No American male athlete is more synonymous with winning in team sports than Bill Russell. Not Tom Brady. Not Michael Jordan. Not Derek Jeter. He was a two-time champion at the University of San Francisco and won 11 NBA championships with the Boston Celtics, including two while also serving as player-coach.
Russell’s story would seem larger than life if it were only about basketball. There was so much more to the five-time league MVP who championed civil rights all while facing racism in the city where he enjoyed his greatest success. Netflix attempts the lofty task of chronicling his achievements in Bill Russell: Legend. The two-part documentary clocks in at 3 hours, 20 minutes, and even that length seems insufficient. Russell, who passed away in July 2022, deserved The Last Dance treatment. Director Sam Pollard admits that making this bio-doc was challenging.
Bill Russell: Legend is a moving portrait of a star who launched the NBA to new heights and tried to make America a better country. To do both simultaneously took a Herculean effort in the face of criticism. Russell was described as arrogant, stubborn, moody, and complicated. Some of those adjectives he might agree with. Some seemed like code. It’s not easy being Black in the USA no matter how famous, successful, or powerful you are.
Pollard, also known for directing the acclaimed Citizen Ashe doc, packs in plenty of details. He is helped by actors Corey Stoll and Jeffrey Wright. Stoll serves as the main narrator while Wright reads excerpts from Russell’s book. Viewers will get a well-rounded and fair look at Russell in his own words, the words of his teammates, and the words of other NBA stars. Understandably, Bill Russell: Legend relies on a lot of archival footage but it also includes interviews with current players like Steph Curry, Chris Paul, and Jayson Tatum.
One of the funnier moments is when Paul describes what it was like to get an autograph from Russell. It’s a well-timed bit of comic relief in an otherwise super-serious film. This observation is not meant as a criticism of Pollard. It’s just a fact that while Russell’s life had a lot of winning and joy, there were also some terrible moments.
Bill Russell: Legend painfully recounts the infamous story of his home being broken into while he was on vacation. According to the documentary and multiple reports, the vandals wrote racist words on the walls and defecated in his bed. This happened in Boston. The city that supposedly cheered for him.
“Boston was the least liberal city in the NBA when I got there,” he said in the documentary.
Russell suffered macroaggressions and microaggressions. He took stands for what he believed in, such as boycotting an exhibition game in Lexington, Ky. after encountering discrimination. He took part in the Cleveland Summit as he, Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and other athletes lent public support to Muhammad Ali, who had been stripped of his heavyweight title for refusing to serve in the Vietnam War.
These were risky stances in the 1960s but important ones.
Bill Russell: Legend also examines his relationship with his nemesis Wilt Chamberlain. They were fierce rivals but also friends. These days they would be described as frenemies. Russell and Chamberlain battled in the NBA Finals twice, once with the San Francisco Warriors and once with the Los Angeles Lakers, and several times in the East when Chamberlain was with the Philadelphia 76ers.
The two men are forever connected, almost like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird (both are featured in this documentary). But they had a falling out over remarks Russell made about an injured Chamberlain not playing in an NBA Finals game. The two later reconciled, but still, many objected to what Russell said, including Jerry West.
The documentary doesn’t address everything in Russell’s life. For example, there’s no mention of his grudge against his alma mater over a tuition issue. The rift was never resolved. Also, the movie could have used more anecdotes about Bill Russell the person from his loved ones.
Those are minor criticisms. If this is the final word on Russell’s life, it’s a powerful one. In 2011, President Barack Obama presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Obama said Russell was defined by more than basketball: “Bill Russell, the man, is someone who stood up for the rights and dignity of all men.”
Bill Russell: Legend reinforces that.