The Emmy-winning director spoke with Boardroom about the intricacies of commemorating one of basketball’s biggest stars.
How does one even begin to epitomize the 88 noble years Bill Russell spent on this earth? The former Boston Celtics legend passed on July 31, 2022, but his impact on the game will undoubtedly be felt for decades to come.
Exceptional on the court and even more dignified off the hardwood, his story officially received the docuseries treatment in the form of a two-part special streaming Wednesday on Netflix. Directed by Academy Award nominee Sam Pollard, Bill Russell: Legend chronicles the former center’s upbringing in segregated Louisiana, his illustrious career as an 11-time NBA champion and five-time MVP for the Celtics, and perhaps most importantly, his never-ending act in the fight for human rights — including marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., traveling to Mississippi to host a basketball clinic shortly after the murder of Medgar Evers, and helming a boycott of a 1961 game in St. Louis because of racial bias in the midwest city.
Boardroom spoke with Pollard about Russell’s complex relationship with Celtics fans, modern-day activism viewed as performative, and whether Russell ever considered leaving basketball entirely to become a full-time freedom fighter.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VINCIANE NGOMSI: One of the most interesting parts about Bill Russell was his complicated relationship with the Celtics fanbase, and accusations of racism are a personality trait still attached to supporters. In putting together this doc, did you somehow find an answer as to why after decades of distancing himself from the city, he decided to allow his jersey to be re-retired and eventually rejoin the Celtics community?
SAM POLLARD: I would like to say that he came to an emotional sort of compromise with Celtics fans. Maybe as he got a little older, he got a little tired and said, maybe I don’t need to have such a chip on my shoulder anymore. Bill probably thought, ‘I’m at the stage of my life where this chip, I’m gonna knock off.’ I think that’s what it was quite honestly.
VN: Would you argue the same goes for Wilt Chamberlain? As they both got older and the 1969 NBA Finals became more of a distant memory, it seemed the two realized things are bigger than basketball.
SP: I think he probably held the level of resentment to the way he thought Wilt should have handled the Game 7 and I think he just mellowed out. I found it interesting when he had the interview with Jayne Kennedy and she asked him: “Do you think you’ll ever be able to come to some kind of rapprochement to Wilt, and Bill said he didn’t really care, that’s the way it is. But I think that as they got older, likely one of them reached out to the other and said, “Let’s bury the hatchet.” And when he had his jersey retired, someone said to him, “You should have Wilt Chamberlain at your ceremony.” And Wilt came.
One thing that’s interesting is that when Wilt comes on the stage, he’s got his fists balled up and he says something like: “I really should have knocked you out.” It was a good moment between the two. They had a rivalry, but there was also a tremendous amount of respect for each other. You know there was that blip where Bill felt that Wilt wasn’t a team player. He said in the doc, “I would have never came out of the game.” He would have played through the pain. Now we all know that on that bench, Wilt told the coach, he wanted to go back. You know what the coach said? Fuck Wilt Chamberlain!
VN: Bill Russell’s activism was not performative. How can modern-day fans recognize a serious athlete’s activism from one simply doing it to bolster one’s reputation?
SP: I think it’s a complicated answer to this question. Some of them are performative because they know it’s the right thing to do. In Bill Russell’s time, there wasn’t any social media. It was just him saying, “I gotta stand up and speak out. I gotta talk about the death of Dr. King. I gotta go down to Jackson, Mississippi, and support Charles Evers. I gotta be in Boston and look into the school and bussing issues.”
He didn’t tell anyone he was doing all of this; he did it because it was important to him. That’s not to say athletes today aren’t doing some of the same things he’s doing. But some of them are probably negotiating with their agents and debating, “Should I do this now, because how would it look on my resume?” That kind of stuff.
VN: Do you think across the league we’ll see more social justice work being done that’s not reactive or as a result of what’s gone on in the news? After all, social justice doesn’t have to be tied to anything bad.
SP: I would optimistically hope so, but you never know with the world. As African-Americans, people descendant from Africa, we face constantly the backlash of every time we take two steps forward, somebody wants to push us four steps back. So it’s very important that you have people and voices to stand up.
You know, we don’t have the same kind of activists like Dr. King, Ralph Abernathy, and Malcolm X. Today, we have groups like Black Lives Matter and other organizations that have a larger footprint. We need to understand the challenges that figures like Bill faced in the ’60s, and that people like LeBron [James] and Colin Kaepernick face today when he took a knee are challenges that are not going away in this country.
If you have something to say and think it’s important for people to hear it, you got to stand up and speak out. Bill Russell did.
VN: In your time making this documentary and talking to Bill, did he ever imply at one point he considered walking away from the game permanently to assume a full-time role as an activist?
SP: I never got that from him at all. By the time he got to the mid-’60s, I think the political and social turmoil in the country was starting to wear him down, which made basketball less fun for him. In some ways, it does make sense that after the Game 7 in 1969, he had nothing else to prove. So it would have made sense then if he said it was time to tie up my bundle and walk away.
VN: The concept of a super team was not something necessarily heard of in Bill’s era, but do you think a super team could exist in some form back then?
SP: No. Here’s the problem, teammates and players don’t stay on teams like they used to. You get an offer for a bigger contract, you could be gone in three or four years. Back then these players weren’t making a lot of money and there weren’t that many teams. So it wasn’t like let’s move a lot of players around.
You got K.C. Jones, Sam Jones, John Havlicek, Bill Sharman, Bob Cousy, and Bill Russell. That’s the core of the team, so you don’t really need to worry about them breaking up because that core was setting the standard that led to them winning those 11 championships in 13 seasons.
You don’t have that now. Players make too much money to be tied to one team.
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