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Last November, HBO premiered Nelson George’s Say Hey, Willie Mays!, a sturdy documentary that explored the life of the baseball icon — including an underlying argument about Willie Mays’ role, or lack thereof, in the civil rights movement and how that shaped his public image.
George, one of our most prolific and deservedly acclaimed documentarians, has a key role as talking head in Bill Russell: Legend, a new Netflix two-parter from Sam Pollard (Citizen Ashe), one of the few filmmakers able to rival George’s steady output.
Bill Russell: Legend
Director: Sam Pollard
In Bill Russell: Legend, George doesn’t directly compare Mays and Russell, but sports documentary devotees will find the link to be irresistible. Russell and Mays were foundational performers whose place on the respective Mt. Rushmores of their sports wouldn’t be in question except for recency bias.
Did Russell’s prickly relationship with the Boston press and his outspokenness about key sociopolitical events of the time limit the affection he was treated with in his prime? Probably. Was Mays maybe more fully embraced at his athletic peak because he did not appear to be an advocate and firebrand, and have those choices perhaps impacted how his legacy is viewed nearly 50 years after his retirement? Probably.
I’d love to hear a conversation between George and Pollard on this topic, and I’d love for these two solid documentaries to instigate those debates, and I’m mostly excited any time I sit down to watch a sports documentary and it isn’t about the Los Angeles Lakers or any of that franchise’s marquee stars.
Don’t worry, mind you. If you’re a fan of the Lakers and thought last year’s volume of Lakers-based documentary content was actually completely appropriate, Bill Russell: Legend‘s all-star gallery of talking heads also includes Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal and Jerry West (once again exhibiting the intensity that various people tried to claim was misrepresented in the scripted Winning Time).
Bill Russell: Legend begins in July 2022 with Russell’s death, before charting a very linear course through his life, from his birth in Louisiana to his move to Oakland as part of the Great Migration. With only limited footage and even fewer primary interview sources, Russell’s college career at University of San Francisco is the documentary’s blurriest portion, before he was drafted by the Boston Celtics (the “Red Auerbach traded an Ice Capades performance for the rights to draft Bill Russell” story is one of several slightly apocryphal tales that Pollard accepts whole-cloth). The latter event set off the most dynastic run in the history of American sports.
Russell’s run with the Celtics, mostly under the watchful eye of the great Auerbach and as the centerpiece of teams packed with future Hall of Famers, is remarkable, and Pollard isn’t exactly wrong to be entranced by the 11-title juggernaut. There are long stretches, though, when Bill Russell: Legend becomes fixated on each year’s playoff run, which lets him bring in Russell’s personal rivalry with Wilt Chamberlain and the long — and for this period, entirely one-sided — team rivalry with the Lakers. Sometimes domination can be monotonous and the series becomes a little laundry list-y, even if you know which title was Bob Cousy’s last with the team, which series is going to peak with Havlicek stealing the ball, etc.
What helps set the documentary apart is that Pollard has assembled a treasure trove of vintage game footage and vintage interviews, as well as a wealth of new or new-ish interviews with Russell, Cousy, Satch Sanders and many of their contemporaries including the aforementioned West, Bill Bradley, Walt Frazier and more. There’s a very good balance between the game footage, which accentuates Russell’s grace and athleticism, and the interviews, which concentrate on his intensity and, perhaps more than anything, his intellect. That’s one of the places I wish Pollard had been able to do more with Russell’s time at USF, because little bursts of animation help present his case that Russell and fellow future Celtics great K.C. Jones redefined the concept of basketball defense — but it’s so interesting I wanted more.
Sure, I might have wanted more on Bill Russell as the best defensive player to ever lace them up. But I get why Pollard’s interest is more geared toward Russell as an unprecedented on-court winner and Russell’s off-court struggles figuring out how to be an advocate for righteous causes in a city that wasn’t then (and isn’t now) always the kindest to Black athletes. Though the documentary covers the racism Russell experienced in the suburb of Reading, his key role in the 1967 Cleveland Summit supporting Muhammad Ali and his presence at the March on Washington, Russell was probably significantly more militant than is even presented here or hinted at in the excerpts from his wonderfully written memoirs, narrated by Jeffrey Wright. (Why was Corey Stoll the choice to narrate this documentary? I haven’t the faintest idea.)
Structurally, Bill Russell: Legend is sometimes confusing or just lacking. The decision to cut the 93-minute first section off with Bob Cousy’s retirement is semi-arbitrary, and then an awful lot of the 107-minute second section is set after Russell’s retirement and comes across as strangely under-sourced. It’s unclear if maybe the interviews about the last 50 years of Russell’s life were scrapped after his death, if Pollard decided he just didn’t care about things like Russell’s return to NBA coaching four years after his retirement from the Celtics, or if he couldn’t get enough depth on his reconciliation with the NBA and the city of Boston to give more than lip service. It also weakens the documentary that an impressive number of recent NBA stars — from Stephen Curry to Chris Paul to current Celtics star Jayson Tatum — give interviews in which they say almost nothing of concrete value.
As we know from The Last Dance or all of those Lakers documentaries, today’s NBA stars are so young that their knowledge of the game doesn’t really include much that’s pre-1980. Maybe Bill Russell: Legend will serve its greatest purpose in thrusting Russell back into the modern conversation and in letting people who never saw him play first-hand at least take in some footage from his peak. Then maybe someday we could get a little more documentary depth on Russell (or perhaps a 10-parter focused on the Russell/Chamberlain rivalry)? If Magic and Shaq got four hours apiece, Bill Russell is worthy of this 3.5 hours, and more.
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