Bill Russell’s legend as a champion matched only by his advocacy for human rights and mentoring

By Marty Martinez, president and CEO, Mass Mentoring Partnership; and David Shapiro, president and CEO, MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership

110517_mentor_836 This Fall has provided further evidence that Boston is the ultimate sports town – evidenced not only by our teams’ success on the field but also for the role our athletes play in strengthening our community. On Friday, the City will celebrate a sports legend that embodies that spirit both on and off the court. Bill Russell was an unparalleled teammate and athlete who led the Boston Celtics and this city to a record 11 championship banners. At the unveiling of a statue honoring Russell, we will celebrate tremendous accomplishments on the court, from leading the league in minutes played (40,726) and rebounds (21,721), to receiving five MVP awards, induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame, a gold medal as captain of Team USA and two collegiate championships at the University of San Francisco. But we will also celebrate his commitment to civil rights and championing of youth mentoring in our country.

Russell’s incredible athletic ability and unequivocal leadership skills provided him with a platform to give voice to human rights issues, to advocate for equality – even marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and to create a legacy that will ensure our city and our country’s young people have the opportunities he fought for. It’s those accomplishments that led to him to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civil honor, from President Obama who said, “I hope that one day in the streets of Boston, children will look up at a statue built not only to Bill Russell the player, but Bill Russell the man.”

Bill Russell and Mayor at Charlestown High 024

The essence of this living legacy is the Bill Russell Mentoring Grant Program.  The program, administered by Mass Mentoring Partnership, has distributed $100,000 to date to local programs that match caring adults with young people in quality mentoring relationships. Russell also played a catalytic role in the creation of the Red Sox Mentoring Challenge, through which Mass Mentoring has recruited thousands of mentors for young people.

Russell has championed youth mentoring to ensure young people have an adult that cares about them, offers guidance, support and encouragement to cultivate positive and healthy development. Mentors provide them with the confidence, resources and continuity of a constructive relationship to help achieve their potential.  As Russell has powerfully said, “there is no such thing as other people’s children.” This statement derives from his reflection on the moments and people who help one to greatness long before the spotlight finds them.

09-277-189The heart of this project harkens back to Russell’s roots as a founding board member of MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership where he has volunteered his time and talents for more than 20 years. In fact, in 1999 when Russell’s jersey was re-retired at the new Garden, he ensured it was also a fundraiser for the organization. The reason is simple, he believes in the potential of our nation’s young people and in the power of mentoring to unleash that potential.

As a young boy, after being cut from his team, it was the coach that paid the $2 membership fee for Russell to become a member of the Boys and Girls Club so he could practice more. Russell ended up on the varsity team and credits the coach’s belief in him for making him realize he had the potential to succeed. That team, by the way, went on to win three state championships with Russell. Imagine where the Celtics would have been without that mentor in young Bill Russell’s life.

While a statue will stand the test of time to capture Bill Russell as the ultimate champion, teammate and sportsman, it will also serve as a living legacy of his activism and a reminder of the power to use one’s platform to advocate for equality, mentoring, and opportunity for all, especially our young people.