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Bill Russell and Boston: Unfinished business

Bill Russell the domineering NBA center, title machine and winner has been more than embraced by Boston.

He's not just part of the Celtic legacy. He's the foundation of it.

But what about Russell, the iconic civil rights leader, proud and prickly, who played one side of a fairly ugly racial conversation with a the city of Boston? What about the man whose home was invaded and defaced with racist messages and feces? What about the man who once wrote that Boston was a "flea market of racism?"

What does Boston think about that guy?

In a Boston Magazine article coming out Tuesday, Paul Flannery digs in.

“Bill Russell got tagged with being antiwhite and rude and everything else,” [Tommy] Heinsohn says, “but all he really wanted to do was be recognized as an individual. He had been slighted several times, and he was smart enough to recognize it.” It should never be said that Russell handled these moments with humility. Drawing inspiration from his grandfather, who stared down the Klan, and from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, Russell responded to the basest levels of racism with defiance -- which tended to only further infuriate his critics. The cycle went on and on.

Russell played for the Celtics, he liked to say, making sure to leave out “Boston.” And when his playing days were over, he relocated to Mercer Island, near Seattle, about as far from the Hub as he could physically get.

Whatever the state of relations now, the truth remains that the greatest winner in the history of American team sports is, oddly, not on the short list of Boston sports heroes (Bobby Orr, Red Auerbach, Ted Williams) honored by statues.

Flannery thinks that ought to change.

The city of Boston has been known to get defensive about the old days.

“We’re past that” is the operative phrase. Well, if that’s true, what better way to show it than by embracing this complex, fascinating, and proud man in some tangible way?

Flannery took his idea of a statue to Celtics' ownership and the mayor's office. Everyone is making encouraging, if somewhat vague, noises. One complicating factor is that Russell himself has opposed many efforts to honor him. But maybe on this one, he ought to be ignored.