Giants On and Off the Court

REVIEW: ‘Bill Russell: Legend’ and ‘Goliath’

(Wikimedia Commons)
August 26, 2023

Basketball has become a numbers game—it’s moneyball, as we say, a lot of somewhat slender-looking guys throwing three pointers. The last legend is Steph Curry, four-time champion, who apparently trains for perfect shooting. Is he a man or a machine? He’s a success, obviously very clever, but the excitement is gone. Basketball is more of a nerd’s game now. It’s been rationalized. Probably every part of training is algorithmic—less playing the game, more gaming the game.

When I was a kid, the best to have done it played—Michael Jordan, the unbeatable man with his unbeatable team, leading the Chicago Bulls to three consecutive championship victories. Twice. Basketball then was perfect. Man and mind were in balance. There was still violence in the game, but the art shone through. It was beautiful.

Michael’s twin powers as team leader and unstoppable offensive player were previously seen in two different men, when basketball was just being perfected in the 1960s. Bill Russell, the leader of the almost undefeatable Celtics, who won 11 championships, including two as player-coach, a team player and a great defender. And Wilt Chamberlain, who changed teams a couple of times, ending at the Lakers, the great Celtics’ rival. Wilt only had two championship victories, but more personal records than most teams, being the most astonishing athlete of his generation.

Their rivalry defined the decade and drove the development of a game played by daring and smart athletes who thrived on competition. Now, the rivalry is coming back on TV for a new generation: Netflix has released a two-part miniseries, Bill Russell: Legend, and Showtime has its own Wilt Chamberlain miniseries Goliath. Both are around three hours and very comfortable viewing, the mix of stills, video, and interviews with sources and celebrities you’re used to from documentaries. The only unusual element is an AI Wilt voice (his estate apparently approved this ugly gesture). It’s remarkable how revealing and emotional these series are—it’s part of American middlebrow entertainment, a great true story rather than a remarkable artistry in the production.

Russell and Wilt show us two sides of America. Wilt is all about the meritocracy, as we call it, but if we were to speak without a moralizing jargon, we’d say that this love of victory is about transforming freedom into excellence. In America, we often want the best man to win. We wish to be lifted up to a higher level ourselves. The achievement of excellence is in a way even patriotic—fulfilling the American dream, acting on the hopes we all share.

Russell is all about leadership, about bringing people together for common success, thinking about winning games and winning championships rather than standing up for himself. Russell was also an important voice for civil rights for black people, both as an athlete and helping activists in Mississippi and elsewhere at a time when this, unlike sports, required real courage. Bill Russell was also a successful writer, because he liked to reflect on his experience and criticize people, more or less as a teacher would—it’s why he was also a good coach. Quotes from his memoirs are read by Jeffrey Wright (the new Morgan Freeman, an avuncular voice that conveys friendly authority).

There is much more to say, but you have to watch the series to notice the importance of sports in America at a time when there wasn’t much money involved and when the most important players were not social media celebrities. (I liked Michael so much as a kid I watched Space Jam—LeBron James maybe felt similar, since he starred in the even more pathetic remake.) To say the least, people looked at Russell and Wilt and saw men, and thought that manliness should matter. Nowadays, we are very worried to even say the word man.

There is, however, one major mistake in these documentaries. The oddity is that these works are increasingly not quite hagiographies, celebrations of figures we already admire the hell out of. Instead we get martyrology, the suggestion that the most important things in the lives of these men was racism, as well as that the only evil in the world is racism. Both of these notions are unfortunate and, in a way, diminish these men. They make them out to be victims instead of indomitable figures who make the impossible seem easy.

There is something that corrupts storytelling too in this attitude. Overcoming prejudice is the only thing that can structure a story, drive a plot, hence the obsession with victimhood. But the problem is that it also means stories get therapeutic. All you can ever hope for is to be a well-adjusted liberal, otherwise you’re psychiatrically unhealthy. This plays a part in pitying Russell for his suffering because of racism, but above all in making Wilt-as-Goliath a figure of pity, a victim of democratic bullying of a freak. Psychologizing Wilt’s endless womanizing is also part of that—the religion of feminism rejecting piously the consequences of sexual liberation.

But the thing I most disliked in these documentaries is seeing Steph Curry talk about his predecessors, especially Russell. It’s not inspiring. I don’t know how he feels or why he was involved. He seems uncomfortable and talks in jargon, as though he were corporate HR and PR, not a man talking about the love that inspired him in the first place.

Bill Russell: Legend is streaming on Netflix. Goliath can be seen on Showtime.

Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation and a film critic for Law & Liberty, the Acton Institute's Religion & Liberty, and the Free Press.