My pal, Bill Russell: Former Andover man says legend's influence off court as great as it was on

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Aug. 1—As a tribute to his friend, Bill Russell, who earlier on Sunday had passed away at 88, Stuart Layne has planned a Chinese food dinner with his wife this week.

"I just think about all the things he did and all the things he meant to people, that he meant individually, " said Layne. "I was blessed and appreciative to hang out about a dozen years with him. What he meant to so many people, especially players the players in the league."

The former 20-year Andover resident had a special connection with arguably the greatest winner in team's sports, ever, that was forged when he worked in marketing with the Celtics.

"Bill had founded the MENTOR organization and they had never really used Bill to raise funds for the organization," recalled Layne. "An event was planned to re-retire his number. The first time he retired his number it was players only. So an event was created at the FleetCenter."

It was knock-your-socks off incredible, recalled Layne, who joined the event as a Celtics liaison.

"It was incredible," said Layne. "There were so many great people there, like Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson ... Aretha Franklin sang the national anthem. I was really moved."

That event, which brought Russell back into the Celtics fold, also connected he and Layne.

"Here I was, a kid from the Bronx, a big-time sports fan and getting to know one of the greatest athletes and greatest civil rights leaders of our time," said Layne. "How lucky was I?"

Among the many events Layne attended with Russell, there were two forever etched in his fondest of memories.

In 2007, Russell was the commencement speaker at Suffolk University.

"He was great, telling stories, everybody on edge the entire speech," recalled Layne. "The thing I remember most was the near the end. There were about 10,000 people there.

"Bill says 'There is one thing, just one thing, I want you to remember when you leave here,'" said Layne. "You could hear a pin drop. Then Bill says, 'Be kind.' It was unbelievable. You're expecting him to say something that would make you charge through the walls and he says, 'Be kind.' It was amazing."

The other was in 2010 at the White House when Russell was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.

"That ceremony was special," said Layne. "When President Obama was speaking about Bill he said 'Some day there will be a statue to honor this man, in Boston.'

"The next day we get a call from Boston Mayor Tom Menino saying, 'We have to get a statue for Bill Russell. Have to,'" said Layne. "It started the ball rolling. [Celtics managing General Partner] Steve Pagliuca stepped up. Others did too. We pulled together a group to form a committee. We raised money ... and we got it done."

Layne said there are hundreds if not thousands of personal stories about Russell helping others, raising money or inspiring groups of young people.

He saw Kobe Bryant literally sprint through a crowd at an All-Star game party over a decade ago so he could talk to Russell.

"Players adored him and understood how special he was," said Layne, who noted Russell played several rounds of golf over the years at Indian Ridge Country Club in Andover.

"He was a consultant for Reebok and they were competing with Nike to get Yao Ming signed on," said Layne. "Bill met with Yao and won him over. Bill Russell won everyone over."

The last time Layne, who moved with his family to their native Evansville, Ind., saw Russell was at John Havlicek's memorial three years ago.

By the way, Layne's son Yogi, wore No. 6 while playing basketball at Andover High.

As for Russell's adoration for Chinese food, it goes back to his early days growing up in San Francisco. His favorite place was in Pioneer Square in Seattle where they apparently made "the best chicken wings" in the world.

"For Bill, it was all about integrity," said Layne. "He was the most insightful person I had ever met. Nothing came above his integrity.

"I always called him the greatest of all-time. He was the G.O.A.T. on the court. But he was the G.O.A.T. off the court, too."

You can email Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com.