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Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics is shown in 1968. Cr. AP Images/Courtesy of Netflix

Culture

Bill Russell: The Legend is Conventional, but Still Essential 

He Changed More Than the Game

Sam Pollard’s two-part documentary for Netflix uses a tremendous amount of game footage and much more to tell the story of Bill Russell, basketball’s greatest champion. 

In the last few years, Sam Pollard has been one of the most prolific documentarians, making films about Arthur Ashe (Citizen Ashe), the African-American art tradition (Black Art: In the Absence of Light), the FBI’s war on Martin Luther King (MLK/FBI), and public TV host Ellis Haizlip (Mr. Soul). Now, Pollard has added to his work about American icons with an ambitious, more than three-hour Netflix documentary about the late basketball legend and civil rights activist Bill Russell. 

The film, Bill Russell: Legend, doesn’t add a ton to the general understanding of Russell, nor does it reinvent the sports documentary form in any particular way. But aside from that, it is a complete portrait of Russell’s life and career and is ideal for both longtime Russell fans and those new to the study of basketball history. 

Image: Netflix

Pollard has made some great choices, starting with bringing in Jeffrey Wright to narrate parts of Russell’s memoirs. He also had seemingly unlimited access to game footage, as well as numerous interviews and talk show appearances by Russell, who passed away last summer. We also hear from basketball legends from Jerry West — his usual ornery self — to Oscar Robertson to Larry Bird to Magic Johnson to Shaquille O’Neal to Steph Curry. 

The Russell story is well known. Both in 1934 in the segregated South, Russell’s family headed west, to Oakland, during the Great Migration. He played his college ball at the University of San Francisco before he landed with the Celtics in a draft-day trade in 1956. 

Russell’s tenure with the Celtics still fills the record books, including 11 championships in 13 years and a stint as the first Black coach in the history of the league. And he did that at a time when it was not easy to be a Black athlete, especially in Boston. Howard Bryant’s book “Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston,” which was mostly about baseball, covered this extensively. 

During the Celtics section, Pollard’s film presents significant parts of all sorts of major games, including just about every clinching game of the many semi-final series (usually against Philadelphia and Wilt Chamberlain) and NBA Finals matchups (almost always against the L.A. Lakers and Jerry West, the first of many phases of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry.) 

Professional basketball player Bill Russell, left, speaks with boxer Muhammad Ali during a news conference of top African-American athletes in support of Ali's refusal to fight in Vietnam on June 4, 1967, in Cleveland. Cr. Tony Tomsic/AP Images/Courtesy of Netflix
Image courtesy of Netflix

Quite a few documentaries in the last few years about famous athletes and entertainers, from The Last Dance on down, have had to explain why their subject never really spoke out about political issues. Bill Russell: Legend, needless to say, doesn’t have that problem. 

Russell was long outspoken about civil rights, and later his opposition to the Vietnam War, and participated in marches in the South at the height of the civil rights movement, while also backing Muhammad Ali when he refused induction into the Army in 1967. His bold stands were acknowledged when President Barack Obama presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

Professional basketball player Bill Russell, left, speaks with boxer Muhammad Ali during a news conference of top African-American athletes in support of Ali’s refusal to fight in Vietnam on June 4, 1967, in Cleveland. Cr. Tony Tomsic/AP Images/Courtesy of Netflix
Image courtesy of Netflix

The film also delves into Russell’s post-retirement life, including his move back to the West Coast and his estrangement from and eventual reconciliation with the Celtics organization. There’s a great deal about his relationship with Chamberlain, which was strained for many years, although they reconciled shortly before Wilt’s death. 

Bill Russell: Legend ends with the dedication of Russell’s statue in Boston, the city with which he had such a complicated relationship, as well as the reaction of the city and league to the star’s death. It’s a fitting tribute to this giant of the game, as is the Netflix film about him.

Written By

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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