Sculpting Bill Russell was labor of love for Ann Hirsch
She read and re-read everything ever written by or about him, all the articles and books and forewords in books and anything else she could find. She studied countless photos, interviews, and game footage. But it wasn’t enough. Six months of tireless research into the career of a Celtics legend just wasn’t enough.
Ann Hirsch still believed that she needed to be in the presence of Bill Russell, who she was charged with immortalizing. It was a crucial final step before her hands could start to model the clay into a sculpture that a foundry would then cast into bronze that will stand at City Hall Plaza for as long as the metal will last.
So, in January, she crossed the country to Russell’s home outside Seattle. What was a scheduled lunch lasted through dinner as they hit it off, talking for nine hours about his childhood, family, mentors, everything. She loved every second, especially his sense of humor. “The most amazing day of my life,” she said.
They also talked about the statue, which Russell never wanted or pushed for, even as questions mounted, even from President Obama, about how the city of Boston could erect statues of several great athletes and not one of perhaps its greatest, a world champion 11 times during his 13 years with the Celtics.
In fact, the reclusive center really only got on board with the project once it developed a mentoring grant program that would help children. The grant raised more than $50,000 in its first year, and two bronze statues of children — a boy and a girl — will be added to the Plaza site where his statue will be unveiled Nov. 1 before a star-studded crowd featuring many historic figures, including Russell himself.
Several organizations were involved in the privately funded project, but the sculptor was Hirsch, who works in Somerville and was selected after submitting a proposal. She has sculpted for 20 years and, knowing what sports means to Boston, wanted both the honor and the privilege of shaping the statue of one of its biggest legends whom she, like so many others, has long admired.
The process evolved over time, as they faced numerous decisions.
There was a question of eras, and which Russell to represent. His basketball accomplishments were numerous — in his book “Russell’s Rules,” he noted in the introduction that he played basketball for 21 years and won championships in 18 of them. But they settled on the late 1960s when Russell was a player-coach, directing the Celtics on the court and from the sidelines.
The statue’s pose was also critical. Hirsch could have recreated Russell grabbing a rebound or blocking a shot, as he did both historically well and better than anyone before him; but, to her, those actions didn’t fully represent teamwork, which the greatest winner in the history of team sports valued most of all.
Along those lines, she thought that only a chest-pass would be fitting.
And so, in his No. 6 jersey, Russell will stand in the center of the site, turned slightly to his right, his eyes fixed toward a nearby granite block with “TEAMWORK” engraved on one side, and on the other this quote, from Russell: “The most important measure of how good a game I’d played was how much better I’d made my teammates play.”
Russell will have the ball in his enormous hands, about to fire a pass from his chest, and visitors can stand on that granite block, just a few feet away, ready to catch it. “That was his mission, to give back, to give to kids especially, to pass the ball to somebody else so that they could be a champion, too,” she said.
The site is intended to be interactive. It will span 33½ feet by 17½ feet, about one-third of the size of an NBA court, and it will feature 11 total elements to represent his titles: one statue and 10 granite blocks as green as Pressley Associates, the Boston landscape architecture firm with whom Hirsch collaborated, could find. “This is as green as granite gets,” said Marion Pressley, a principal at the firm, noting that the stone came from Ausable, N.Y.
Etched into each block are Russell’s words carefully chosen by Hirsch after months of research. She constantly narrowed down her selections with the help of the Russell family, especially Bill’s daughter, Karen Kenyatta Russell. One quote even came from Hirsch’s meeting with him: “Never go out there and see what happens, go out there and make something happen.”
But before she started the final sculpture, Hirsch created a model of what the statue itself would look like, and she showed photographs to Russell. Hirsch said he was more interested in the grant to help children, but, she added, “My sense is that he approves of the pose.” He even showed her how he’d hold the ball, and she watched Russell and his daughter, Karen, toss the ball back and forth, focusing on his hands and how they moved to get a sense for the gesture.
“He was larger than life when I first knew about him,” Hirsch said. “Then after meeting him, he was even larger than life.” Added Pressley, “When she came back from meeting him, she couldn’t stop talking about him.”
Hirsch also attended a few Celtics games last season, sitting courtside to study former Celtic Kevin Garnett, who was close with Russell. “Their physiques aren’t that different, although Russell was more built on top,” Hirsch said. “But they’re both very lithe players, and they have a similar presence on the court.”
At her studio in Somerville, she would begin sculpting midday and work into the night. Using tools both metal and wood, she recreated the details, down to the stitching on the Wilson basketball used in the NBA during the late 1960s.
The final scale stood on a 4-inch dolly, its wheels allowing her to inspect every inch under different light. She needed scaffolding to reach the top, because although Russell was listed at 6 feet 10 inches, his statue will be about 8 feet tall, if you count the base on which it will stand. Indeed, the bronze version of Bill Russell will be larger than he is in real life, just like the man himself.
Sculpting and casting Russell took about eight months, and though she has created public sculptures before, Hirsch said this project was as daunting as any. She knew full well that this wasn’t just another man — this was Bill Russell, or as she called him numerous times in a recent interview, “Mr. Russell.”
On a recent blustery fall afternoon near City Hall, Hirsch stood atop the granite base where Russell’s statue will stand, facing north. The area was enclosed, but it will open soon enough.
She was asked how she felt, with the project completed. As she did when researching Russell, she tried to find the right words.
“I’m just honored.”