position -- combined for five championships and eight MVP's. Russell won 11 NBA titles and five MVP's.
Part of what makes sports so great is how it lends itself to endless arguments and debates. Best this, best that, worst this, worst that. But the greatest winner in history might be the only debate off the sports table. It's Bill Russell by 50 lengths.
So he has that title, as well as a million other honors, accolades and all the other things that one receives when one lives a life like Russell's.
What he doesn't have is a statue.
You maybe didn't realize that Russell had as many statues in Boston as Vin Baker -- or just never gave it any real thought -- until President Obama, when presenting Russell with the Presidential Medal of Freedom last week, mentioned that he looks forward to the day when "children will look up at a statue built not only to Bill Russell the player, but Bill Russell the man."
Nicely put, that. And though I still maintain that Obama is one of the three biggest sports fan frauds in America -- a Super Bowl party at the White House with J-Lo and Marc Anthony as his guests is just the latest example -- I would think that he must know that without Bill Russell going through what he did in Boston during his career it's possible that he might not be President today. Not a total reach. And if Jackie Robinson, Billie Jean King and Muhammad Ali are on the top of the Trailblazer Pyramid, Russell is just a notch below.
So now, thanks to Obama (and folks like Cedric Maxwell and Paul Flannery, who wrote this terrific piece long before the subject found its way into the East Room of the White House) there is some serious momentum going on here.
"Really, Bill Russell doesn't have a statue?" has turned into "Wait, how the @##@$% does Bill Russell NOT have a statue?" over the last week. Apathy to outrage at 200 miles an hour. Columnists, talk show hosts and callers, TV talking heads, current NBA players and coaches and even those with fewer Twitter followers than Russell has rings (Rob Lamontagne, seven followers: "No statue yet? What are you waiting for?") have been heard from.
Just about the only person not to weigh in? Bill Russell. I'll allow a pause for shock.
And then ask this: Isn't at least possible that Russell -- who famously refused to attend his own Hall of Fame induction and would not allow fans in the Garden (just teammates and Red Auerbach) when his number was retired -- has been approached in the past by the Celtics/city of Boston about a statue and declined? I guess the powers that be could still have gone ahead with the plan, but probably didn't want to do so until Russell was on board.
Look, Bill Russell has clearly mellowed in the last couple of decades. He's sort of become a semi-regular around here. Age (he turned 77 on Feb. 12) can do that, sure. Just watch Bobby Knight today and you have a perfect example. But I have to think that Bill Russell wouldn't be throwing out first pitches at Fenway Park or interviewing Kevin Garnett on ESPN or allowing the Celtics to have a night in his honor if he still felt that the city of Boston was "a flea market of racism," as he wrote in 1979.
As a white man who grew up in the 1980s, not the 1950s, it's pretty damn easy for me to write about progress when it comes to the issue of race in Boston. But I do believe that if Bill Russell was just starting a career today that would end with 11 NBA titles in 13 seasons and five MVP's he'd be the most popular athlete in the history of the city. Times have changed. And if even I'm right and things are better, that doesn't, of course, mean that Russell forgets what happened to him and his family in 1971, when people broke into his house in Reading and destroyed his trophies, defecated in his bed and spread excrement all over his house.
That kind of stuff didn't happen to Bobby Orr or Larry Bird. And I wonder if Russell thought of that night -- and others -- if he was ever in fact asked about a statue. Who knows? The first word associated with Russell is "winner." The second is "complicated."
But if Russell has turned down a statue offer, my bet as to his thought process is this: Why should he get a statue when Sam Jones doesn't have one? Or John Havlicek? Or Satch Sanders? Or Frank Ramsey? Or Tom Heinsohn or K.C. Jones or every other guy that contributed to the 11 titles. Forget about skipping his induction ceremony, Russell has never been to the Basketball Hall of Fame. Why? Because it's a place that salutes individual accomplishment.
I don't know about you, but I'm hoping that is the roadblock when it comes to this statue being built. Sure, if Russell agrees and it gets done it'll make for nice two-day story and a swell ceremony. No question, and that will probably happen, I'm sure.
But I'm rooting for Russell to be the one guy who turns down a statue. He's the only guy with the résumé and credibility to do that without coming across as a phony. Saying no just fits his legacy better, doesn't it?
Always and only about the team on the court, and almost impossible to embrace and figure out off the court.
Statue or no statue, that's not going to change.