The life and career of Hall of Fame NBA player Bill Russell is celebrated in the Netflix documentary “Bill Russel: Legend,” released on the streaming platform February 8. On the court, Russell was a force to be reckoned with – a champion who sacrificed himself for his teammates and love of basketball. Off the court, he was a force in the fight for human rights – marching with the great Martin Luther King Jr., pioneering NBA boycotts and fighting against racism.
The film is narrated by actors Jeffrey Wright and Corey Stoll and features exclusive interviews with the icon’s family and friends as well as Steph Curry, Chris Paul, “Magic” Johnson, Larry Bird, Jim Brown and more. Critics are unanimously praising the project that currently holds a perfect 100% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Read our review roundup below.
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Brian Lowry of CNN writes, “Bill Russell is often shortchanged by those lists of the greatest NBA players, so leave it to fellow all-stars of his era Bill Bradley (‘The smartest player that ever played the game’) and Jerry West (‘We’re never going to see a winner like that again’) to appropriately eulogize him in ‘Bill: Russell Legend,’ a two-part Netflix documentary that covers the Boston Celtics great’s triumphs on the court, and activism off of it.” The winner of eleven championships throughout his career, the subject utilized his celebrity status to shine a light on multiple issues, but especially inequality. “As Pollard emphasizes, Russell reflected a different attitude on the requirements of his celebrity, refusing to sign autographs and feeling a strong connection to the Celtics organization and his coach, Red Auerbach, but saying he owed nothing to the city itself.” Lowry concludes, “Auerbach famously lit up a cigar when he knew a game was in the bag, and one suspects he’d light up a big fat stogie taking in the three-plus hours of ‘Bill Russell: Legend.’ Because even for this Lakers fan, it’s a winner.”
Danielle Solzman of Solzy at the Movies notes that “Documentary filmmaker Sam Pollard hits a slam dunk with a two-part documentary, ‘Bill Russell: Legend,’ about the NBA great. Off the court, he was an activist in the Civil Rights movement. Russell spoke out against segregation. He joined a number of Black athletes in showing solidarity with the late Muhammad Ali when the boxer chose not to fight in the Vietnam War. The list goes on and on–no stone goes unturned in this two-part documentary.” She concludes, “You can make the argument that Bill Russell is the winningest player across all of the major sports leagues. When we talk about the greatest players of all time, he is a player that must be in the conversation. If you want my opinion, Bill Russell is the greatest basketball player ever. It’s only a shame that Bill Russell isn’t alive to see it. Thankfully, the film was in the works since 2020 so Pollard manages to get Russell’s final interview–interviewed by executive producer Mike Richardson–on camera before his passing. The guy was still sharp!”
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Brian Tallerico of RogerEbert.com praises Netflix for becoming a streamer that produces top notch sports documentaries. “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. He was the first Black superstar NBA player, and he never forgot what that meant.” In closing, Tallerico writes, “The best documentaries don’t reduce their subject to the public impression of them but unpack what even fans didn’t know to make them more three-dimensional than a highlight reel. I respected what Bill Russell meant to the NBA before this project. Now I respect what he meant to history.”
Nick Schager of The Daily Beast provides a list of the icon’s accomplishments, saying, “Bill Russell is the greatest winner in the history of American professional sports. Over the course of his 13-year career with the Boston Celtics, the 6-foot-10-inch center won 11 championships, the last two of which were earned while he was serving as both player and head coach. He also netted two national titles, one Olympic gold medal, five NBA MVP awards, and 12 NBA All-Star honors. Renowned for his rebounding, shot-blocking, and all-around defensive prowess, he’s so synonymous with NBA success that the league’s Finals MVP award is now named after him…Disinterested in kowtowing to the expectations of others, intensely loyal to his teammates and his coach, defiant in the face of prejudice aimed at himself and his countrymen, and committed to doing what’s right no matter the arena, Russell was, as Larry Bird succinctly puts it, ‘a stand-up man’ in every respect.” Schager concludes, “Russell is the gold standard for sports excellence, not only because of his peerless accolades but because, as ‘Bill Russell: Legend’ illustrates, he embodied the noble ideals of selflessness, togetherness, and liberty and justice for all. He was a titan on the Boston Garden’s parquet floor, and—more importantly—a shining example to which all future athletes should aspire.”
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