• Television

Docs: “Bill Russell: Legend” Honors the Career and Activism of Basketball Icon

Sports have long been talked about as being a great social unifier, especially in the United States of America. Of course, this is only partially true.

Those in positions of power, political and otherwise, love to associate with athletes and bask in the reflected glow of their public adulation, in no small part because they represent one of the few industries where meritocracy is quite plainly on display. The celebrity status of athletes can somehow seem more “earned.”

But when athletes then use their platform to assail or even merely question some of the exclusionary or oppressive structures from which those in higher power benefit, and thus hold dear, the response is often quite different. Many times the dismissal is a variation on a well-worn classic (“Shut up and play!”) that seeks to invalidate the opinion or feelings of someone who is deemed to have less of a formal education, should merely be grateful for their personal financial good fortune, or both. Uglier iterations include everything from sustained campaigns of character assassination to verbal threats and actual assaults on family, friends, and property.

A full portrait of this tension — of the terrible gulf between rabid fandom and celebrating the success of a sports team, while failing to acknowledge the full humanity of an individual — is richly evidenced in the new documentary Bill Russell: Legend, which stirringly details the incredible life and legacy of its Hall of Fame subject.

Debuting February 8 on Netflix, the two-part nonfiction project shines a light not only on the professional accomplishments of Russell, who won a National Basketball Association championship in 11 of the 13 seasons he played (including the last two as player-head coach) but also his role as an activist in the civil rights era.

A prolific director and editor whose other work includes MLK/FBI and Lowndes County and the Road to Black Power, Sam Pollard stitches together Russell’s story by way of an ambitious mixture of archival material (including a lot of amazing game footage), social and academic-minded framing (including contributions from journalist William C. Rhoden and writer and filmmaker Nelson George), and even interviews with Russell himself, prior to his death last year at 88 years of age.

The roster of hoops interviewees, in both number and quality, speaks to the near-universal admiration afforded Russell within the basketball world. Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Stephen Curry, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal and Chris Paul, among others, all give their insights, while a litany of former teammates and contemporaries, including fellow Hall of Famers Bob Cousy and Jerry West, provide the type of color and detail which lend the film great anecdotal punch. Even football legend Jim Brown, who would forge a public alliance with Russell and Abdul-Jabbar when boxer Muhammad Ali faced repercussions for refusing drafted service in the Vietnam War, pops up to share valuable memories.

The scope of Russell’s life and activism clearly merits the project’s three-hour-plus running time. Sometimes, however, the heavy rotation of such famous faces undercuts a natural narrative momentum. It also feels a bit like Oscar nominee and Emmy winner Pollard is beholden to a slightly more rigid and chronological telling than necessary.

After setting the scene with footage of a 2021 charitable auction of his vast memorabilia collection, the first part of Bill Russell: Legend begins with its subject’s young life. Born in 1934 in Monroe, Louisiana, he would move west to California with his family when he was 9 years old.

There, Russell recalls the wonder of visiting his first library (African Americans were not allowed to do so where he grew up, where so-called Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation at the time) and becoming so mesmerized by the drawings and paintings of Michelangelo that he attempted to memorize them. Later, he would aim to transpose the lyricism of these same works of art onto plays on the basketball court.

Tragically, Russell’s mother would pass away suddenly when he was 12. His father took a lower-paying factory job in order to provide more domestic stability, and Russell threw himself into school and basketball. Still, even at 6’ 10” (2.08 meters), he received only one college scholarship offer, from the University of San Francisco. Russell would eventually reward their belief in him by leading the squad to 55 straight wins over the course of two seasons, and a pair of college titles.


Drafted in 1956 by the Boston Celtics of the NBA, Russell transported his game-changing abilities straight to the professional level, putting together a solid rookie campaign and winning a championship in the 1956-57 season. His team would lose the following year, but then win it all in ten out of the next 11 seasons, behind Russell’s rebounding and shot-blocking.

The second installment of Pollard’s film delves even further into Russell’s playing career as a 12-time All-Star and five-time recipient of the league’s Most Valuable Player Award, in addition to his rivalry with Wilt Chamberlain, another formidable big man.

In detailing the evolution of basketball from a horizontal game to one with more fluidity, and Russell’s role in that change, Pollard’s film is economical yet incisive. “If you could bottle all the emotion in a basketball game, it would be enough hate to fight a war, and enough love to prevent one,” Russell says at one point, providing in beautifully descriptive shorthand both an encapsulation of his competitiveness and intelligence.

Still, the docu-series most soars when it connects with Russell’s life off the court. This includes being inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and conducting integrated basketball clinics in Jackson, Mississippi.


Most especially, though, it occurs when recounting the unpalatable realities of Russell settling in nearby Reading, Massachusetts, and trying to raise a family in a community that would cheer his hardcourt victories but vandalize his house while he was away on road trips, and block him from moving into a new neighborhood.

In both granular detail and a broader sense, many of the most trenchant reflections come in the form of Russell’s own words. Some come from interviews, others arrive in passages from his two memoirs, Go Up For Glory and Second Wind, given dramatic voiceover reading by Jeffrey Wright. (Corey Stoll, meanwhile, also provides overarching narration.)

When Russell reflects on his basketball prowess and reputation as a defender and talks about the dawning realization of wanting to, instead, be on offense in his real life, and fighting to affect positive social change, it’s touching. As viewers witness the full bloom of this moral awakening, it comes with the knowledge that it also no doubt colored the media-sustained portrayal of Russell as aloof and arrogant — a reputation that Pollard further assays with scalpel precision.

Sports can heal and bring together people from many different backgrounds, it’s true, Pollard’s film shows us — but only those with already open hearts and minds. For all his talents on the court, both God-given and honed, Bill Russell: Legend reveals a man with a soul and social conscience even larger than his athletic gifts.