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Bill Russell statue in Boston draws fans paying tribute to the Celtics legend

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A statue in Boston honoring basketball legend Bill Russell is drawing fans from near and far. The former Boston Celtics center and later coach died yesterday at the age of 88. NPR's Tovia Smith spoke with some fans paying tribute to Russell today.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: The statue of Bill Russell, who stood at 6 foot 10, is even larger than life, just as fans remember him, like Chris Heppding, visiting from North Carolina.

CHRIS HEPPDING: A legend, one of the top ones ever. So did a lot for basketball, did a lot outside of basketball.

SMITH: The statue was put up in 2013, well over a half a century after Russell was drafted by the Celtics and decades after he became celebrated as a basketball Hall of Famer, five-time league MVP and 11-time NBA champion; as some fans called him the real GOAT, or greatest of all time, taking a little jab at the football GOAT Tom Brady, formerly a New England Patriot and now with Tampa Bay, who's got just seven rings to Russell's 11. But it's Russell's efforts off the court that count as much to Boston fans like Kwame Mark Freeman. He hopes Russell will continue to inspire more professional athletes, as Freeman puts it, to do your job while still keeping your eye on the prize.

KWAME MARK FREEMAN: 'Cause this is an experiment. This country's an experiment. And there's a responsibility that you have, I have, to enhance and improve that experiment. It's far from being over.

SMITH: Russell never stopped using his voice or his platform. After former President Donald Trump called for the firing of NFL players who were taking a knee during the national anthem to protest racial injustice, Russell tweeted a picture of himself taking a knee while holding the Presidential Medal of Freedom he'd been awarded by former President Obama. He said he wanted players to know he supported them, a gesture Russell himself could have only wished for, playing in Boston when it was what he called a flea market of racism and when he was enduring insults and even attacks. Sixty-three-year-old Bostonian Deborah Kornegay says it was especially impressive that Russell continued even then to speak out.

DEBORAH KORNEGAY: You know, Black people always had a tough time. And he chose to say, you know what? I mean, this is what I'm going to do. And he did it.

SMITH: Russell was seen by some as somewhat aloof in his playing days but, at the same time, the epitome of a leader and team player. Thirty-two-year-old You-Tang Eve, visiting from Central Africa, says just as Russell was willing to put his convictions ahead of his career, he also put his team ahead of himself.

YOU-TANG EVE: He was a big man inside, but he was playing as a playmaker. He used to, like, you know, rebound the ball and pass. And his mindset on the game, he was, like, sharing the ball. As we say, sharing is caring, you know?

SMITH: For Russell, it seemed it was just another instance of the right thing to do at whatever cost. As he told reporters back in 1964 when asked if he feared for his life, he said, I'd rather die for something than live for nothing.

Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.