Documentary filmmaker Sam Pollard hits a slam dunk with a two-part documentary, Bill Russell: Legend, about the NBA great.
Russell wasn’t just a legend with the Boston Celtics on the court. Off the court, he was an activist in the Civil Rights movement. Russell spoke out against segregation. He joined a number of Black athletes in showing solidarity with the late Muhammad Ali when the boxer chose not to fight in the Vietnam War. The list goes on and on–no stone goes unturned in this two-part documentary. Pollard focuses not only on Russell’s life but context of the world around him. Yes, this includes the Boston racism that he unfortunately dealt with while playing the game. It’s no doubt a reason why he chose not to have his number retired in a public ceremony.
Russell’s archives offer a wealth of material. I’m not lying when I say that I could have watched a third or fourth part of the film. There’s almost certainly enough to expand the film but it’s all about keeping the audience’s attention at the end of the day. I love that we get to see some of his comedy bits on TV towards the end and a brief snippet of life as an NBA analyst. Of course, it just has to be a clip between him, Red Auerbach, and Larry Bird!
When Russell died in 2022, he left quite the legacy as both an athlete and an activist. Look at the players today and you can see a little bit of him in them–well, maybe not his feistiness. But like him, they know when to take a stand and say, no, we’re not going to play a game today. Russell’s legacy comes alive once again through Pollard’s access to the archives. It’s a legacy that many will learn about as a result of this documentary. If you have not read any of his books, please do yourself a favor and read them. Red and Me: My Coach, My Lifelong Friend is especially eye-opening about the racism in Boston. Jeffrey Wright reads excerpts from Russell’s writing, including groundbreaking memoir Go Up for Glory and later memoir Second Wind.
Bill Russell was a winner at every level of the game as either a player or coach.
- Back-to-back NCAA championships with the University of San Francisco in 1955-1956
- A Gold Medal at 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne
- 11 NBA Championships (8 consecutive) during a 13-year career with the Boston Celtics
- The final two as the first Black coach in NBA history
- 5 MVP Awards
- First Black coach in major US sports
- Presidential Medal of Freedom
You can make the argument that Bill Russell is the winningest player across all of the major sports leagues. When we talk about the greatest players of all time, he is a player that must be in the conversation. If you want my opinion, Bill Russell is the greatest basketball player ever. It’s only a shame that Bill Russell isn’t alive to see it. Thankfully, the film was in the works since 2020 so Pollard manages to get Russell’s final interview–interviewed by executive producer Mike Richardson–on camera before his passing. The guy was still sharp!
By the time that the final hour was coming to an end, there was not a dry eye in the room. This speaks to not just Pollard’s abilities as a filmmaker but who Bill Russell was as a person. There were ups and downs during his life, of course. He said some things about Wilt Chamberlain that he late came to regret. It hurt their friendship and they didn’t speak for years. By the time that the two finally reunited, there wouldn’t be much time left between them as Chamberlain later died of a heart attack. Their friendship makes up a major plotline in the film. Once Wilt the Stilt joined the 76ers, the Eastern Conference would never be the same.
If not for the Civil Rights Movement taking place at the as Bill Russell was coming into his prime as a player, this film might very well be different. It’s because of his activism off the court that we get a fully-dimensional portrait of who he was as a person. How do you raise children in a racist society? The documentary delves into this. I love how one of his teammates collects signed photos of everybody he played with–except for Bill Russell. He had boundaries and it shows in the type of guy he was. His boundaries show once more when he initially opted against being inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame because he would be the first Black player in the HOF. All of this, of course, is because the game was different before he joined. He practically invented the modern defensive game with his blocking.
Outside of Russell’s surviving family members, there’s a who’s who of current and former NBA greats discussing Bill Russell. A few sportswriters also add to the discussion, including The Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan. Almost every few minutes, a Hall of Famer appears on the screen. Of course, many of Russell’s teammates ended up in the Hall of Fame as a result of their dynasty in the 1950s and 1960s.
Bill Russell: Legend joins the pantheon of great sports documentaries and will forever be the definitive documentary on the Hall of Famer.
DIRECTOR: Sam Pollard
NARRATOR: Corey Stoll
EXCERPTS READ BY: Jeffrey Wright
FEATURING: Bill Russell, Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Bill Walton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Jim Brown, Wilt Chamberlain, Bob Ryan, Nelson George
Netflix will release Bill Russell: Legend on February 8, 2023. Grade: 5/5
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