Hero (noun) 1. A [person] of distinguished courage or ability, admired for brave deeds and noble qualities.
Celebrity (noun) 1. a famous or well-known person; fame; renown.
--Random House Dictionary
A new statue will grace Boston’s City Hall Plaza in 2013, one of Bill Russell, perhaps the greatest Celtic player and greatest professional basketball player of all time. His career stats are unprecedented. He played on eleven NBA championship teams in thirteen years, including eight in a row from 1959-66. First player with fifty rebounds in a game. Played on two NCAA championships teams and one gold medal Olympic team. Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1975. First African-American NBA head coach. Five time Most Valuable Player, 12 times an All Star.
You’d assume Russell’s statue would capture the man decked out in Celtic green, his body stretching impossibly high up to block a shot, all muscle, height and power. Show the star that was Russell, right? The celebrity, the athlete extraordinaire? But instead the proposed design for the statue is anything but star struck.
Instead picture a circular plaza framed by three benches, a Celtic shamrock outlined among the red bricks. One bench features career stats and a quote from Russell: “There is no such thing as someone else’s child.” In the center is Russell, dressed in civilian clothes, his hand on the shoulder of a youth, perhaps listening to them or teaching, certainly caring. On another bench sits a second youth, alone, waiting for someone else to care about them too, a coach, teacher, minister or peer.
Makes sense to portray Russell thus, because while he was a great player on the court, someone for fans to cheer, whose star power sold so many tickets, more important, he was a hero off the parquet. A hero: someone who used his fame to further causes so much greater than himself or any mere game. He fought against racism which in the 1950’s and ‘60’s in Boston and America was very nasty. He marched for civil rights with The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. when to do so garnered few accolades. He spoke out as an African-American leader and once declared of his work as a trailblazing coach: “What's more important than who's going to be the first black manager is who's going to be the first black sports editor of the New York Times.” In 2011 President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in America.
Now in the last years of his life he’s committed, through The Bill Russell Mentoring Grant Program, to make sure kids in Boston have adult mentors in their lives, so young people of all races can become the truly great men and women they were created by God to be. Hence the statue: not portraying sassy slam dunks or self-righteous pumping fists or hot dogging high fives, which passes for the NBA “stars” of today. No to this NBA legend, his life is now about community service and the girls and boys who need adult kindness and direction to blossom.
Our world could use more heroes like Russell, and fewer “stars”, and not just on the field of play but in the rest of our culture too. America has become a star obsessed land. We’ve been “American Idolized” and are transfixed by our celebrities, these self-promoting, narcissistic, preening prim Donnas who vie incessantly for our attention. The top ten folks followed on Twitter? Almost all lightweight celebs, more famous for scandal and frothy music than any kind of heroic lives: Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian, Britney Spears, Shakira. Each boasts more than fourteen million followers.
The largest selling weekly magazine in the United States? People. The TV landscape is littered with shows all vying to out celeb and out weird each other: “Real Housewives”, “Wife Swappers”, “Celebrity Rehab”—you get the picture. Even the Presidential election feels creepily star-crossed as substantive issues take a back seat to splashy attack ads and spin and image.
I think I get why some folks love the whole celebrity vibe. There’s nothing at stake in loving to watch celebrities crash and burn so publically. Nations will not topple nor do worlds stop turning when Justin Bieber tweets he once had a beer or Britney talks about her latest stint in rehab. It’s all in “fun” I guess, right? It’s distracting. It makes for good copy, great video. It allows escape from our own not so famous or infamous lives. It’s entertainment.
But me, I’ll take a real life flesh and blood hero like Bill Russell any day. He wasn’t perfect. He had a very conflicted relationship with the fans and media while he played here. But he was and is something no celebrity will ever be: human and real. Not a puffed up press release but a person. Not an icon but a neighbor. Passionate about both his play on the court and his life as a citizen, Russell is one “star” working to make Boston a better place to live.
Russell reminds us we can and must do better for one another, in as simple an act as mentoring a child. Now if only America might take all the energy and dollars and attention we slavishly devote to “stars” and instead put some of that star power towards honoring heroes who seek the common good.
For there are celebrities and then there are heroes. I’ll follow a hero every time.