Bill Russell: who was first Black NBA superstar and civil rights icon featured in Netflix documentary Legend?

The first Black head coach in NBA history features in new Netflix documentary Bill Russell: Legend 

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New two-part Netflix documentary Bill Russell: Legend pays tribute to the life of one of the greatest basketball players of all time and an icon in the Civil Rights Movement. The biographical series hears from NBA legends Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Seth Curry, as well as the man himself - Bill Russell.

Barack Obama also speaks on the documentary about Russell’s successes both on and off the court - as the player was also known for his involvement in the Black Power movement and his protests against the racism that he experienced throughout his career.

Who was Bill Russell?

William Russell was a trailblazing American basketball player who played for the Boston Celtics in the NBA from 1956 to 1969. During his 13 years with the Celtics the team won 11 championships - he was also named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player five times and was a 12-time NBA All-Star.

Bill Russell was an NBA superstar and civil rights iconBill Russell was an NBA superstar and civil rights icon
Bill Russell was an NBA superstar and civil rights icon

Russell was also captain of the US basketball team at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, where they won gold. He stood at 6 ft 10 tall and had an arm span of over 7 ft, making him an intimidating presence on the court. Because of his many successes in the sport, he is regarded as one of the greatest basketball players of all time.

As well as his award successes, Russell was also a pioneer, becoming the first Black basketball player to achieve superstar status in the NBA. He was selected into the NBA 25th, 35th, and 75th anniversary teams - he was also named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history in 1996.

Was Bill Russell involved in the Civil Rights Movement?

Russell experienced racist abuse throughout his life - he and other Black players were denied rooms at hotels and turned away from restaurants in southern states during the time of Segregation.

He took part in a Celtics boycott in 1961, refusing to play an exhibition game as part of a protest against racism. He was active in the Black Power movement, purchased land in Libya, was the first NBA player to visit Africa, and lent his support to Muhammad Ali when he refused to be drafted in the Vietnam War.

Russell became the first Black NBA head coach in 1966, but continued to face racial abuse even at the height of his career. During his time as coach of the Celtics, vandals broke into his home, left racist abuse on the walls and defecated in his bed.

Barack Obama presented Bill Russell with the presidential Medal of FreedomBarack Obama presented Bill Russell with the presidential Medal of Freedom
Barack Obama presented Bill Russell with the presidential Medal of Freedom

Due to his experience with so-called fans as well as with the community more widely, Russell saw Boston as a racist city and avoided visiting in the years after his retirement, though he returned there in later years.

He shared an image of him taking a knee to his Twitter account in 2017 in solidarity with American sports stars who were protesting against racism across the country.

In 2011, American President Barack Obama awarded Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his accomplishments in both basketball and the Civil Rights Movement. After his death the NBA retired Russell’s number 6 jersey across the league - he is the only NBA player to have had this honour.

When did Bill Russell die?

Russell died at his home in Washington on 31 July 2022, aged 88 - figures from the basketball world and beyond left tributes to the late legend. Magic Johnson said: Bill “Russell was my idol. I looked up to him on the court and off. His success on the court was undeniable; he was dominate and great, winning 11 NBA championships. Off the court, Bill Russell paved the way for guys like me.”

Barack Obama stated: “Today, we lost a giant. As tall as Bill Russell stood, his legacy rises far higher—both as a player and as a person.”

When is Bill Russell: Legend on Netflix?

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