The hard-driving Bill Russell of yore shows up, ever so briefly, in "Iconoclasts," the Sundance Channel documentary that premieres tonight. He reminisces, at one point, about his championship days: To succeed, he says, "I had to be in a state of positive rage."
But it's hard to watch Russell at 71 and see the angry man who towered over Boston during 13 Celticsseasons. This portrait, told through the eyes of actor Samuel L. Jackson, is all about the grumpy old Russell of today, goofy and sometimes disarmingly gentle.
"I'm a genuine, certified old person," he says at one point, eyes glinting. "One of the things that come with growing old is you get a chance to be cranky if you want to be. And it's all, `He's just old.' "
If only he told us more about the days when he didn't have that excuse. But that might be hard to achieve in "Iconoclasts." The six-part series, which launches tonight, enlists celebrities to interview other celebrities they admire. Upcoming installments include fashion designer Tom Ford on artist Jeff Koons and actress Renee Zellweger on journalist Christiane Amanpour.
There are things to be gained and lost from this format, and it's easy to dwell on what's lost. Russell's legacy was victory, but also provocation: the way his words and silence roiled his sport. But Jackson doesn't pry into the hard stuff this is less an in-depth interview than a mutual admiration fest, plus a chance to watch two famous people playing golf.
Jackson and Russell drive. They putt. They praise each other. They chat over meals. It would be maddeningly self-congratulatory if there weren't something small to be gained.
Fortunately, there's a difference between talking to a journalist and a friend, even when the friend brings a camera crew. Amid the jokes and praise, Jackson and Russell share some telling stories about the world they occupy, where race is ever present. Jackson describes playing golf at a Mississippi country club during the filming of "A Time to Kill": "Every lawn mower stopped cutting, every bird stopped singing."
And Russell hints again at his old self when he recalls being passed over for a college MVP award: "I said, `I cannot in any good conscience have any regard for these people' " so when he won the trophy the following year, he tossed it in the trash.
Still, "Iconoclasts" doesn't reveal great truths about frustration, basketball, or the place Russell occupied in 1960s Boston. It's a show about the present, where the deepest moments come from the throwaway lines. At Russell's Seattle home, Jackson asks why there's no basketball hoop on the wall. He figures the legend would practice free throws, "so you know you've still got it."
Russell shrugs. "I don't still have it," he says. He doesn't seem to mind.