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Director Sam Pollard on 'Bill Russell: Legend'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, we know it's all about football today, it being Super Bowl Sunday and all, but we're going to talk basketball for a minute to hear about one of the icons of that sport - Bill Russell. During his 13-year NBA career, Russell led the Boston Celtics to 11 championships - two as a player coach. He was voted league MVP five times. And now Netflix is out with a new documentary. It's titled, appropriately enough, "Bill Russell: Legend."

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

SAM POLLARD: If it weren't for Bill Russell winning all them championships, would anybody be talking about the Boston Celtics?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: No. Are you kidding? It's no conversation. He was the greatest and most dominant winner we've ever seen in the history of basketball.

MARTIN: That was award-winning director Sam Pollard. His new documentary "Bill Russell: Legend" is streaming now on Netflix. Sam Pollard, thanks so much for talking with us.

POLLARD: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: I have to tell you, you've done so many things - produced and directed and edited award-winning feature films and documentaries. One of those that personally meant a lot to me was "Four Little Girls" about the 1963 Birmingham church bombings. I mean, you've won so many accolades. Why this film and why now? One imagines you could do any number of subjects at this stage of your career. So why did you want to do this film and why now?

POLLARD: Well, I was approached by Ross Greenberg, who used to be the president of HBO Sports, about two years ago to get involved with the film as a director. And there was no hesitation on my part because I grew up in the '60s. I had seen Bill Russell play. I knew about the rivalry between him and Wilt Chamberlain. You know, I thought he was one of the greatest defensive centers who ever played the game. So it was, like, an easy yes for me to say, I'd love to direct this film about Bill Russell. And, you know, for me as a filmmaker, that gave me an opportunity to dig into Bill Russell's life, which was much more complicated than most people know, and that he was not only a great player on the court, but he was a very important human and civil rights activist off the court, too.

MARTIN: Do you kind of get the feeling that, in a way, his story was hiding in plain sight? It seems weird that there hasn't been this kind of full feature-length treatment until now, given the impact that he had. Do you know what I mean?

POLLARD: Yeah, because I think most people see him just as a great sports figure, a legend on the basketball court, and really didn't really dig into how complex his life was off the court. He was a man who grew up in Monroe, La., moved to Oakland with his family when he was a young, young man in his pre-teens. And he learned basketball when he went to Oakland. And he became a major star at USF, went on to win the Olympic gold medal in Australia and then got drafted by the Celtics in '57. But we learned that, you know, he had a very interesting life and complicated life off the court. He was part of the March on Washington. He was at the '67 summit in Cleveland with Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali. He dealt with Boston bussing issues. But he was a very, you know, well-rounded human being who believed that it was not only a responsibility as a player, but the responsibility of an African American man.

MARTIN: Which, again, it just seems interesting that we don't necessarily put him in the same breath as those other kind of prominent athlete activists, you know, like Muhammad Ali. Why do you think it is that that part of his life doesn't seem to have gotten the same kind of attention as other athlete activists like the ones that you named, like Jim Brown, like people who - or even, gosh, even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who's thankfully still with us. Why do you think that is?

POLLARD: I don't think he was as vocal. I mean, he just did what he had to do, and he wasn't as vocal as Ali, as we all know. And he wasn't as aggressive as Jim Brown could be, you know, when he was at his height as an actor and as an activist. So I think he wasn't just - he wasn't as vocal and he didn't have as much exposure as they did. But I think this documentary will reset the clock on that and understand Bill from the other perspective, besides being a phenomenal basketball legend.

MARTIN: One of the things that I think people today don't realize is how much he had to put up with as a player. Like, we certainly know, when it comes to Jackie Robinson, you know, the abuse that was directed at him. And I think maybe it's because we are so used to seeing African Americans as dominant in basketball. We don't remember a lot of the abuse that he had to put up with earlier in his career. And I'm just going to play a short clip about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BILL RUSSELL: LEGEND")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: There was a full house in Kiel Auditorium on that night in December 1956. The ball went up, and Bob Pettit of the Hawks and I jumped for it. Coon. Go back to Africa, you baboon. Watch out, Pettit. You'll get covered with chocolate. There was no doubt who the fans were yelling at. I was the only Negro athlete on either team.

MARTIN: Whew. You know, I think people remember that sort of ugly era in Boston's history, which went on for quite some time, like the racial tension in Boston. I mean, that famous photograph of the African American lawyer about to be, like, speared with a flag right downtown at city government center.

POLLARD: Yeah, during the Boston bussing issue. Yeah.

MARTIN: Exactly. So how did he deal with it? Like, how did he deal with all of that?

POLLARD: Well, first of all, he was a very angry guy about that. I mean, he had a major chip on his shoulder. You know, he didn't love the Boston fans. He didn't love Boston. I mean, he had a lot of issues. And he lived in Reading, Mass. You know, one night, they came back to this house. Somebody had broken in and defecated on the family bed and made - you know, wrote things on the wall and on his garage door. But the thing that Bill Russell was always focused on as a player was being a member of the Celtic family. He could care less, you know, about being someone that the Boston fans would love. But they didn't love him. I mean, we all know that when he became a Celtic, he became the lynchpin that began this dynasty of the Boston Celtics.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, what's important to you? You know, what - is there something in particular you're hoping people will draw from this film?

POLLARD: Yeah, I hope that they walk away understanding that he was not only a great basketball player, but he was also a great man and a complicated man. And there were things that you could take away and say that he was really wonderful and special. There were things you might take away from Bill Russell and say, wow, you know, for him to have - hold this grudge against Wilt Chamberlain for so many years. You know, I want you to understand, like a lot of these films about (inaudible) the complexity of the human being, we're playing up on a screen.

MARTIN: That was award-winning director Sam Pollard. His new documentary, "Bill Russell: Legend," is streaming now on Netflix. Sam Pollard, thanks so much for talking with us.

POLLARD: My pleasure, Michel. Have a good day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Gurjit Kaur
Gurjit Kaur is a producer for NPR's All Things Considered. A pop culture nerd, her work primarily focuses on television, film and music.

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