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Facing a reckoning, town where Bill Russell lived seeks to honor the basketball great

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Basketball great Bill Russell won a record 11 NBA championships with the Boston Celtics. He lived in the nearby town of Reading during his playing days. But it wasn't always a friendly place for a Black family, even for one of the most famous athletes of all time. Now Reading is facing a reckoning as people there look to honor their former neighbor. Irina Matchavariani from member station WBUR reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: He lays it up as...

IRINA MATCHAVARIANI, BYLINE: On court, Bill Russell was amazing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Shouting) What a play by Bill Russell.

MATCHAVARIANI: Off court, the Celtics' towering center faced different challenges. When his family settled in Reading early in his career, his children were the only Black kids at school. The town made some overtures to welcome the family by holding a celebration in 1963 at a high school for Bill Russell Day. But things went downhill quickly. Russell experienced a slew of racist incidents. Perhaps the best known one was a break-in. Here is ESPN and NPR contributor Howard Bryant.

HOWARD BRYANT: Vandals broke into his house and ransacked his house and smeared feces on his wall. That was something barbaric.

MATCHAVARIANI: Russell left Reading in 1969, the same year he retired from the Celtics. A permanent date for Bill Russell Day was never established. After Russell died in 2022, the town board did pass a proclamation honoring him. Now, a local social justice group called CATO, the Coalition of Us, has stepped up. Its members asked the town for a permanent Bill Russell Day and an acknowledgement of the family's mistreatment. Philmore Phillip is the group's founder. He says Reading needs to reckon with its past.

PHILMORE PHILLIP: It's not fair of him and his family to be celebrated for his accomplishments without acknowledging what he dealt with in this town.

MATCHAVARIANI: But there is pushback from some officials. Reading Select Board member Mark Dockser says he understands why the town might be hesitant to open old wounds.

MARK DOCKSER: A lot of folks are in this community since the '60s. So for them, I think some of the stories might be a little bit painful. And I think we need to figure out how, as a community, do we respond to that? How do we take the community forward? How do we become more inclusive in terms of what's going on?

MATCHAVARIANI: The debate over how to proceed came to a head at a town select board meeting last month. Local officials support the idea of celebrating Bill Russell, but not all of them want to put the town's name on the event or to create a citizen's committee to plan any of it. Board member Carlo Bacci said the day should be a volunteer-led event and it should focus on Russell the athlete, not race and civil rights.

CARLO BACCI: When we talk about civil rights, we're talking about people. We're talking about human rights. I mean, if we need a committee for that, we need a committee for a lot of other things.

MATCHAVARIANI: Advocates say they expect Reading to own the job of acknowledging Russell's legacy, and the fact that the problems he wrestled with decades ago are still present today. Tara Gregory is a member of CATO.

TARA GREGORY: Black and brown residents have very different experiences in Reading compared to their white counterparts. Not everybody has a great experience in this town. And we have to acknowledge that there is a problem to move forward.

MATCHAVARIANI: The Reading Select Board plans to vote next month. If the proposal passes, there will be a Bill Russell Day in 2024 - an overdue tribute that will paint the town Celtic green.

For NPR News, I'm Irina Matchavariani in Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Irina Matchavariani