Site set for Boston's Bill Russell statue

BOSTON -- City Hall Plaza will serve as home to the Bill Russell statue, Mayor Thomas M. Menino and Boston Celtics co-owner Stephen Pagliuca announced Monday in a brief ceremony on the expected location on the south side near State Street.

While considering a handful of locations during the selection process, a site visit to City Hall Plaza with Russell confirmed to the legacy committee that it was the ideal spot.

"The mayor brought Bill here and, when they came to look at the site, literally hundreds of kids surrounded him and were taking pictures," said Pagliuca. "It was as if he was a live statue here. It's going to be very exciting."

Menino suggested that Russell could be the first seed in making the area a place to celebrate all of Boston's sports history.

"It might be a plaza of champions in the future," Menino said, "but we want to make sure that Bill Russell is the lead champion."

Russell led the Celtics to 11 league championships in 13 seasons.

President Barack Obama suggested Boston build a statue of Russell when he awarded him a Presidential Medal of Freedom in February. Obama said he hoped one day children would look up to a statue "built not only to Bill Russell the player but Bill Russell the man."

Three artists have been selected as finalists for the design of the statue and, after making their first official site visit Monday, will be asked to submit their visions to the legacy committee in October. Pagliuca suggested the actual statue could be unveiled next spring, noting he hoped it would coincide with the Celtics' 2011-12 season, if the lockout allows for one.

The three artists are Fern Cunningham, creator of the Monument to Harriett Tubman in Boston's South End; Antonio Mendez with Oudens Ello Architects, whose work includes the player statues outside Fenway Park; and Ann Hirsch, a local artist based in Somerville.

The artists have the challenge of designing a statue that not only celebrates Russell's accomplishments on the basketball court, but what he meant to the city off the court.

"Besides Bill Russell being the best basketball player in the city of Boston, off the court, we know him as an individual who went out to work with young people," Menino said. "When he saw a young person in trouble, he tried to work with them and put them on the right track."

Pagliuca said the committee is hoping the artists can design something where "people can sit and reflect, think about all the contributions Bill made and the progress this city has made. Not just a walk-by or drive-by, but an educational experience. I'll leave that to the artists, they can interpret that ... but we'd like it to be interactive."

The committee noted the site's proximity to the Freedom Trail and Faneuil Hall as a chief reason for selecting the location. The news conference itself drew a sizable crowd just from those passing by. The area is part of the City Hall Plaza renovation, and those improvements will be coordinated with the installation of the statue.

Pagliuca said that the Shamrock Foundation has raised a "fair" amount of money through private fundraising and said it would open the project to public donations probably around the time the final designs are unveiled in October. Pressed on the funding, Pagliuca assured that the committee would build a "world-class statue," and said the community had already pledged support in aiding the project.

The announcement of the statue's site is another episode in the once-rocky relationship between Russell and the city of Boston. During his time with the Celtics, the West Monroe, La.-born Russell often complained about the city's treatment of people of color and once called the city a "flea market of racism."

When the Celtics retired his No. 6 jersey in 1972, Russell refused to attend the ceremony. But in recent years, Russell has visited Boston and has praised the city for changing. In 1999, he attended a ceremony hosted by the Celtics to re-retire his jersey and received a long standing ovation that brought him to tears.

Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.