“If it wasn’t for Bill Russell winning all them championships, would anybody be talking about the Boston Celtics?” asks Larry Bird, the first voice we hear in Netflix’s two-part documentary “Bill Russell: Legend.”
“No,” the former Boston Celtic replies.
When Bill Russell was acquired by Red Auerbach in a draft-day trade in 1956, the Celtics hadn’t won an NBA championship. They had the most recognizable player at the time, Bob Cousy, the “Houdini of the Hardwood,” but no rings. Starting in his rookie year, Russell would win 11 NBA championships, all of them earned as player or player-coach of the Boston Celtics. He also won MVP five times.
“We’re never gonna see a winner like that again,” says Jerry West, one of the many interviewees here. Director Sam Pollard has assembled a veritable cornucopia of commentators, including contemporaries and teammates of Russell’s like Cousy and K.C. Jones, plus more current NBA legends such as Steph Curry, Magic Johnson, and Shaq.
They’re all here to honor the winningest athlete in basketball, a man who also led his college basketball team at the University of San Francisco to 55 consecutive wins and two titles, not to mention the gold medal he received as part of the 1956 US Men’s Olympic Basketball team. Not too bad for a guy who was once cut from his high school team in Oakland, where he grew up.
Russell, who died last year at 88, wrote several books and articles about his life and career and covered his 1969 NBA Finals championship run for The Boston Globe; several excerpts are read by actor Jeffrey Wright. We also hear from the man himself, in numerous scenes where his infectious laugh punctuates his commentary. Russell did not suffer fools gladly, but he had a sense of humor.
“Bill Russell literally invented modern defensive basketball,” says Bob Ryan, a longtime Globe columnist who retired but still contributes to the sports section occasionally. At 6 feet, 10 inches tall, the former high jump competitor had enough hops to block almost every shot. Despite being told by his collegiate coach that “a good defensive player never leaves his feet,” Russell was constantly airborne throughout his career, earning impressive stats in blocking, rebounding, and assists.
“Bill Russell: Legend” tells us all these athletic details and more; at more than three hours, it’s stuffed with enough footage and sports talk to satisfy any viewer’s basketball jones. Russell’s on-court, competitive rivalry with fellow big man Wilt Chamberlain is documented in well-edited sequences of footage that tingle the spine even if you know the outcome. It successfully hits all the beats one expects from a sports documentary, including rousing narration from actor Corey Stoll.
All the while, the documentary never once lets the viewer forget Russell’s struggles with racism and how poorly his activism was received by white Boston fans. Pollard, director of brilliant documentaries like 2020′s “MLK/FBI” and 2016′s “Two Trains Runnin’” often investigates the unequal treatment of Black people in his films.
So we have folks like sociologist, sports expert, and civil rights activist Dr. Harry Edwards guiding us through a story about how Russell and his fellow Black teammates boycotted an October 1961 game in segregated Lexington, Ky., because their hotel would not serve them. Major outlet sportswriters, whom the documentary states were all white, demanded that Russell and his teammates be fined for not grinning and bearing their mistreatment.
Edwards notes that Russell was unapologetic about getting players from both teams to boycott, and he was willing to do it again if the same situation arose. Russell’s display of self-worth, coupled with his perceived aloofness, got him branded as arrogant by fans who expected him to ignore the injustices he saw all around him and basically shut up and play.
“Bill Russell: Legend” spares nothing in telling its story, often basking in bitter ironies. We see the Russell family getting a tribute dinner in their adopted town of Reading, with numerous local politicians and big shots expressing the joy of having them reside there. These same people protest when the family decides to move to their ritzier Reading neighborhood.
The well-known story about Russell’s house being trashed while he was away is retold, losing none of its vile details — like the criminals defecating in his bed. “Some argued that my arrogant attitude may have contributed to my home invasion,” Russell says when the police decide to do nothing.
For all of its exciting sports footage, “Bill Russell: Legend” is at its most interesting when investigating what was happening off the court. Details on how Russell was so intuitive regarding his defense (he based it on a mathematical basketball theory using angles co-invented by his teammate K.C. Jones) share screen time with a focus on his activism. Pollard picks just the right excerpts from Russell’s books and his interviews to complement the visuals.
Russell’s activism takes center stage in the documentary’s second episode, with scenes of him at the March on Washington and in the Cleveland Summit of 1967, where athletes such as Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (both appear as interviewees) supported Muhammad Ali’s conscientious objection to the Vietnam War.
The documentary also offers insight into Russell’s philosophy of life. In one fascinating aside, he tells a story about how he inherited his sense of self-worth from a father who took no guff from anyone. Charlie Russell was one generation removed from enslaved people. “Slavery is the ultimate form of disrespect,” Russell tells us. “So my father made sure he was never treated, in any way, like a slave.” This meant not being mistreated by anyone, especially the white folks in his Jim Crow-infested hometown of Monroe, La.
“Bill Russell: Legend” shows how Charlie Russell’s message informed his son’s attitude and decisions. As much fun as the documentary is — and it’s a wonderful tribute to its subject — this is a series that is not content to just shut up and dribble. It has a lot to say and, like Bill Russell, it doesn’t care if the viewer finds offense in the truth.
BILL RUSSELL: LEGEND
Directed by Sam Pollard. Narrated by Corey Stoll, with excerpts from Bill Russell’s memoirs and articles read by Jeffrey Wright. A two-part documentary exclusively on Netflix.
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.