Tomorrow afternoon in Boston, Massachusetts, the great Bill Russell finally gets his own statue. Details were scarce until recently. We know the statue will be unveiled in City Hall Plaza, that it stands about eight feet tall, that a talented local artist named Ann Hirsch created it. We know President Obama passed through Boston on Wednesday and caught an early glimpse. We know Russell and his family will attend the ceremony — no small feat, because Russell is wired like a Sicilian mafia boss. He remembers every slight, every offense, every ill word, everything. Boston let him down for good a long time ago. He gave up on Boston. Gave up on the city. Gave up on the people. Bill Russell has spent the past four decades living in Seattle, on Mercer Island, about as far from Boston as you can get without falling into the Pacific Ocean.
When I spent the day with Russell last November, he maintained that he didn’t care about Boston anymore. Little clues throughout our conversation said otherwise. He remembered everyone mistakenly assuming that a budding Celtics dynasty would come to a halt in 1963, when Bob Cousy retired, as if the Cooz was the reason for those first six titles. He remembered playing more than one Game 7 in a Boston Garden that was only 70 percent full, and he definitely remembered Bobby Orr’s Bruins selling out games in December and January. He remembered the reaction after Red Auerbach named Russell as his coaching successor, as if nobody could believe that a black guy — a black guy — could tell a bunch of white people what to do. He remembered the idiots who wrecked his new house, destroyed his trophies and defecated on his walls, because how would anyone ever forget something like that? He definitely remembered how Boston fans deified Larry Bird, how they put him on a pedestal for winning eight fewer titles than Russell did.
These moments kept coming up, and they kept coming up, and by the end of it, I just assumed that Bill Russell would never return to Boston. That he would live the rest of his life and die in Seattle, and that would be it. We spent the first chunk of our interview in Russell’s basement, with the six-time MVP standing in front of his trophy case and telling stories about everything inside it. A few months earlier, he had undergone a heart procedure and was still recovering from it. Someone close to him warned us, “Make sure he doesn’t stand for too long — he’s still a little weak.”
Like a dummy, I became so enthralled with our conversation that I kept him standing for 90 solid minutes. I can remember exactly where we were — the left corner of his basement, at the tail end of a wall covered with framed photos, magazine covers and newspaper clippings. Russell had framed a Boston Herald article from June 1986, right after Bird won his third title — the summer when Larry Legend could have announced that he was walking across the Charles River and 50,000 locals would have scurried down there to witness it — when many believed that Bird was the greatest basketball player ever. You know who disagreed with that argument? Larry Joe Bird. He maintained that Bill Russell was the best, that the 11 rings spoke for themselves. The headline of the piece said something like “Bird: Russell Still the Best.” If you think it doesn’t mean anything that Russell framed this article and put it in his basement, then you don’t know anything about Bill Russell.
And as we were talking about it, suddenly, his eyes went blank.
I was standing there looking up at Russell — remember, he towers over me by eight inches — waiting for his next sentence to come. We had a camera crew watching us from a few feet away, along with a few other selected guests. I thought Russell had dramatically paused before his next point, eventually realizing that he couldn’t get his next breath. I can still see his face — dark and weathered, white beard, whiskers popping from the sides like snowflakes. I can still see his blank eyes. I remember panicking about 1.8 seconds before anyone else started to panic. Oh my god. We killed Bill Russell. Someone frantically pulled over a tall stool. We urged him to sit down. Russell asked for a minute. We stood there in silence, watching one of the greatest athletes who ever lived now struggling to breathe. Someone gave him a bottle of water and that helped.
We decided to change locations, moving upstairs into Russell’s living room, where we had arranged one of those traditional interview setups with two chairs facing each other. Russell made his way up the stairs — slowly, painstakingly, to the point where you could feel every step — before finding his chair and sitting down. The camera crew hustled to turn on the lights and set everything else up, and now Russell and I were just looking at each other. I was concerned. Really, really concerned. Russell was staring at me with glassy eyes. He was in another place. Just concentrating on his breaths. The room was dead silent, like a church, with everyone else fretting and talking in hushed-beyond-hushed tones. His friend Charlie kept telling us, “He’s fine, just give him a minute, he’s fine.”
And then … BOOM! Bill Russell was fine. He sprang back to life. “I’m OK,” he said, unleashing his trademark laugh, and I can still feel my own heart racing happily after he said it. We spent the next 90 minutes talking about his life. The interview ended and everyone shook hands. Our crew started packing up. I sat down at Russell’s kitchen table with my friend Hirschy, the biggest basketball fan I know, as well as someone who had helped arrange the entire day. This wasn’t just one of the highlights of our careers; this was one of the highlights of our lives. We were trying to act like adults. We were trying to remain professional. We were fighting off the urge to repeatedly high-five each other while screaming “YES!!!!” and “WE DID IT!” A three-hour hang in Bill Russell’s house? With Russell talking about anything and everything?
I stood up.
“Come here. I want to show you something,” Bill Russell said.
We walked into his library, which was practically sinking under all the books and pictures. To describe Russell as “well read” would be an understatement. During a bathroom break earlier, I had sneaked in there to peruse his books — if only because you can learn a lot from someone just by their books — and noticed my own basketball tome, which Russell had allegedly read and enjoyed. The condition of the book made it seem like someone had read it, so maybe he did. Without him knowing, I signed one of the pages inside and carefully placed it back in the same spot. Now I was pretending that I had never seen his library before.
“Here, look at this,” Bill Russell said.
He handed me a framed photo of himself and Obama — taken two years earlier in 2010, when Obama had invited Russell to the White House, given him the Presidential Medal of Freedom and urged the city of Boston to build a statue for him. “Isn’t that something?” he asked me, beaming proudly, looking like me after my daughter crushes one of her soccer games. Only Obama gets Bill Russell to geek out. He loved everything about that day. Once upon a time, Russell had given speeches telling his fellow African Americans to keep their eyes on the prize, to never let anyone define them, or keep them down, or tell them they couldn’t do something. He wanted them to believe that they didn’t have a ceiling, that 40 or 50 years later, one of them could even be president. He made that point in more than one speech. Now it was 2012 … and Bill Russell was holding a photo of him and President Barack Obama. Isn’t that something? Yes. That’s something.
We spent the next hour sitting at his kitchen table, with Russell telling us story after story. He kept bringing up his late wife, his third one, who had passed away a few years earlier. It became more and more obvious that he hadn’t recovered yet. I found myself worrying about him. He’s not alone all the time, right? People come to visit him, right? Russell talked about his various road trips, how sometimes he just packs a bag, climbs into his car and goes. He drives to Los Angeles, Chicago, wherever. He loves driving. Sometimes he’ll bring a friend to keep him company.
Eventually, we started talking about Boston again. I had a good handle on Russell at this point. You get one chance with him and that’s that. It’s a theme that kept coming up all day. Boston had already used up that one chance, as well as about seven other ones. How much bitterness did Russell have toward Boston? When the Celtics retired his number in 1972, he skipped the ceremony. No-showed it. Who does that? He made the same point over and over again: His loyalties lay with his Celtics teammates, and Red Auerbach, and Walter Brown. Not the fans, and definitely not the city. He didn’t care if he ever went back. Or so he claimed.
I didn’t totally believe him. Deep down, he cares. I think he does, anyway. But that statue was going up whether Bill Russell showed up or not. The city needed it as much as he did. The mayor kept pressuring him, cajoling him, practically begging him to return. Same for Steve Pagliuca, one of the current owners of the Celtics (and one of the people responsible for making the statue happen). Same for Russell’s daughter, Karen, and everyone else who Russell trusts in his life. Eventually, the great Bill Russell caved. He agreed to come back to Boston.
The ceremony will happen two days after the Red Sox won another World Series. Russell returns to a different city in every respect. The Big Dig finished nearly a decade ago, opening up downtown and even extinguishing some of the suffocating traffic. It’s a much happier city now, with a recent run of championships killing off the “woe is us” mentality that had become an identity of sorts (both locally and nationally). Boston fans don’t expect the worst anymore. During the late innings of Game 2 of the ALCS against Detroit, when it looked like the Red Sox offense had a giant salad fork sticking out of it, I found it fascinating that everyone at Fenway kept waiting for the boys to improbably rally even before that improbable rally happened.
It was that kind of season. A different dude with a different beard seemed to come through every time we needed it. Coming off an unhappy 2011 ending (that’s an understatement) and a catastrophic 2012 season, the owners and GM Ben Cherington smartly shifted gears and emphasized chemistry over everything else. They gravitated toward likable guys who could handle playing in Boston, even severely overpaying one of the league’s best teammates (Shane Victorino) because he made more sense for this plan than just about anyone else. Victorino’s at-bat music ended up being the rallying cry for 2013: Every time he came up at Fenway, you could hear the first notes of a Bob Marley song, followed by Marley singing, “Don’t worry … about a thing,” and then 35,000 fans screaming, “CUZ EVERY LITTLE THING … IS GONNA BE ALL RIGHT!!!!!!!!!!!”
That’s all you needed to know about the 2013 Red Sox. For the first four months, nobody expected them to win the World Series — we were just happy to have a likable Red Sox team again. I am old enough to remember every Red Sox season since 1975. Baseball is long. Baseball takes forever. It’s day in, day out, for six solid months — seven if you’re lucky. Winning is always fun. But this team? This team was REALLY fun. They weren’t the most talented 25 guys we’ve ever had, but they had a way of lifting each other up and making each other better in ways that — for an individual sport disguised as a team sport, one in which you’re on your own just about all the time — make absolutely no sense whatsoever. For the first three months, I thought we’d remember them as a likable group that helped the city heal after the marathon bombings. We didn’t have that one lights-out starter, or that second big bopper in the lineup. You can only go so far with the “everyone lifting everyone else up” thing, right? A team with A-list starters — maybe Detroit, maybe Tampa — would rip through us in October and that would be that.
I never thought they had a higher ceiling until August, right around the time Koji Uehara turned into Dennis Eckersley circa 1989. You need weird shit to happen during the season to win a World Series; this season certainly qualified. In mid-August, they outplayed a scorching-hot Dodgers team in Dodger Stadium; that’s the first time I remember thinking they had a chance. They protected home-field advantage in September, rolled through Tampa in the ALDS, then everything crashed in the ALCS. Their bats died for 16 solid innings. Sanchez and Scherzer weren’t just shutting them down; they were eviscerating them.
And then the eighth inning happened … and this happened.
He came through. Again.
The playoffs were never the same. The Beards ripped off eight wins in 11 games, more than enough for Boston’s third World Series title in my lifetime. My friend Sully summed it up best via text: “Aidan’s (his 12-year-old son’s) reaction was like, ‘Cool, another championship.’ They have no idea that this doesn’t happen.” They really don’t. I never thought I’d see one … and I’ve seen three in 10 years. Huh????
We’ll remember 2004 for all the obvious reasons. We’ll remember 2007 as proof that 2004 wasn’t lightning in a bottle that could never be replicated. We’ll remember 2013 for Boston Strong and the beards, and over everything else, for David Ortiz. And that’s the case for three reasons.
1. We thought he was done. This has to be mentioned. I wrote Papi’s baseball eulogy in June of 2009, when his body was (seemingly) breaking down and he couldn’t get around on 89 mph fastballs anymore. Boston fans loved him so much that they never booed him — every Ortiz failure was greeted with an awkward silence, the ultimate respect for everything he meant. I can’t remember another sound quite like it. You almost wanted to hear a few boos, if only to temper the collective discomfort. But no Boston fan could boo that guy, just like we could have never jeered at Bird or Orr. My final takeaway in that column: “Barring a miraculous return of bat speed, he’ll be benched or released soon. It’ll hurt, and I’m going to feel bad. I already do.”
But wait! His bat speed eventually returned. That same season, Ortiz’s name got “released” in connection with a positive result from a 2003 MLB drug test that was supposed to be anonymous, a stigma that trails him to this day. The details of that report were so murky, nobody can fully explain what happened — more than 100 players apparently tested positive for something, only they weren’t breaking any baseball rules because there were no rules in place, and they could have triggered a positive test for amphetamines or some now-illegal supplement that wasn’t illegal in 2003. Ortiz professed his innocence, although Boston fans would have preferred that he did it a little more belligerently. The moment passed and he hasn’t failed a test since. He’s never been involved in a Biogenesis-type scandal, outed by a clubhouse attendant, tied to some shady Victor Conte character, anything. He looks exactly like he looked in 2003; if anything, he’s a few pounds skinnier.
But he’s also 37 years old (he will be 38 on November 18), and he’s cranking 98 mph fastballs, and he looked finished four years ago. So I get it. After everything that happened these past two decades, we’re always going to be a little suspicious. Of everybody. But if you examine his 11-year Boston run as a whole, it makes a little more sense: His first Boston season in 2003 (31 homers, 101 RBIs, .288/.369/.592) doesn’t look much different than his 11th Boston season in 2013 (30 homers, 103 RBIs, .309/.395/.564).
Even if his 2013 World Series numbers look supernatural — 25 plate appearances, 11 hits, eight walks, two homers — really, he just caught fire for five games after slumping the previous series (2-for-25), then they smartly pitched around him in Game 6. Did you know his regular-season OPS in Boston is the exact same number as his playoff career OPS (including his trip with the 2002 Twins)? It’s true — .962 for both. Big Papi has looked the same for 11 years, barring a couple of peaks (2004 through 2006) and valleys (the homestretch in 2008, the first three months of 2009 and 2010). I don’t know what else to tell you. In a vacuum, this goes down as the second-greatest career comeback in Boston sports history behind everything Ted Williams did after Korea. Ortiz was finished, then suddenly he wasn’t.
2. Five days after the Tsarnaev brothers blew up Boston’s most sacred event, and just 24 hours after one brother was killed and the other was caught, everyone decided that it was OK to play baseball at Fenway again. The game happened on a Saturday afternoon, preceded by an emotional ceremony and many prayers. You always hear that tragedies put sports in perspective, that they prove we shouldn’t care this much about the successes and failures of a bunch of wealthy strangers. I’m going the other way — sometimes, sports put everything else in perspective. Our favorite teams bring people together, keep family members close, bond people from different generations. Some of the happiest moments of my life involve something that happened with one of my teams. Some of the best relationships I ever had were with Boston athletes that I never even met. That’s a bad thing?
Of course, we always worry that these guys don’t care about us. That they’re just passing through, throwing on some laundry, cashing some checks and pretending they care. We’ve all been burned by favorite players. You start throwing your guard up after awhile, and eventually you stop caring quite as much … even if you don’t want to admit it. I am 44 years old now, a million years away from being the kid who lugged his autographed, framed Clemens/20 K’s photo to six different apartments before breaking it into pieces in the seventh. It’s really hard to rope me in at this point. But when Ortiz grabbed the mic on that Saturday and screamed, “THIS IS OUR FUCKIN’ CITY!!!!!,” I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of an athlete. It was perfect. Nobody knew what to say that day. How do you sum up 237 years? How do you sum up that week? How do you sum up two evil scumbags ruining the city’s most special day? How do you show the right respect and empathy for the victims while also tapping into the spirit of the city itself? David Ortiz figured it out with five words. And he’s not even from Boston. It was amazing. Maybe “Boston Strong” was born earlier that week, but no. 34 gave it an exclamation point.
3. He’s been the life of the World Series party three times now — 2004, 2007 and 2013 — and over everything else, that’s when the David Ortiz era becomes historically fascinating. By the time I graduated college, Bird, Russell, Orr and Williams were the big four. All discussions started and ended with them. In the 2000s, Tom Brady made his run … and if the 2007 Pats had finished 19-0, he would have joined them. Right now, he’s still standing outside the front door waiting for the bouncer to let him in. To be continued. But Ortiz? We thought the bouncer shooed him away a while ago. Now he’s back. He just cemented his reputation as one of the greatest clutch Boston athletes ever, and one of the greatest clutch baseball players, too. He came through time and time and time and time and time again. So many times that I can’t even keep track, actually.
Throw in his personality, throw in the iconic “our city” moment, and throw in the stakes — nothing from 1919 through 2003, with people living entire lives and dying without seeing a Red Sox title — and I think the bouncer just let him in. And you know what else? It’s a great place. It’s the best place. You get to live forever in there. People tell stories about you to their kids, and their grandkids, and they can always say they saw you play. You might even get your own statue downtown someday. Tomorrow, it happens for the great Bill Russell. Someday, it will happen for David Ortiz. It will.
This column has been updated to correct an error regarding the starting Detroit pitchers in Games 1 and 2 of the ALCS: They were Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer, not Scherzer and Justin Verlander.