I suspect all artists are as bedeviled by what to leave out of a work as by what to include. The canvas, score or page is only so large, and though one could theoretically keep writing a piece of music or prose without end (until death parts you from it), no sane person would try to keep listening or reading.
But truly, to begin a creative work is often to be overflowing with potential material and overwhelmed by how to shape and contain it.
You have to be careful it doesn’t sprawl all over whatever medium you’re using with either too much material or, in a slight twist on that theme, too much material of one kind at the expense of perhaps more relevant or interesting or even essential material of another kind.
It is the latter occurrence that can leave audience members with more questions at the end of a creative work than they had at the beginning. And that is pretty much the experience I had after watching director Sam Pollard’s two-part, 199-minute documentary on basketball “legend” Bill Russell, which debuted on Netflix last week to generally breathless reviews.
Bill Russell was a complicated man. That may be the only assertion about him that would draw 100% agreement from all who knew him, either directly through his much-heralded career with the Boston Celtics or merely by observation through that career and a much longer subsequent life as a civil rights spokesman, broadcaster, motivational speaker, actor, author and coach.
Russell died last July at age 88, leaving behind an unparalleled record of accomplishment on the basketball floor that he played his last triumphant game on at age 35, along with the much less focused amalgam of activities noted above over the remaining half-century+ of his life.
What he also left behind is a sizable army of adoring fans and media who have helped create the “Legend” that reigns so prominently in the title of director Pollard’s work. One might think there is an intentional note of irony in Pollard’s use of “Legend,” particularly given these reflections in a recent interview:
“At the end of his career, after the Celtics beat the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 7 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.”
But far from exploring those demons and complications in any depth, giving them context and honoring the conflicts that drove so much of Russell’s life (that drive, in one form or other, all lives) too much of “Bill Russell: Legend” merely reinforces the legend, becomes hagiography, makes him larger than life, which no human being, in the end, ever is.
Lost opportunity there. Let’s dig down to recover some of what is missing.
Russell’s is a compelling story of a boy born poor in heavily Jim Crowed Louisiana in 1934. With his parents wearied by the almost constant litany of racist slights and indignities that were part of daily life in the South, the family, which included Russell’s older-by-two-years brother Charlie, moved to Oakland, California in 1942.
His father, a stern man who taught his boys to always stand up for themselves, eventually landed a job as a long-haul trucker.
Who is he now? He is, for better and for worse but more importantly, for REAL: Bill Russell, basketball player. All of his everything else flows from that.
Four years later, Russell’s mother died, a crushing blow to the now 12- and 14-year-old boys, and which forced their father to take a regular day job as a steelworker.
Russell, gangly and awkward from a classic teenage growth spurt, was cut from his junior high basketball team and barely made the team in high school. He finally blossomed enough in his senior year to earn a scholarship to the University of San Francisco—the only school to make him an offer.
All the disinterested universities came to regret it, though, as Russell led the Dons to consecutive NCAA championships in 1955-56. That was followed by the year’s crowning achievement as he captained the gold-medal winning U.S.A. team at the Summer Olympics in Melbourne.
Russell then joined the Boston Celtics, which he led to 11 NBA titles in 13 years, the last two seeing him take on double duty as player-coach. That Celtics dynasty remains unmatched in professional sports more than a half-century later.
When added to Russell’s record of consecutive collegiate championships capped by an Olympic gold, it created a mythos around him as an indomitable force of nature, sports history’s greatest winner, a man who, through sheer force of will, strategic savvy and a kind of mystical psychological gamesmanship, always found a way to get the best of his opponents at the very time when it mattered most.
That mythos is very much on display in “Bill Russell, Legend,” and Pollard gathered an impressive display of talking head contemporaries of Russell’s, media figures and current NBA stars who all contribute their version of head-shaking amazement and adulation at what he accomplished in his playing career.
But after three hours and nineteen minutes of fan-satisfying game clips, interviews, and historical film of life in the fractured racial climate of 20th century America, I was less amazed by Russell’s exploits, which were not new to me as a boyhood Celtic worshipper who followed that inspiration through my own, far more modest college basketball career and subsequent coaching stint, but by how many questions were popping into my head as the ending credits rolled.
And how unsatisfied I was that such compelling basic material seemed to result in far too little effort at peeking behind the “legend” of Russell into deeper dimensions where his true complexity resided, still safe and hidden behind his legendary facade of cackling mirth, quick anger and self-possessed dignity.
We see Russell with two wives through the course of the documentary. One, his college sweetheart Rose, whom he married upon graduation after being drafted by the Celtics, mother of his two sons and a daughter. Pollard pictures her in a strongly supportive role but we learn nothing from or about her.
Later, we hear intermittently, always in loving terms, about Russell from later wife Jeanine, whom he married in 2018 and was with him when he died.
Rose was exited from Russell’s life and the documentary with these words to describe the occurrence, taken from his 1979 memoir, “Second Wind” and conveyed in voiceover by actor Jeffrey Wright:
“Professional basketball went out of my life in 1969, but it had a lot of company. Everything seemed to be an encumbrance to me, including my wife of 13 years, my three children, my Boston friends, and my material possessions. Within a few months of my retirement, I also left behind my life in Boston and everything that went with it. Every breath I took felt a little frosty. I was venturing into the outside world after 13 years in a compression chamber.”
And then, to the strains of the song, “First Train to California” and photos of the iconic Hollywood sign and beach life, the narrator intones, “Bill Russell packed one suitcase into his Lamborghini, and drove to California.”
Then Russell again in voiceover:
“L.A., as far as I’m concerned, that’s where the action is. I can promise you, nobody will have as much fun as I will.”
Pollard then jams the final 53 years of Russell’s life into the remaining 23 minutes of the documentary, filling it with clips from his life with L.A. celebrities, as pitchman for AT&T, in television appearances with Flip Wilson, Don Rickles, Joe Namath and more, college guest lectures, color commentary for basketball, a short-lived talk show, a long segment on his bitter rival/kinda good buddy Wilt Chamberlain, and tributes from far and wide as the music swells and Russell, finally stooped over a cane in old age, continues to thaw from his earlier life aversion to being honored and showing true emotion.
Notably absent from that 53-year recap: any word of the family with three children aged 11, 9 and 7 he left behind with their mother in Boston. (Later, they all moved back to California, one can only assume so the children could be near their father.) Though we hear regular commentary from Russell’s daughter, a Harvard law graduate and polished speaker who talks in glowing terms about her father, there is no word of or by the two sons.
An Internet search reveals that the oldest son, named after his father, died in 2016 at age 58 in St. George, Utah, where he had married, raised a son and worked as a truck driver. His obituary doesn’t note the celebrityhood of his father, nor anything of his early life.
Youngest son Jacob still lives an exceedingly private life, now aged 63, last known to be married and a transit operator in the Seattle area. Was he asked to provide any commentary for this work? Would he have?
The fact that Russell’s sons merited no mention in a documentary devoted to the tribulations and occasional trials of their father seemed a curious omission. so when seeking more information on them and the fate of Russell’s first wife, Rose, I came to find out there had been two subsequent wives between her and his fourth wife, Jeanine, a former pro golfer on the Canadian tour.
None of this was mentioned either.
Second wife Dorothy Anstett was a 1968 Miss America winner from Kirkland, Washington. The couple married in 1977 and divorced within three years, and that is about all that anyone knows or has ever been willing to talk about publicly regarding the marriage.
Third wife Marilyn Nault was a Kansas native who moved to the Pacific Northwest after high school and became a jewelry saleswoman. The couple married in 2000, reportedly enjoyed a great deal of travel, and remained together until her death in 2009, according to her obituary.
And: All three of his wives after Rose were white women. Should this matter in any way? Should I have bothered to mention it here? (Questions for our still racially troubled times…)
So, in surveying the last 53 years of Russell’s life, we see him engaged with a wide variety of projects, jobs, pastimes, all while multiple narrators heap upon him a seemingly endless litany of praise for his accomplishments.
I found myself wondering: None of this could have been reduced in order to tell us something about his family, the choices he made, the tragedy he endured losing his son, the tragedy his kids endured watching him drive off to California in his Lamborghini? What he felt in his later years about that decision?
Did none of that story merit the barest notation in the life of a complicated man?
And all that is not even to mention the paltry reference to Russell’s return to basketball as a coach of two other NBA teams. Despite his oft-stated mixed emotions about the importance of basketball in a world of relentless strife and suffering, Russell returned to the game by 1973, taking charge as coach and general manager of the 10-year-old franchise, the Seattle Supersonics.
He enjoyed only marginal success in getting the team to its first ever playoff berths in the middle seasons of his four-year tenure, finishing 6th, 4th, 3rd and 7th in the Western Conference before resigning. Pollard only mentions the fact of getting the team into the playoffs “for the first time in its history,” but clearly Russell’s tenure was not quite in keeping with the legend of being sports history’s greatest winner.
Ten years later, mired deeply in debt from failed investments in Liberian rubber plantations (an effort to help kickstart industry in that African country) and a Boston restaurant, he returned to the NBA as coach and general manager of the Sacramento Kings.
But it was a disaster. He was relieved of his coaching duties two-thirds of the way through the season with the team flailing at 17 wins and 41 losses, then served the balance of his stint as general manager before the team fired him at season’s end.
Russell, always a proud man with a deep well of self-confidence, had to be shaken by these late career failures, though he was only 39 when he took the Seattle job and 53 in his one Sacramento season.
But we hear nothing of what had to be these truly “complicating” factors in Russell’s life.
Like a lot of athletes with both a social and self consciousness, Russell severely questioned the value of sports, and from one lens, the absurdity of serving as a role model and hero. “Tall grown men in shorts playing a child’s game,” was one of his curt dismissals of the game that most defined him and showcased his gifts.
This, combined with his lingering, lifelong anger about the racism he endured and witnessed, was part of the basis for his refusal to attend ceremonies honoring him. Among other such events, he refused to attend the retiring of his jersey in Boston and his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame, though he finally relented in these matters in his older and mellower age.
Then there was the matter of his refusal to sign autographs, no matter the pleadings of kids and even his own teammates on behalf of their kids—all long noted as a staple of his iconoclastic temperament.
And though he is widely regarded as a civil rights icon for being willing to speak out and take some actions to further racial justice, in the end, his activity in that domain was more episodic than sustained, often a one-off symbolic gesture such as attending a summit on racial issues or tweeting a photo of himself on one knee to honor former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s career-ending protests before NFL games.
I think Russell sensed as much about himself—that although he had a heart commitment to racial equity, it would never rise to the level of a true activist. We see it as early as 1963, when Martin Luther King invited him up to the dais for King’s March on Washington speech, but Russell declined, thinking himself unworthy of sharing space with full-time civil rights luminaries.
Then we need only look at the last nearly half-century of his life, which he spent in the upper class enclave of Mercer island, Washington, with a demographic profile of 71.5% white, 20% Asian and 0.9% black. Not exactly an activist’s hotbed, we can surmise.
So no, he was not an activist in the way of many others who give nearly their entire lives and identities in service of some great cause. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t have impact.
And here’s the rub of that: Whatever impact he did have was a result of the very basketball career and legend status he achieved within it, all of which he scoffed at with regularity.
And kept returning to.
(Once an athlete, always an athlete…)
Ultimately, what I see when looking at Russell’s post-Celtics trajectory is a man somewhat adrift, searching for some coherent center, some great cause or passion that could focus his still considerable energy. (The perils of “retirement” at age 35: What’s going to be your 50-year encore?)
So he went to L.A. at first, dead-set on “fun.” Hard to make the case for some fun being undeserved, though one can certainly question his choice to summarily leave his entire previous life behind.
Then came some civil rights work, some writing, some lecturing, some broadcasting, some acting, some travel. Finally, he tries basketball again, but his efforts yield nowhere close to his previous lifelong success.
Who is he now?
He is, for better and for worse but more importantly, for real: Bill Russell, basketball player.
All of his everything flows from that. Without it, no one seeks him out for civil rights commentary, broadcasting, commercial endorsements or counsel. But with it, he truly is important, does have a voice that helps advance racial equity and the larger culture that is forced to deal with its questions.
Russell’s own disparagement of sports and attempt to “leave behind my life in Boston?”
Fake humility, false modesty, a way of keeping an ironic distance from the thing he was best at, into which he poured all his passion, and in which he blazed trails as a pioneering and proud black man who demanded his due and deserved everything that came to him.
Despite his aversion to autographs and hero worship, Russell was a role model for young black men in particular, he was hugely influential, because for better or worse, athletes can inspire young people and change their lives for the better, no matter Russell’s looking askance at the thing he held most dear.
This is why he came back to it, why he finally relented and accepted accolades from the league, team and fans, why he was willing to make up with Wilt Chamberlain after their famous feud.
And all these contradictions and struggles and shortcomings are what make him, in the end, profoundly human, which is far better for all parties than being a “legend,” which is comic book stuff, one-dimensional, and ultimately, bland.
Nothing bland about William Felton Russell. Long may that legacy live.
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Russell at LBJ Library, Austin, Texas, 2014 at a Civil Rights Summit https://www.flickr.com/photos/lbjlibrarynow/
Russell vs Chamberlain photo of a painting by artist Stephen Holland, in the public domain
Other photos from the public domain
I appreciate your sharp insights, and critique of the Bill Russell “legend” documentary on
Netflix. I think your years in the realm of hoops provide a particularly keen vantage point
that many of us do not have. I must, however, disagree a bit with your bottom line. The
documentary is for sure a hagiography and not a complete and penetrating portrait of this
complex man who lived a life full of contradictions and messiness. Yet, it seems to me this kind of exploration would be better served in a book whose purpose was to reveal the
Russell story in all of its shades of grey. It seems to me the producers of this film wanted to focus 98% of the project on why Russell is considered such an important figure in the history of basketball and the larger context of the social justice struggle for African Americans. While I agree it was too heavy on repeated talking heads saying essentially the same things in their unabashed adulation of Russell, I still found myself enjoying the many anecdotes I either didn’t know or long since forgotten along with the amazing footage of famous greats like Cousy, Baylor, West, Dr. J etc.
Fair point, Kevin, can’t say I disagree, so thank you for highlighting this point of view. I do think the filmmaker made a conscious choice about the 98% focus as you say, and the choice about what to “leave out” of that, which is always a bit tortuous, as I mentioned to start this discussion and can vouch for regarding all the things I left out in this post (which is still the longest one I have ever produced). I think I would just say that in my opinion, it was an unfortunate choice to leave out some of the things he did, especially if he’s anticipating that at least part of his audience won’t have been hoop fans who followed every nook and cranny of Russell’s career and won’t be reading any books about him. For a lot of people, this was the one shot they’ll have at understanding who Russell was, and what the context was for his life, and I fear they’re only getting part of the picture of this quite remarkable, accomplished, and complicated man. I know I only had part of the picture myself, and was surprised to discover what I did once I committed to scratch the itch of all the questions the film raised for me.
Netflix’s two-part documentary “Bill Russell: Legend”, while filled with interesting commentary from former teammates and longtime foes as well as memorable clips of his greatest basketball games, failed to deliver on the complexity that defined Russell’s life beyond basketball. So many questions were left unanswered, which you appropriately raised. Perhaps, those gray areas would have painted a less than rosy picture of his private life, and that is something Sam Pollard likely wanted to avoid, especially coming so quickly on the heels of his death.
Although Russell didn’t break the color barrier in the NBA, he was unquestionably its first black superstar, and his number 6 like Jackie Robinson’s 42 was justifiably retired forever. I also took issue with the manner in which “Bill Russell: Legend” dealt with the rivalry on and off the court with Wilt Chamberlain, arguably the most dominating figure in NBA history. Its portrayal of him was at the very least misleading. It inferred that Wilt signed with the Globetrotters because the money was too good to pass up no matter how much their “clowning” perpetuated black stereotypes. Russell even commented that he refused to become a Globetrotter for that very reason. Pollard failed to mention that Wilt was ineligible to play in the NBA because he left Kansas University before his senior year. Hardship and early entry didn’t exist in 1957. Moreover, when he did sign with the Philadelphia Warriors the following year, he took a pay cut.
Still, for basketball junkies like me, it was a must see. It rekindled so many images of the social and political upheavals of my teen years: Race riots, Vietnam protests, the Civil Rights movement, and decade-long assassinations. Despite the impact these events had on my life, I hate to admit it but they didn’t shadow my daily love of basketball. It’s been a six-decade long love affair. It began in 1960 at the Blackburn College gym in Carlinville, Illinois, where I spent a summer counting how many layups I could make in a row. Soon I was counting my free-throws. Swishes were my three-pointers. When I moved to Eagle Rock in 1962, I spent more hours shooting hoops than studying. The outdoor court at Yosemite Park became my hangout. I played every year for Eagle Rock’s Bee, JV or Varsity basketball teams. At UCLA, I played pick-up games at Pauley Pavilion. I waited for hours in line for those coveted season tickets to Bruin home games for an unbelievable price of $2.50. As a result, I lucked out and saw some of the greatest basketball players to ever grace a court.
One very special afternoon at the student union (Ackerman Hall) I had the privilege to sit in on an informal question and answer session with Bill Russell himself. As a teacher, I set up a basketball league for kids who were under expulsion from the Los Angeles Unified School District. As a father, I coached my children’s park and school teams. As a grandfather, I watch two of my grandsons carry the basketball torch that I’ve held so dear. In a few weeks, March Madness will be here. Some of my old high school friends and basketball teammates will once again face off and try go see whose picks are the best. Perhaps “mad” is the perfect adjective to describe this crazy infatuation I’ve had with the game for 63-years. Vladimir Nabokov put it well–“I think it is all a matter of love; the more you love a memory the stronger and stranger it becomes.”
It didn’t occur to me to pose the important questions that you raise in this post despite having watched and greatly enjoyed watching the two episodes. I was only curious about why neither of his two sons were interviewed. I can only attribute my oversights to the fact that I was so completely transported back in time to my boyhood and adolescent fascination and worship of the players during that era and the deep hostility I felt as a young Laker fan toward Russell and the Celtics that I failed to think more deeply about the production. I did come away with admiration for Russell’s thoughtfulness and activism as it aligns with a lifetime of frustration with the “jock” stereotype and the many athletes that reinforce that stereotype. Russell certainly broke the mold and Kareem came later as a role model of an intelligent, thoughtful athlete. Many thanks for scratching the surface and raising important and thought-provoking questions about Russell’s life. By the way, the question about his marriages to white women is germane and in no way inappropriate.
Fine reflections of a basketball junkie there, Mr. Spencer—I believe you check off on all the symptoms! Also appreciate your defense of Chamberlain from the unfair framing of his Globetrotter stint. I actually thought he wound up being the bigger man in ending that infamous feud with Russell by making a surprise appearance at Russell’s Hall of Fame induction, even though it was Russell who had deeply insulted Chamberlain years before by talking smack about him in a TV interview. Russell seemed sincerely touched by the gesture, though, so I’m glad it worked out for both of them.
Jay, I was certainly moved at various points along the way and of course enjoyed the hell out of all the Memory Lane strolls the film afforded me over two nights. But once Russell took off for L.A. without seemingly looking back, I couldn’t get those two boys out of my head, especially since their sister got so much air time speaking so eloquently and admiringly about her father. Something didn’t feel right about their complete absence, and after the credits rolled Mary and I looked at each other and said, “Now wait a minute…”
Good point on Russell followed by Kareem—power duo, and huge, both of them, in forging identities beyond their basketball prowess.