Bill Russell played ultimate mentor role

Posted by Eric Bleier on November 14, 2013

Bill Russell visited Memphis in 2008 to speak with community leaders about the importance of mentoring

Bill Russell visited Memphis in 2008 to speak with community leaders about the importance of mentoring

Joe Murphy / NBAE / Getty Images

Two advocates for mentoring pay tribute to one of the most legendary voices for mentoring

While I might take issue with the opinion that Boston is the ultimate sports town, especially when the topic is basketball, I have no qualms with also celebrating NBA legend Bill Russell’s contributions to mentoring. Russell provided the most succinct summary about why he believes in mentoring during a visit to Memphis in 2008:

“There is no such thing as other people’s children.”

By MARTY MARTINEZ and DAVID SHAPIRO

reprinted from MassLive

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 Nov. 1, the city of Boston celebrated 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 celebrated tremendous accomplishments on the court, from leading the NBA in minutes played (40,726) and rebounds (21,721), to receiving five MVP awards, induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, a gold medal as captain of Team USA and two collegiate championships at University of San Francisco.

But, we also celebrated 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 for which he fought.

It’s those accomplishments that led to Russell 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.”

It was then that the Bill Russell Legacy Project was conceptualized. True to his decades of social activism, Russell was resistant to the idea of a statue and only persuaded when the project grew to something more – to a living legacy.

With support and leadership from Mayor Thomas Menino, the Boston Celtics, Russell’s family and philanthropic supporters, the project came to life as a catalyst for social change.

The essence of this living legacy is the Bill Russell Mentoring Grant Program. The program, administered by the Massachusetts Mentoring Partnership, has distributed $100,000 to date to programs which 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 Massachusetts Mentoring has recruited thousands of mentors for young people.

Russell has championed youth mentoring to ensure young people have an adult who 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 that help one to greatness long before the spotlight finds them.

The 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 Boston Garden, he ensured it was also a fund-raiser 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 who paid the $2 membership fee for Russell to become a member of the Boys & 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 also will 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.

Marty Martinez is president and CEO of Massachusetts Mentoring Partnership; David Shapiro is president and CEO of MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership.

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