Film clips speak louder than words in HBO’s “Sports of the 20th Century” presentation of the life of Boston Celtics basketball great Bill Russell, a kind of Cliffs Notes look at the most successful team player of modern times. Russell is a complex individual — an iconoclast and an intellectual, an activist and a pioneer. And while this HBO docu hits all the right notes, it serves more as a mnemonic (or an introduction, to those hearing about Russell for the first time) than a valedictory — the type of defining work viewers have come to expect from HBO Sports.
Russell’s legend has enjoyed a renaissance of late with the fin de siecle rush to measure sports heroes, and this treatment certainly puts things in proper perspective, concerning itself as much with Russell’s contributions as a champion of civil rights as it does with his role as leader of sports’ most dominant dynasty.
He grew up in Monroe, La., but the key moment of his young life came after the family had moved to Oakland. Russell, then 9, was slapped by a boy in a gang. His mother, Katie, made him fight each boy in the gang one by one. Russell, a skinny kid, earned split decisions, but his mother’s lesson wasn’t about winning or losing. “She said the important thing is the willingness to fight for yourself,” Russell says, his eyes glistening as the memory becomes fresh again.
Docu places Russell on the Jackie Robinson timeline of black advancement in sports. Russell became the first black coach of a U.S. pro team in 1967, when he succeeded Red Auerbach as coach of the Celtics. In the mid-’50s, just seven years after Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, and four years after the National Basketball Assn. was integrated, Russell was leading a U. of San Francisco team to 55 straight victories and two NCAA titles.
Russell literally fought his way through the racism he experienced in college, bristling at the taunts of students and the stacks of hate mail the team received.
In the early ’60s, playing on an exhibition tour with the Celtics in Lexington, Ky., he led black players on a boycott of the game after they were refused service in a hotel dining room. Days earlier, when the Celtics were similarly mistreated at latenight restaurants in Marion, Ind., the entire team paid a wakeup call to the mayor to return the keys to the city they had received a few hours earlier.
In his spare time with the Celtics, Russell was the defensive genius who redefined the sport, winning 11 titles in 13 seasons.
While the stories included in the docu are worthy, writer Frank Deford undercut himself months earlier by publishing an even more detailed piece on Russell in Sports Illustrated. Still more of the story told here had already surfaced on ESPN’s 30-minute “Sports Century” docu, a piece done without Russell’s cooperation.
HBO’s real coup in “My Life, My Way” is getting the notoriously publicity-shy Russell to face the camera, where his ready charm and intellect add dimension to his extraordinary achievements. We also hear from many of Russell’s contemporaries — including teammates Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn and John Thompson, coach Red Auerbach, foes Jerry West and Chet Walker, NFL great Jim Brown and Russell’s daughter Karen (who, the docu fails to point out, is a graduate of Harvard Law School).
Missing, though, is the voice of Wilt Chamberlain, who died last year. While the docu takes pains to note that the NBA of the ’60s was the Wilt-and-Bill show, the piece feels incomplete without the Big Dipper’s side of the story.
The old clips culled by footage researchers Meredith Fox and Trevor Schmid are frequently the highlight of the show, but the viewer has to have a keen eye, since much of what goes on doesn’t exactly match Liev Shreiber’s voiceover. While it’s all splendid stuff for Biography 101, it’s a bit elementary coming from HBO and Deford, who might reasonably be expected to dish up their usual master’s thesis. Perhaps they might have tackled the story of how two men who appear so different — the abrasive Auerbach and the easily offended Russell — managed to forge the most successful relationship in sports history. Now that would have been something nobody’s done before.