Last week Netflix released “Bill Russell: Legend,” a two-part documentary on one of the most influential American athletes and civil rights activists in history. This presentation chronicles the amazing life and career of Bill Russell, a hall of fame-inducted center for the Boston Celtics.
With back-to-back NCAA championships, five NBA MVP awards, 11 cumulative NBA championships and the Presidential Medal of Freedom to his name, Bill Russell was one of the most extraordinary people to ever live.
The documentary begins with the end sadly noting that Russell passed away this past year on July 31, 2022. Many fans paid their respects by leaving mementos and flowers at the statue of the iconic player in Boston which was erected in 2013. The city continues to commemorate this legendary player by retiring his jersey number, six, and making it part of their court for every home game with a darker green six in the middle of the Celtic paint.
Before his passing Russell auctioned off many different forms of memorabilia which raised $5.1 million which he donated to his charity, MENTOR, which helps afford equal opportunities for youth programs, as well as the Boston Celtics United for Social Justice.
The documentary covers everything in Russell’s life starting off with his early youth in Louisiana. His father, Charles Russell, was only one generation removed from slavery and knew firsthand the atrocities the Black community continued to face in the civil rights era. He swore that no one would ever treat him or any of his children like a slave, instilling that perspective within Russell from a very young age. He moved the family from Louisiana to Oakland, California for better work opportunities and to remove them from the bitter hatred and racism that ran rampant in the south.
Russell also had an extremely close relationship with his mother, Katie Russell, who emphasized the importance of education from a very young age. Russell was only eight years old when the family moved to Oakland and one of the first things his mother ensured he had was a library card.
Libraries weren’t open to the Black community in Louisiana so Katie Russell made sure to take advantage of that benefit upon their relocation. Russell spent much of his adolescence playing basketball, going to school and enthralling himself with the works of Leonardo da Vinci at the library in his free time. A profound event that molded Russell into the individual he became was the loss of his mother due to illness at the age of 12.
The documentary does an excellent job balancing the amazing feats of Russell’s professional basketball career with the important duties he carried out as a civil rights activist. It definitely doesn’t reinvent the genre with the standard mix of family and friend interviews spliced with footage of Russell’s playing capability and voiceovers accompanying certain scenes. The talented actor Jeffery Wright lends his vocals for some brief narration and in place of Russell’s voice for personal excerpts. Corey Stoll also carries some of the narration duties for the well-edited documentary.
The film also explored Russell’s relationship with the manager of the Celtics, Red Auerbach, renowned for his killer negotiation mentality. Auerbach had Russell coined as a favorite and was going to make him a Celtic by any means necessary.
Once he was drafted Auerbach acclimated the young Russell by reminding him that his responsibility was to help the team win more games not to focus on his personal game-time statistics. This lesson proved to be even more helpful when Russell routinely played against his rival Wilt Chamberlain later in his career. The first half of the documentary concludes about halfway through Russell’s career once he has helped the Celtics win six championships over seven seasons taking place from 1957 to 1963.
Russell’s athletic prowess is not the only thing that is flaunted in this film. After starting his own family in Reading, Massachusetts, Russell still had to deal with severe hate and racism on a daily basis, even from Boston fans. During his career he led a march from Roxbury to Boston Commons in protest of the treatment of Black Americans and collaborated with the prolific leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Russell sat front row at King’s famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in Washington after politely declining to stand on stage as to not take credit for any of the efforts used to organize the protest. He also held an interracial basketball clinic in Jackson, Mississippi, one of the most dangerous towns during this era, putting it on despite numerous death threats.
Knowing many of the achievements Russell had achieved in his life I figured I’d enjoy this documentary going in, but was still impressed by the visual storytelling that carries you through this figure’s life. If you are a Boston sports fan I highly recommend the watch, but there is also so much more to it than just basketball accolades. I would find it difficult for anyone to not find something they can enjoy about learning from this historical man’s life.