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The Bill Russell Legacy Project, in their words

11.03.13 at 5:33 pm ET

My words couldn’t possibly do justice to the stories shared about one of our greatest Americans at Friday’s Bill Russell Legacy Project unveiling, so I’ll let theirs do the talking. A transcript of the video is provided below.

Bill Russell: “I’ve been thinking about how I’m reluctant to speak, but I’ll start out by saying: I am my father’s son.”
Johnny Mathis, Grammy Hall of Fame inductee (lyrics by fellow inductee Bill Withers): “Taught me how to be a man by simply being one. Boy with my hero, I am my father’s son.”

Alfre Woodard, Emmy Award winner: “Mr. Russell, your towering presence will be overseeing a new day in the plaza. And for the world, it will exorcise images of confusion, of billowing hate and of flags wielded as bayonets against neighbors. You paid for this space for us. You paid for this space by carrying the weight of our ignorance and our intolerance for years on your back. Yet, you were still able to make giant strides and lift off and blot out the basket — and the sun, it would seem — to those who would oppose Celtic dominance. You were able to thrill in a world not yet ready to receive you.”

Tommy Heinsohn, Celtics legend: “It’s a great tribute to Bill that finally he’s being recognized for the greatness that he showed here in Boston, in an era when people were not going to grant him his greatness, and I just wanted to say it’s been a pleasure to be on this committee and to see the beautiful statue that will be here in what I think is champions plaza. The great Bill Russell will lead the pack.”

Tom Menino, Mayor of Boston: “Here’s a guy we can all be proud of, because when he played basketball in Boston it wasn’t easy to be a black man in Boston. Let me tell you, it’s a much different city today, but when Bill Russell played — uh-uh. It wasn’t one of the things we look to, but Bill Russell made it. He broke that line, and today we honor Bill Russell.”

Russell: “While I’€™m quite flattered with Tom Menino and this statue business, I told Tom when he first told me, ‘I don’€™t want that, Tom.’ He said, ‘Why not?’ I said, ‘There are two reasons. For one, statues remind me of tombstones. And second, it’€™s something that ends up being a target for pigeons.’ I said, ‘Tom, I want you to understand something. I’€™ll be perfectly satisfied to be buried in an unmarked grave.’ And he said, ‘Well, why’s that?’ I said, ‘Because if you really, seriously believe in God — no joking about it or anything — he does not need a marker to find you. And I don’€™t care if anybody else finds me.”

Mathis: “He let me know, in his opinion, that I would be second to none. Boy with my hero, I am my father’s son.”

Russell: “I’ve never done anything extraordinary. That’s what my father used to tell me.”

Woodard: “The reality is, he endured so much that it could have hardened him against people who feared him or hated him because of who he was, what he looked like. He endured being despised, misunderstood without his heart closing up. Actually, it opened up even more to those willing to really see who he was as a human being.”

Deval Patrick, Governor of Massachusetts: “Bill Russell came to Boston to join the Celtics in 1956, the year I was born, and from that time forward through his career he stood up to civil and human rights and social justice, and every time he did that, it made America and my life better.”

David Stern, NBA commissioner: ” Bill Russell always knew that playing in the NBA gave you an opportunity to change the world, and he has been a beacon for so many young players who listen and respect him — even you Charles [Barkley]. Bill knows exactly what he’s going to say, and he thinks about it. [Stern pauses to gauge Barkley’s reaction.] But Bill is never one to look for accolades, and we know that he thinks today is special, and that makes it special for us. And it is so fitting to have this statue here, right in the most important place in Boston, Because Bill’s relationship — and it should be said — with Boston wasn’t always perfect, but this completes a wonderful, wonderful virtuous circle.”

Woodard: “In 2006, William Russell met Nelson Mandela. I think it was a meeting that had been cosmically in the making for decades — a kindred spirit born a black male child in a repressive society with a light in each of them so bright that no amount of restriction and degradation could snuff it out. Mandela had spent the prime of his life in literal isolation, and Russell, though surrounded by fans and limelight, as a trailblazer endured a kinship kind of isolation. Mandela fought his way out of being branded a terrorist, an evil man bent on destruction, when he was a true son of South Africa dedicated to nonracial nation building. Russell fought his way out of being accused as aloof, hard and uncaring, when actually he was an introverted, accidental celebrity in our cult of personality culture. Because both these men were fueled essentially by love, Mandela rose to the presidency of South Africa and Russell rose to the Medal of Freedom, the highest American civilian honor. It is an amazement and blessing to have lived in the time of Mandela. It is a wonder and joy to have lived to see William Felton Russell ascend.”

Russell: “I spoke at a school in Fort Worth, Texas, and it was when the Vietnam War was winding down. In my speech, I said, ‘What we should do is divert all that money we wasted on war and rebuild our school system. It’€™s a little frayed around the edges.’ After the speech, a guy walked up to me and said, ‘What you’€™re talking about is raising my taxes. Why should I pay taxes to educate other people’€™s kids?’ I said, ‘There are two reasons. One, when you got to be 6 years old and your folks bundled you up and sent you off to school, your folks did not build that school. It was there. And besides that, there are no “other people’€™s kids” in the United States. That’€™s the next generation of America. If we want to keep our society and our country vital, important, we have to build a solid foundation. And the only way you can build a solid foundation is to educate the next generation.”

Mathis: “He taught me I should always do the best that I could, and it’s better that I understand than I be understood. Some daddies listen. It took a while to understand, but he taught me every child of God is the child of every man.”

Stern: “Bill Russell has contributed, as you’ve heard, to our sport and all sports in myriad ways — as a mentor, a teammate, as the first African-American coach in a professional sport, as one of the greatest champions in the history of team sports, of course as a civil rights leader — but when I became commissioner at a time when people questioned whether a black sport could ever be successful, it struck me that the NBA had something to teach America, because if Bill Russell and Tommy Heinsohn can do it together on the basis of teamwork and talent, then there was something that was going on that could make us all better.”

Red Auerbach, late Celtics coach (in a video montage): “My ex-college coach Bill Reinhart played USF, and he told me when Bill was a sophomore, ‘There’s a kid out there you better keep your eye on pretty good. He’s going to be one of the greatest.'”

Heinsohn: “The first time I ever met Bill Russell was on the basketball court during a holiday Festival in New York, and I was considered to be a pretty good hotshot player at the time. I can remember faking him out, proceeding in for a nice easy layup and it got swatted right back in my face by this guy. And he proceeded to take the game of basketball and revolutionize it, and they’re still trying to emulate in the current game what he did back then. As a person, as a competitor — and all of our teammates will attest to this — he was the fiercest competitor that you would ever hope to play with.”

Bill Walton, NBA Hall of Famer: “Bill Russell is the reason why I wanted to be a Celtic. Bill Russell is the reason why I am a Celtic, and to see this day here was just so special in so many ways, because Bill Russell’s sacrifices gave me the life that I have today. His willingness to stand tall has given us the world that we live in today — the world of freedom, the world of choice, the world of acceptance — and this event today was absolutely spectacular on so many levels. He had all these different forces of constituents that came together in a moment of joy, happiness and pride, and what a great celebration, because the world is often very tough and very hard, and Bill Russell was able to unite our world and to get people to overcome their differences and willingly sacrifice for a greater goal.”

Russell: “We had an All-Star Game in Los Angeles. The night before we always had a banquet, and Chick Hearn was the radio announcer and TV guy for the Lakers, and he said, ‘€˜Los Angeles is the basketball capital of the world.’€™ So Red says, ‘€˜Bullshit.’€™ That’€™s the way Red was — a real diplomat. Red says, ‘Until they win something, they ain’€™t won nothing.’ So, I had invited my father down to be my roommate for the All-Star Game. So, we’re going back to our hotel, and he says, ‘€˜Damn it, they need to shut up about that basketball capital of the world.’ I said, ‘What you talking about?’ He said, ‘Red’€™s right. They ain’€™t won nothing.’€™ So, I said, ‘You really feel that way about it?’ He said, ‘Yeah.” I said, ‘OK, I’ll tell you what I’€™ll do. Tomorrow night in the All-Star Game, we’€™ll win the game and I’€™ll be the MVP.’ He says, ‘You that good?’ So, they had this lineup, individually, they averaged about 150 points or something like that. So, I said, ‘Yes, I’m that good.’ So, I get to the game, and Oscar [Robertson] walks in — and Oscar was very diplomatic, too — saying, ‘Blankety blank, blankety blank, blankly blankety blank.’ He says, ‘Tell you what, Russ. You take care of the defense; I’€™ll take care of the offense.’ And so, we kicked the hell out of them. And so, on the way back to the hotel my father said, ‘I didn’€™t know you were that good.'”

Walton: “I loved what Bill said today about the team, and that it was not about him and it wasn’t about winning. And while not everybody can win, he did — all the time. The way he would predict victory in such an understated, classy, graceful way, to be a small part of his Boston Celtics, I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”

Russell (in the video montage): “I was really in love with my career. Every minute I played for the Celtics was a joy to me. From there, I couldn’t go to heaven, because leaving there and going any place else was a step down.”

Heinsohn: “We were playing Philadelphia, and the great Wilt Chamberlain was playing, and we always had troubles with the great Wilt Chamberlain. But we were about to knock them out of the playoffs, and Bill with three seconds left in the game decided he was going to inbound the ball with us having a one-point lead. And he took the ball out of bounds, and he proceeded to try to inbound it and hit the guide wire. We lost possession of the ball, so with three seconds left to go in this game, they had the possibility with the great Wilt Chamberlain to beat us and knock us out of the playoffs. So, stupidly they call a timeout, because this is what happened in this timeout. Bill Russell walked in to the huddle, and he said, ‘Somebody get me off the hook.’ Now, I want to tell you, very easily all of us could’ve said, ‘Well, you’re making the most money, you’re getting the most publicity, get yourself off the hook.’ But that’s not what happened, because what happened was everybody reflected back and remembered how many times he saved our bacon when we made a mistake. And, of course, what happened when we went back into play is they tried to inbound the ball and Johnny Most went crazy up in the balcony: ‘[John] Havlicek stole the ball. Havlicek stole the ball.'”

Withers: “The highest honor I’ve received seemed to come down from a cloud. It was the day my father said to me, ‘My son, you’ve made me proud.’ And I appreciate these honors for the things they said I’ve done, but the thing that I’m most proud of is: I am my father’s son.”

Woodard: “This is the perfect now. Any other time would have been too soon. We had to develop into deserving this moment by committing ourselves to the young people in our midst, by opening our eyes to each other’s perspectives. Ann Hirsch, you were preparing all this time to make this statement in bronze about the giant among us, this champion man, this baller extraordinaire.”

Russell: “Of all the things that have happened to me in my life, the single most important thing is the friends that I have made. My friends have no race, no color, no religion — or not — no political views — or not. If I can come to the conclusion that they are good people, that’€™s all that matters.”

Walton: “Bill Russell makes people think, laugh and cry. Bill Russell sets a standard of excellence in everything that he does that he challenges us to be better than we could ever become on our own.”

Russell: “From the first thing I can remember, my father and my mother loved me. So, I went out into the world knowing I must be OK if they loved me. I look through this audience and I see some friends. The most important thing to me are the friends that I’€™ve met. There’€™s nothing better than that, because you have someone, when you think about it, you don’t think of what they can do for you, but you what can you do to enhance their life. And you know that you can’€™t love anybody unless they let you. And I look into this audience, and I see a few people that let me be friends, and I in turn let them be my friends. Now, my father left Louisiana and moved to Oakland, Calif., and we lived in the projects. It was one bedroom, so my brother and I both had rollaway beds. And, still, there was constantly a flow of people from Louisiana that my father would let stay with us until they could establish themselves. And we didn’€™t have much, but philosophically my father adhered to that poem: ‘It is not what we give, but what we share, for the gift without the giver is bare.'”

Mathis: “And if I’ve said this a thousand times, here comes 1,001. Boy with my hero, I am my father’s son.”

Russell: “Philosophically, all I’€™ve ever done was to try to never shame my father. When he was about 75, he says to me one day, ‘Bill, I love you.’ And that’€™s the first time he said it. It was the way he acted, OK. So, I says, ‘Well, thank you.” And he says, ‘Well, I want to tell you something, I am really proud of you.’ That’€™s the first time he said that. He said, ‘I’€™m proud that you’€™re my son. I’€™m equally proud that I’m your father, because I think you turned out OK.'”

Mathis and Withers: “Boy with my hero, I am my father’s son.”

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