Samuel D. Pollard (2023)

For Pollard, Russell documentary was a natural fit

No one would ever accuse Bill Russell of being warm and fuzzy. Not his coach, Red Auerbach, nor the teammates he led to an astounding 11 NBA championships during 13 glorious years with the Boston Celtics. Most certainly not the fickle fans who loved him on the parquet but not so much off, especially when he called out their overt racism towards Blacks in general and himself in particular. At times, it got ugly, if not frightening. Like the night bigoted thugs broke in and trashed his house in Reading, overturning furniture and smashing his panoply of trophies and memorabilia before viciously painting the N-word on a wall.

“The fact that Bill Russell would have a chip on his shoulder about the people of Boston is understandable.”

“Bill Russell: Legend” director Sam Pollard

He was hardly alone in being targeted. It was, after all, the 1960s, a time of widespread revolution. And Bill Russell was at the heart of a social movement that brought about dramatic change via Congress ending segregation and guaranteeing the right to vote. But he didn’t stop there, taking an even more aggressive stand a decade later during the infamous school-busing crisis in Boston. Through it all, whether on the court or in court, Bill Russell was a study in stoic dignity. Nothing fazed him, not even posting up against the 7-foot-1 man-mountain that was Wilt Chamberlain.

He was always up for a battle, a David eager to slay a Goliath. It’s a theme running through all three-plus hours of the aptly titled documentary, “Bill Russell: Legend.” Directed by Sam Pollard, the film, which is streaming on Netflix, is hardly comprehensive. If anything, it feels truncated, a mere glimpse at the life of a man who was not just an amazing basketball player, but whom Pollard proclaims a “scientist of the court,” who used his keen understanding of geometry to calculate the most precise paths for scoring baskets and preventing them. It was a philosophy Auerbach eagerly embraced while assembling all those great Celtics teams around Russell.

“He respected what Bill Russell’s skills were, the talent he had, and his attitude,” Pollard said of Auerbach during a recent Zoom conversation. “What made him a great coach was that he understood the individual skills of every player on that team and how to meld those skills into a collective built around Russell.”

He likened their symbiotic relationship to that of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, who partnered for six Super Bowl titles. Yet, that accomplishment seems trivial compared to the nine championships Russell and Auerbach achieved before Russell succeeded Auerbach as coach in 1967. Here again, Russell, as a player-coach, reigns supreme, winning two titles without his mentor, compared to Brady’s one measly Super Bowl victory under a coach not named Belichick. So, who’s the real GOAT?

And, Russell did it as a Black man in a city notorious for its provincial attitudes surrounding racial equality. It was not at all how Russell expected to be greeted by the city once known as the “Athens of America.”

“Here is a black man from Oakland, surrounded by Black people most of his life,” Pollard said. “Then you go to a city like Boston, where the only other Black player before Bill Russell was Chuck Cooper. Plus, he’s playing in a town that worships at the feet of Mr. Bob Cousy, Houdini of the Hardwood. Then, Russell (as a rookie in 1957) takes the team to their first championship, and a series of championships, making them one of the most important sports dynasties in NBA history. And who do the white patrons consider the best basketball player of all time? Bob Cousy! And then he and his family move to Reading, where they are not embraced. So the fact that Bill Russell would have a chip on his shoulder about the people of Boston is understandable.”

That chip did not extend to his “Celtics family,” said Pollard, when asked which clan Russell cherished more fully: his folks at Boston Garden or his wife and kids in Reading?

“I think probably at the beginning of his career, he was more in tune with his Celtic family,” Pollard said with a knowing laugh. “I’ve been accused many times by my family of caring more about my film work. ‘You spend more time thinking about how to make films and being with other film people than being with your family,’ they say. I think Bill Russell was similarly focused on his work. His family was probably secondary.

“And at the end of his career, after the Celtics beat the Los Angeles Lakers in game seven of the 1969 NBA Finals, what does Bill Russell do? He walks away from his Celtics, he walks away from Boston, he walks away from his family. Because whatever demons were inside of him, he had to find his own voice and find his own direction. He was a complicated human being, and that’s what I found most fascinating in working on this movie.”

Pollard, who cut his teeth cutting films for Spike Lee before sharing an Oscar nomination with his mentor on “Four Little Girls,” said Russell had an equally unconventional relationship with Chamberlain. Together, they were the Magic and Bird of their day, squaring off numerous times in memorable playoff games. Close friends off the court, bitter enemies on it. As Auerbach once quipped, “Chamberlain had all the stats over Russell, except one – winning.” The only time that didn’t prove true was in 1967, Russell’s first year as a player-coach. That season, Chamberlain’s 76ers plowed through everyone in their path, including the Celtics, whose bid for a seventh straight NBA title went down in just five games in the Eastern Conference finals. The biggest winner, Pollard said, was the NBA, which grew exponentially in popularity due to the two big men.

“What Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain did with their rivalry during the ’60s, helped put the NBA on the map,” Pollard said, before adding that the more significant edge Russell had over Chamberlain was his political activism.

“He was the perfect athlete for those turbulent times,” Pollard said of Russell. “Not everyone was like Bill Russell. Wilt Chamberlain wasn’t. I don’t know if he was conscious of it or not, but Russell knew that he was not going to be just a basketball player. He understood that he had to be a part of this movement. Like Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Russell sometimes didn’t know the consequences of his actions, but he knew he had to be a part of it. These were men who knew it wasn’t just about their physical skills, it was also about their voices.”

Pollard, who has built a reputation as the go-to guy in profiling famous African Americans from MLK to Arthur Ashe, said the most enjoyable aspect of making “Bill Russell: Legend,” besides the opportunity to interview other “legends of the game – then and now – was sorting through hours and hours of archival footage.

“It’s a wonderful treasure trove,” he said. “The hard part is finding the pieces of gold to pull out of that treasure trove. But thank God there’s a lot of material. You don’t want the opposite. Then it’s hard to make it work. Luckily, we had so much stuff. And it makes it a far better film.”

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