Having left behind a legacy spanning thirteen eventful years, William Felton Russell made quite an impact both on and off the court. He is known not only for his superior basketball skills but also for using his powerful and influential voice to talk about things that really matter. From the year 1956 to 1969, he held the strong center for the basketball team, Boston Celtics. With eleven championships to his name, his fame spread far and wide across America at a time when being a Black man was a challenge. Segregation and discrimination were at an all-time high, and people of color chose to migrate from place to place without having one state to call home. We can’t even begin to imagine the turbulent times Bill and other basketball players of African American origin had to go through during those tense times. The documentary, directed by Sam Pollard, charts the journey undertaken by Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics, right from his varsity days to becoming the head coach of the beloved team.
The documentary features some very familiar faces from the world of basketball and some of Bill’s closest friends and competitors. The archival footage from his matches and previous interviews, coupled with the narration from his memoirs, all come together to form a very comprehensive picture of his momentous life. Bill was drafted into the National Basketball Association after winning the American national team a gold medal in the 1956 Summer Olympics. He was newly married and away from the sport for just a month. However, all good players know how one’s game gets impacted in just a mere month. Being a Black man, he faced a lot of racist comments and boos from the audience if he missed a shot or was unable to play properly. Bill knew he had to work twice as hard as his teammates to prove his worth and make a place for himself on the team. Even the media and sportswriters of that time used harsh language and a different slant while covering the news that involved Bill. He had a unique way of playing defense, as he jumped higher than most players to stop the ball from reaching the basket. While hesitant at first, coaches began seeing that as a revolutionary way to plan a team’s defense. In many ways, Bill spearheaded a valuable defense strategy for the future.
In one of his career seasons, he managed to win 55 games and numerous NCAA championships, despite which he was not awarded the player of the year award. It seemed like a slap in the face because he wasn’t getting the recognition he so clearly deserved. Throughout his life, race has played a monumental role in deciding where his life takes him. From restaurants and bars to real estate agents, everyone refused to serve a black man and alienated him and his family from the rest of the neighborhood. On the other hand, Bill remained calm for a long time. He knew he had to first carve out a powerful position for himself and then take action that could have a wider impact. He infused his gameplay with all the anger and rage he accumulated off-screen. Bill’s grandfather had first-hand slavery experiences, so he knew what it meant to be a black man in America in the 1950s. The journey was never easy, and nothing was handed to him on a platter. He had to work hard and earn a name that echoed across the stadiums and halls of basketball. A life of respect and dignity was all he ever wanted. Segregation, lynching, and incidents of violence were extremely commonplace. Bill knew playing basketball was not a solution to these worrisome problems, but he could at least make an impact in this way.
Bill’s career took off further when an ambitious and supportive coach put his focus on him. Arnold “Red” Auerbach of the Boston Celtics knew he wanted Bill to be on his team at any cost. He encouraged Bill to play good defense and rebound, which is what he is known for to date. The team owed their first NBA win to Bill and his incredible strategies. Being a visual learner and an art lover, Bill used to see the play in his brain before actually executing it. He believed in the power of art and creativity in making each shot in the game rather than using brute force and aggression. As he so eloquently put it, “Basketball is more ballet than brawl.” Despite this massive fame that he gained because of the NBA wins, people loved to see him on the court but refused to accept him as part of their society and neighborhood. They messed with his house and family. Bill eventually had to get a gun permit to keep his family safe. In the meantime, Red wanted to create an unbreakable and undefeatable team. To this effect, he drafted two more black men into the team and went on to create history by having five black players in the starting line-up. Even then, the reporters and sportswriters were more focused on the journey and actions of their white counterparts. It is deeply upsetting to see people maligning the name of the sport along with the players who made it as great as it is today.
Bill Russell had a few tough competitors in his day. One of them was Wilt Chamberlain. Stadiums used to sell out to see these two titans of basketball go toe-to-toe in tournaments. While they developed a friendly relationship off the court, their rivalry and competitive spirit shone brightly on the basketball court. Looking at such instances, we are bound to believe that the NBA’s commercial success is because of black players like Bill Russell. Nonetheless, they exploited them for marketing and advertising purposes without giving them the credit and recognition that they deserved. In a game in Lexington, the hotel denied service to the black players on the team. Subsequently, the players refused to play the game itself. Even then, the media chose to paint them as bad guys who were selfish and inconsiderate in their decisions. People during that time believed in shoving issues under the carpet rather than talking about them and giving them the attention they needed.
In 1963, Bill Russell and his family were recognized and celebrated at a banquet in Reading. Everyone spoke very highly of the player and his contribution to the sport. However, the praise was short-lived. When Bill decided to buy another property in the area, a petition was signed by the neighbors prohibiting him from doing so. This goes on to show how ignorant and racist those times must have been. Being the hardheaded and stubborn person that he is, Bill decided not to let anyone tell him what he could and could not do. He knew he had a lot to combat in life, and like on the court, he would always have to be on defense off the court as well. Consequently, he joined Martin Luther King in his all-out war against segregation and discrimination. The Civil Rights Movement of 1963 saw various prominent people coming together to battle the long-standing racist mindset in people. Bill received death threats and faced extensive criticism, but he went on with a dream to have a world with equal opportunities for his kids and grandkids.
On the court, Bill had always been deemed a calculative and precise player. He mapped the entire court before the game and visualized all his gameplay from the beginning. To the media, he had always remained a moody and arrogant player who often refused to comment or sign an autograph. And on the other hand, the media has always remained ignorant and dismissive of the deep-rooted issues of racism prevalent in the country. Despite being a national player, nobody owns Bill Russell. Everyone is free to watch him play, but when he is off the court, he is not public property. He held this belief very close to him and always functioned based on his morals and principles.
Further in his career, after Red retired, Bill took on the mantle of coach for the Boston Celtics. Bill always worked with the vision to be the best, to play with every fiber of his being. When he could no longer deliver on that vision, he decided to retire and live a life besides the sport. Moreover, what use is it to play a game where people cheer you on the court but abuse and harass you on the street? Bill embodied what it genuinely meant to be a true athlete. His team spirit and familial bonding with everyone on his team showed in their games. Bill understood the importance of togetherness and cooperation in a team sport. He believed in winning at the end of the day, no matter who scored the most points. While many people believed it was luck that made the Celtics dynasty so famous and unbeatable, the team and Bill knew what hard work went into making their dreams come true.