How Bill Russell's rare memorabilia took years to reach the collectibles market

President Barack Obama awarded Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. It remains one of the items in Russell's collection that will not be placed up for auction. ImageCatcher News Service/Corbis via Getty Images

THE PHONE CALL came five years before Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell put a trove of personal memorabilia up for auction. David Hunt, president of Hunt Auctions, was asked what some of the items in Russell's teeming trophy case were worth and whether he could appraise them.

Russell, 88, boasts one of the most unimpeachable resumes in professional sports history. He is a two-time NCAA champion, an Olympic gold medalist, winner of 11 NBA titles in 13 seasons and a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and coach. His signature and memorabilia, for decades, had been a rarity in the collecting space. Hobbyists would be interested in the chance to own something -- anything -- of his.

There was an added weight to the query. Russell isn't just an athlete -- he is a civil rights icon. He was the first Black coach to guide a team in any major pro sport and the first to win an NBA title. He marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and stood alongside Muhammad Ali.

"It was nothing remotely about selling the items at first," said Hunt, who conducted posthumous auctions for Babe Ruth, Roberto Clemente and Ted Williams.

In the years following that initial phone call, Russell and his team, which included an archivist, pored over objects representing more than five decades of memories. Hunt, who periodically advised them, said they discussed items that might be of interest to prospective buyers. Russell identified what he might part with and what he would not, under any circumstance. During that evaluation period, Hunt said, Russell still hadn't decided whether he wanted to sell anything.

When Hunt received that initial phone call, the items weren't at their maximum financial value. But as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the spring of 2020, the sports cards and memorabilia market experienced a boom. Even vintage basketball, which has tended to lag behind baseball in the hobby, took off.

From a market perspective, there had never been a better time to sell. Anyone devoted to sports and civil rights history would have interest.

On Friday night, Dec. 10, 2021, Hunt Auctions placed 429 lots up for sale inside TD Garden's Legends suite. Russell's items netted a combined $7.4 million, with proceeds benefiting two charities: MENTOR, a Boston-based non-profit co-founded by Russell that aims to strengthen mentoring relationships, and Boston Celtics United for Social Justice, which fights racial injustice and social inequities in the Greater Boston area.

"There has been no other basketball collection sold, to my knowledge, not publicly, that equated to that value, significance, player caliber, media coverage -- not close that I know of," Hunt said.

A second, online-only auction is scheduled for Friday, and while it won't be as sprawling, it has its gems; for example, a game-worn Celtics jersey and warm-up jacket from the 1960s are expected to draw six-figure sums each. Friday's auction also includes items from the personal collection of Russell's coach and mentor, Red Auerbach.

The Russell memorabilia auctions -- how they came about and what they have meant to collectors -- also have been of interest to preservationists and those who obtain objects, curate collections and manage museums, especially museums that memorialize the careers and achievements of Black athletes, Boston athletes and Hall of Famers.

Richard Johnson, curator at The Sports Museum inside TD Garden in Boston, said Celtics Hall of Fame center Dave Cowens, a former director of the museum, called Russell's home after catching wind of the planned December auction and spoke to his wife, Jeannine, on the museum's behalf.

"They had already consigned everything to the auction house," said Johnson, who has been in his role since 1982. "It had already been done."

FOR YEARS, FINDING Russell memorabilia was difficult. He played in the NBA at a time when shoes and jerseys weren't casually tossed into the crowd or available for sale at memorabilia conventions. And even when vintage basketball items were available, industry analysts say, they were undervalued and underappreciated by the market.

After his contemporaries' memorabilia started popping up on the market, precious little of Russell's followed. One appraiser called game-used Russell jerseys "exceedingly rare" even for his era. Russell's signature, too, was scarce. For decades, he was known for preferring chats rather than signing his name.

Hunt had been tasked with placing values on invaluable items. There was Russell's gold medal from the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, which he wanted to compete in so badly that he missed the first two months of his rookie Celtics season. There was an autographed copy of Russell's 1957 Topps rookie card, an award given for participating in his first All-Star Game in 1958, his 50 Greatest NBA Players ring and autographed leather jacket, and his jersey from the 1969 NBA Finals, the last he donned. Those were from his basketball career.

Hunt described other items as important pieces of history, necessary to preserve "for people down the road." One was related to the 1961 boycott of Celtics vs. St. Louis Hawks exhibition in Lexington, Kentucky, where Russell and several of his teammates refused to play after Black players were refused service at a restaurant. Jackie Robinson was so moved that he mailed a letter to Russell, who glued the letter and clippings from that day to a page in a personal scrapbook.

"It is gratifying to know that our athletes have the pride that you fellows do," Robinson wrote to Russell. "Your actions aid considerably in our fight for equal opportunity."

That scrapbook page was Lot No. 96 in the December auction. It sold for $94,000.

His first championship ring sold for $705,000. His 1956 Olympic gold medal went for $587,500. Among the other notable items auctioned, Russell's final Celtics uniform, his five MVP trophies, his first NBA championship ring -- all were sold, totaling $3.13 million combined. Auction houses typically don't release the identities of buyers unless given explicit permission.

The December auction happened just a few months after Russell listed his home on Washington's Mercer Island, which he'd owned for nearly 50 years, for $2.6 million. The Puget Sound Business Journal reported Russell planned to stay in the area but downsize, and that he had left behind the trophy case and an autographed ball for the next owner. Reached Wednesday, Jeannine Russell said they were not doing any interviews.

Neither Hunt nor MENTOR CEO David Shapiro would comment on the percentage going toward MENTOR or Boston Celtics United for Social Justice, but a former estate handler noted that, in auctions that benefit charities, it's customary to donate anywhere from 5% to 15% of the total sale. If that is a guide, the $7.4 million December night would have raised $370,000 to $1,110,000 for charity.

Russell even showed up to say goodbye. A couple of days later, he posted photos on social media of a cross-country road trip.

When Hunt handles the legacies of legends, they've usually departed. But Russell has been engaged every step of the way.

"I can tell you, people were in tears -- thanking us, thanking Bill," Hunt said of that night in December. "[When] that happens, I feel like we've done our job."

There remain the never-evers in Russell's collection. For example, President Barack Obama awarded him the Medal of Freedom in 2011.

"With the Medal of Freedom, there's nothing to talk about," Hunt said. "God bless you for having it, I'm glad you don't want to sell it because I'd give it back."

Obama so reveres Russell that he later made a speech embedded in a touch screen at the Basketball Hall of Fame. He mentioned Russell's reluctance to take over the Celtics for Red Auerbach. He touched upon the titles won at San Francisco and in Boston, and the Olympic medal. But what Obama homed in on had very little to do with basketball. He focused on Lexington.

"[It was] an act of civil disobedience that still echoes to this day," Obama said in the video. "I could not be more honored to celebrate Bill Russell for the [way] he led, the way he lives his life."

NINETY MILES SOUTHWEST of Boston is the newly renovated Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. In the atrium, visitors are greeted by two of the most vital visages in basketball history. One is Michael Jordan; the other is Bill Russell.

A Russell locker, secured with a financial contribution, includes a personally donated All-Star Game jersey, shorts and two signed basketballs. The donations were made in support of the Hall's renovation project, which was completed last year.

At the basketball exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., entrants are greeted by a photo of Philadelphia 76ers center Wilt Chamberlain grabbing a rebound against Russell. There are four items featuring Russell. Damion Thomas, the museum's sports curator, said any Russell items have either been acquired or borrowed from collectors. The 1969 Finals jersey, which sold for more than $1.1 million, was of particular interest to the museum, but out of price range.

"Often, athletes get a bad rap for auctioning off their material, but I don't think it's a negative," Thomas said. "It's an opportunity to make these items available to people. I don't think art museums should have all of the Bill Russell items.

"Hopefully, all of the prominent places have some sort of Russell representation."

The Sport and Social Change Museum at Russell's alma mater, the University of San Francisco, has "plaques and commemorative items." The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn., does not have specific artifacts but offers "digital/printed assets" that were developed for the Freedom Award programming, including a biographical video.

The Sports Museum inside TD Garden is a half-mile labyrinth dedicated to New England sports history. Past Ted Williams' locker and Roger Clemens' 20-strikeout scorebook, past Manute Bol's University of Bridgeport warmup and Doug Flutie's Boston College jersey, past commemorations for college hockey's The Beanpot tournament and Connecticut's Trinity College squash ("The Alabama of squash," Johnson says), you eventually get to Bill Russell.

Within an exhibit dedicated to the Celtics, there's a portrait of Russell dribbling -- framed and off to the side, above one of Kevin McHale. There's a copy of the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year Issue from 1968 with Russell on the cover. And there's Russell's signature alongside other Celtics Hall of Famers on a piece of the old Boston Garden parquet floor. All of the items at the non-profit museum are either donated or on loan.

There's a relative sparseness of Russell items on display here, not because he's not revered. Johnson, curator at the museum, said he met Russell once, briefly saying hello at John Havlicek's funeral.

"I didn't feel worthy of engaging him," he said. "I mean, if this country gave out royal titles, he'd be Sir Bill Russell."

Russell wasn't always treated like royalty during his career. The racism he faced in Boston has been widely chronicled. Vandals broke into his home and wrote racial epithets on the walls. In his memoir, "Second Wind," published in 1979, he wrote of the racism in the city, saying there were "all varieties, old and new, and in their most virulent form."

When Russell's memorabilia was being wheeled into the Legends suite in December, 100 feet from the Celtics' locker room, Johnson got a peek. He later said the sheer weight of all that history, back in Boston, overwhelmed him.

"I never begrudge anybody's desire to part with their things and to monetize," Johnson said. "My curatorial half says, 'God, I wish he'd contributed some of this stuff to us,' [but] I hold him in the highest regard. It was great to see these crown jewels [in TD Garden]."

Part of The Sports Museum's collection includes a series of statues of Boston sports legends. New England artist Armand LaMontagne carved them from nearly-2,000-pound blocks of wood, each taking roughly half a year to complete. Carl Yastrzemski is depicted mid-swing, his eyes locked on Pesky's Pole; Larry Bird amid his famous shooting stroke; Bobby Orr cocked for a slapshot, Ted Williams beaming after catching a fish. Even Harry "The Golden Greek" Agganis, a mid-20th century Lynn, Mass., superstar who tragically died at 26, is there.

There's one noticeable absence: Bill Russell.

Johnson remembers the day after Bird's statue was unveiled in 1988. A local woman called the museum, irate.

"You have a Larry Bird statue," she shouted, "but not Bill Russell?!"

"Ma'am," Johnson replied. "You're preaching to the choir."

Russell politely declined to be portrayed, even when Cowens and Auerbach tried to convince him.

The displays of art, photos, trophies, jerseys, signatures and other objects at The Sports Museum or the Hall of Fame or the Smithsonian are intended to evoke emotional responses -- to make visitors remember or wonder or consider the past. Whether it's a statue or a piece of memorabilia available on the collectibles market, objects help document the history of sports culture, cement the relationship with fans and educate the next generation.

"Everything we have has a story or two connected to it," Johnson said.

"BUDDY, YOU DON'T know me, do you?" blurts Stephen Michaels, general manager at LJ's Card Shop, when asked whether the marketplace in New Albany, Ohio, had won pieces at the December auction.

Michaels displays the items LJ's paid $598,000 for -- more than 12% of the entire auction's purse -- like a Showcase Showdown haul. The colossal jewel of Russell's 11th and final championship ring dangles halfway up Michaels' middle finger.

On its face, "BOSTON CELTICS" and "WORLD CHAMPIONS" are separated by the year: '69, Russell's last as a professional. As Michaels rotates the ring, etched names come into view: "WILLIAM" and "RUSSELL" on opposite sides.

"I can't even get it on my finger," Michaels says. "That's how small it is."

It cost LJ's $558,125.

There are, however, items that are significantly more avant-garde, such as the hat on Michaels' head, made to commemorate the late Kobe Bryant and signed by Russell.

"He wore this thing," Michaels says of the faded, curved-brim cap.

To spend $600,000 in a night might seem excessive. But it's Russell.

Leo Ruberto, owner of LJ's, gave Michaels a blank check in December.

"We have the utmost respect for him, as a person first, and his career," said Ruberto, as Michaels showed off a selection of Russell's Olympic items that LJ's also won.

"Really," Ruberto chuckles, "this stuff belongs in a museum."