"Bill Russell: Legend" is a new documentary from Netflix examining the incredible life of Celtics and NBA superstar Bill Russell, offering new insight into his lasting work as a civil rights icon. The film features Russell’s last interview before his passing in 2022 as well as exclusive sit-downs with Steph Curry, Chris Paul, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Jim Brown, and others. WEEI spoke with director Sam Pollard ahead of the film’s widespread release. The following interview has been edited for clarity.
Meghan Ottolini: I want to start with a very general question. What do you hope people will take away from this film about Bill Russell?
Sam Pollard: I hope the audience takes away the fact that not only was Bill Russell one of the greatest basketball players to ever step on the court for the NBA, he was politically and socially a very active human being who understood it wasn’t only about being a basketball player, but being a human being and an African American at a very tenuous time in American history.
MO: To that point, Russell had a complicated relationship with the city of Boston in terms of his experiences here. What was his perspective on those communities towards the end of his life?
SP: You know, he didn’t speak specifically about Boston when we had the opportunity to spend the last year and half with him. For Bill, that was something that was strongly ingrained in him for many years. But like a lot of human beings, he got mellowed as he got older. The fact that when they had all his memorabilia there in the Boston Garden (in 2021), he came to support the auction. The one thing Bill Russell always said: he loved being a Boston Celtic. He just didn’t love the folks in Boston. That’s what he always said. He loved being a Celtic. It was one of the most prideful things in his life.
MO: Looking through the access you had to the archives of his life, do you feel like he and some of the other players of that era of the NBA are receiving their due recognition on the court when we try to compare them to the modern NBA? I’ve spoken with some of Bill Russell’s teammates, including Bob Cousy, who say they really fear at times these chapters of basketball might just be lost in history very soon because people deem them to have less relevance to the modern game.
SP: Well, what happens is this: human beings have short memories, right? So if you talk to a group of young people today in America between the age of 20 and 35 and you say, “Who’s the greatest basketball player of all time,” 9 out of 10 will say Lebron James, because that’s who they grew up with, that’s who they watched. If you get people between the age of 35 and 50, they’re going to say the greatest basketball player of all time is Michael Jordan because they grew up with him. For me, I’m in my 70s, I grew up in the 60s, and I remember watching the television about the tremendous rivalry between Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. In my neighborhood, it was, “Who is the better center?” Human beings have short memories. It’s hard for them to remember the past. People have no sense of history. What we’re trying to do with this film is to say to you, take a look at this page in history where one of the greatest players of all time set the tone for the NBA, what it is today.
MO: In that line of thinking, do you think you can draw a direct line from the civil rights work Bill Russell led in his prime to some of the social justice work we see expressed and led by current NBA players?
SP: Absolutely. You look at what Bill Russell did in the 60s, out there challenging Boston busing, and he went down to Mississippi after the death of Medgar Evers – he was at the march on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King. Bill Russell was front and center. You can see that legacy in LeBron James and all those players who took a knee after Colin Kaepernick took a knee. They’re standing on the shoulders of Bill Russell. That’s what’s amazing. Bill Russell took the knee in response to Colin Kaepernick, that says so much about who Bill Russell was then and who he was in latter years.
MO: In historical context it’s easy for people to look back on the civil rights movement in the 60s and say, “Well I would have been on the right side of history then,” because it looks so clear now –
SP: Yes, but you and I know Meghan, that’s called backseat driving.
MO: Do you feel the atmosphere is similar, harder, or less intense for an athlete trying to lead a movement or trying to express what they see as a complete injustice in something in our country?
SP: I think it’s similar. Listen, the idea that people would say to Bill Russell back in the 60s, “Shut up and play,” people are still saying that today about people like LeBron James and Colin Kaepernick. These attitudes don’t really change. The money changes. The kind of money Bill Russell made is peanuts compared to what LeBron and other players make. A lot of professional sports figures don’t want to speak out because it might hurt their brand. I’m going to be very upfront, we never heard Michael Jordan speak about anything.
MO: “Republicans buy sneakers too,” was his quote.
SP: That’s right.
MO: You mentioned in the last year and a half of his life, Russell was in a different place mentally and physically. Having had the opportunity for the last interviews in his life, was there any particular message you took away from him?
SP: I’ll say this - It was an honor to be in the presence of Bill Russell, even in his latter years. Doing this film, it was almost like it wasn’t a job. To spend time with him, it was just an honor. For me, I was a fan. The other thing, it gave me the opportunity to see how the game evolved from the 50s and 60s. In the 50s it was basically an all-white game and black players like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson came in, and (author) Nelson George said in the film – they brought in the black aesthetic. And you’ve seen the way the NBA is in the 21st century.
"Bill Russell: Legend" is available exclusively on Netflix streaming Feb. 8, 2023.