Bill Russell is often shortchanged by those lists of the greatest NBA players, so leave it to fellow all-stars of his era Bill Bradley (“The smartest player that ever played the game”) and Jerry West (“We’re never going to see a winner like that again”) to appropriately eulogize him in “Bill: Russell Legend,” a two-part Netflix documentary that covers the Boston Celtics great’s triumphs on the court, and activism off of it.
Directed by Sam Pollard (“MLK/FBI”), with Corey Stoll narrating and Jeffrey Wright reading from Russell’s memoirs when not using the center’s own voice, it’s a wonderfully well-rounded look at what made Russell such a dominating player, and how the same determination manifested itself when he refused to sit idly by amid the overt racism of the times.
For basketball fans, the material about Russell’s friendship with, estrangement from and eventual reconciliation with rival legend Wilt Chamberlain should, frankly, be enough reason to devote time to this splendid production, and the remarkable clips from their on-court battles are a treat unto themselves.
Indeed, their relationship is particularly chewed over by the who’s who of past and current basketball players who participate in the discussion, including Russell’s contractual demand that his salary match the then-astronomical sum of $100,000 a year that Chamberlain was being paid – plus one dollar, befitting his status as the linchpin of all those Celtics championships.
Russell won an unparalleled 11 titles during his 13 years in the league, retiring when he appeared to have mileage left in the tank physically, but simply worn out mentally. Part of that surely stemmed from the struggles he undertook off the court, dealing with housing discrimination in his Boston neighborhood (despite being honored by the community), traveling to Mississippi after civil-rights activist Medgar Evers’ murder and speaking out in support of Muhammad Ali when he refused to fight in Vietnam on religious grounds.
Russell and his Black teammates also took a stand when the Celtics journeyed South, sitting out a game in Kentucky after a Whites-only hotel denied them service.
Russell became the first Black head coach of a North American professional team when Auerbach moved upstairs, reflecting an organization far more progressive than the city in which it resided.
As Pollard emphasizes, Russell reflected a different attitude on the requirements of his celebrity, refusing to sign autographs and feeling a strong connection to the Celtics organization and his coach, Red Auerbach, but saying he owed nothing to the city itself.
“I played for the Celtics,” Russell said. “I didn’t play for Boston.”
The term “Legend” is thrown around too loosely, but it certainly applied to Russell, who knew how to throw sharp elbows both on and off the court, and whose thoughtfulness about what an athlete owes to fans has obviously resonated with the generations of players that have followed him.
Wedding the civil-rights era and the budding growth of the NBA as it integrated Black players, “Legend” is a well-rounded addition to programming tied to Black History Month. Russell died last year, but not before plenty of tributes came his way, including a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2011.
Auerbach famously lit up a cigar when he knew a game was in the bag, and one suspects he’d light up a big fat stogie taking in the three-plus hours of “Bill Russell: Legend.” Because even for this Lakers fan, it’s a winner.
“Bill Russell: Legend” premieres February 8 on Netflix.