How Bill Russell Paved the Way for LeBron James and So Many Others
Mere hours after LeBron James broke the NBA’s all-time scoring record, one held for decades by the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the two-part documentary Bill Russell: Legend debuted on Netflix.
Directed by Sam Pollard (MLK/FBI), it’s a three-hour-plus survey of the life and career of the basketball legend, civil rights icon, Boston Celtic Bill Russell. There isn’t much to talk about, stylistically or structurally. It features talking-head interviews with NBA stars present and past (as well as Barack Obama), canned music, a chronological narrative. But Legend has an ace up its sleeve: an endlessly fascinating subject. Much in the same way that ESPN’s lengthy Michael Jordan hagiography, The Last Dance, was buoyed by the presence of Jordan himself, a cantankerous, deeply strange man with a tequila-fueled vibe and a competitive streak that just emanates from the screen, Legend remains watchable from back to front simply because this guy and his life and career are just fascinating.
In short: Russell was born in Louisiana. His family moved to Oakland at the dawn of World War II, where he learned the game of basketball shockingly late, in high school. He took his massive frame, prodigious springs, and uncanny intellect to the University of San Francisco, where he won two NCAA titles and then to the USA Men’s Olympic Team, where he won a gold medal in the 1956 Games in Melbourne. He was drafted by the Celtics soon after, where he screwed down on the twin arts of defense and rebounding. These teams radically altered the course of basketball history, introducing jumping and aggressively emphasizing fast-break play. Russell won a whopping 11 titles in 13 seasons, including eight straight from 1958-1966, and two more in 1969 and 1970, while also serving as the NBA’s first African American coach. As all this was happening, he endured disgustingly racist abuse from both provincial Bostonians and people who objected to his civil rights activism, where he openly advocated for both peaceful and less-than-peaceful approaches to the struggle.
Russell was the first modern NBA player, the opening statement in the tactical and skill dialectic that has continued to this day. Legend’s beautiful, newly-restored playing footage from his days with the Celtics spell out what would happen when you matched up against Russell: you would execute a half-court set, and drive at the rim. He would drop back, while his teammates drifted on the perimeter, waiting to make a break for it. Your shot would get erased from existence. But Russell, a genius in space, didn’t stop there. He would also recover the ball himself, find someone streaking on the break — often Bob Cousy, a flashy guard who was the Celtics’ best player in the pre-Russell years — and toss it out to them, while the offensive players who collapsed on the play struggled to get back in transition. Layup, rinse, repeat into eternity, as the Celtics made themselves nearly unbeatable during Russell’s time with the team.
Everything that happens next is a product of trying to figure out Russell, to some degree or another. Wilt Chamberlain, Russell’s friend and lifelong bete noire, tried to slow down the game by taking Russell one-on-one in half-court sets that put the massive, absurdly gifted Wilt square in the post. Jerry West, the Los Angeles Lakers’ irritable guard, took on the Celtics’ machine by emphasizing his jump-shooting game, trying to space the floor and keep away from the danger in the middle.
Only Wilt managed to get a piece off of Bill in the playoffs, with the 1968 Philadelphia 76ers, one of the NBA’s all-time great teams. Everyone else was made to bow under the omnipresent power of Iron Bill. At the end of the show, during the Celtics’ last run to the Finals, we see the next big thing beginning to dawn: the Knicks’ Willis Reed, a defensive center like Russell who traded Russell’s lanky frame for a thicker composition, leading a Knicks team that was built on half-court ball movement and five-man unit play.
The next thing kept coming, cycle after cycle. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s impossible scoring touch. The ‘77 Blazers’ hot-rod fast-break revival. The half-court-inclined Larry Bird Celtics and their rivals, the fast-breaking Showtime Lakers. Phil Jackson’s triangle offense. Slowly evolving, adapting, getting broken up and reassembled around the talents of impossible-to-solve offensive problems. The Warriors’ spread-and-slash style might seem a million miles away from the Russell Celtics, but it still shares a small shred of DNA in the person of Draymond Green, who, like Russell, is a long-armed defensive menace and playmaker with a nasty competitive streak. The very idea of “play style” in basketball was born with Russell, the first unsolvable problem.
Russell passed away in July of last year. Legend features his last-known interviews, but it doesn’t emphasize that fact. Instead, it draws on Russell’s rich personal narrative voice from his various memoirs over the years. These passages, intoned by human gravitas machine Jeffrey Wright, expose us to the mind of one of the most fascinating characters to ever pick up a ball. Russell was profoundly intelligent, almost to his personal detriment. He was competitive as hell, getting himself so screwed up on game night that he would routinely vomit before taking the court, but he was also haunted by the feeling that what he did was not important — that sports were a blinking product in the face of personal and political struggle. Even when the documentary settles into predictable rhythms, these excerpts give you the picture of a terribly complicated, captivating man.
One of his complications was his relationship with the public, of both the Boston and non-Boston variety. Some of these eccentricities were just a product of his bigger-picture-seeking mind: it was hard for him, a serious adult man, to ever quite understand the vociferousness of sports fandom, of the parts of himself people wanted and didn’t want on account of his athletic accomplishments. He didn’t like to sign autographs, and eventually just straight-up refused to anyone who asked. In Legend, Satch Sanders, one of his Celtics teammates, offers an amusing anecdote about Russell rebuffing his own autograph request, to be included as part of a set of things he assembled to remember his days on those dominant squads. Satch, he explains, we actually knew each other. We are friends. Shouldn’t those memories be enough memorabilia for you?
And then there was Boston. There is a story in Legend that sums up Russell’s troubled relationship with America’s most fucked-up sports city. Rattles you to your bones. While he played for the Celtics, Russell lived in Reading, Massachusetts, a northern suburb of Boston, with his wife and children. When the Celtics experienced some success, the town held a testimonial dinner for him, where people spoke movingly about his contributions to the team and to the community. Not long after, Russell went to buy a larger house in the city and was rebuffed by petitioners who didn’t want a Black man living in their neighborhood.
Russell was not the sort of guy who let this slide off his back. He was willing to let it hurt, not hide from the pain of being Black in America, and to return the lack of respect he received from his oppressors by opting out of the hypocritical manners of operating in our racist society. For this, he was called arrogant, haughty, and was little-loved by the public the second he stepped off the court. When his number was retired by the Celtics, Russell opted out of a public ceremony. For him, it was all about the guys in the locker room, about coach Red Auerbach, about intimate personal connections and not the shallowness of public life.
I hope that, someday soon, while some of these guys are still alive, there is a truly great book written about the 1960s Celtics, the sort of thing that really screws into the daily experience of being a Celtic during this time — the grind of winning year after year, the relationships that fed into this thing. But in the absence of that, Legend, with its stark portrait of Russell, a great athlete, an infinitely compelling man, and a bundle of contradictions, will do for now.