Bill Russell: Legend movie review (2023)

Pollard knows how to assemble a project like “Bill Russell: Legend,” seamlessly flowing from how Russell performed on the court to stories of his life off of it with passages from his memoirs read by Jeffrey Wright. (The entire project is also narrated by Corey Stoll.) Russell, who passed just last year, became an outspoken activist over his life, but it’s startling how groundbreaking he was for a sport that was still almost entirely white when he transformed it. I was fascinated by stories of a young Russell trying to memorize Michelangelo paintings in library books and then recreating them when he got home, as his gameplay revealed an obsession with body angles. He knew where someone was going with the ball before they did because of what his opponent’s body told him. Pollard’s film includes a ton of archival game footage, and it’s stunning to see Russell look like he’s playing a different game than everyone around him.

And yet he couldn’t get the credit he deserved as he was destroying all expectations because of the era in which he joined the game. Despite taking the San Francisco Dons to two consecutive NCAA championships, his white colleagues always got the credit. Even during an insane run in which the Celtics won 11 NBA championships over Russell’s 13-year career—a streak that will never happen again—Boston sports press never seemed to give Russell enough credit. He was the first Black superstar NBA player, and he never forgot what that meant.

Of course, the gentlemen who followed in his wake are interviewed in “Bill Russell: Legend,” including Steph Curry, Isaiah Thomas, Jalen Rose, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Chris Paul, and more. Shaquille O’Neal jokes that part of every big man’s salary should go to Russell because of how much they owe him. There are times when “Bill Russell: Legend” is a little thin with NBA analysis, but the material about Russell’s life off the court really captivates. Pollard not only got an interview with Russell himself before his death but also with his daughter and colleagues from those Boston years, who speak to “Russell the man” instead of “Russell the legend.”

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