Bill Russell was the greatest of all time




If we’re all on a playground in the afterlife and picking sides to decide who goes to heaven or hell, then my first choice is Bill Russell.

You can have anyone else you want. You take Michael Jordan, then I get LeBron James. You get Larry Bird, then I get Magic Johnson. Jerry West or Stephen Curry. Etc. They cancel each other out, pretty much, because none of their skill sets are unique. Everyone – everyone you would choose with eternity on the line – would be, first of all, an offensive star from the end of the field.

But I would have Russell, by far the tallest player who barely needed to touch the ball but scored enough for good balance without being fed. I would have Russell, who got the ball back for his team by both rebounding and blocking controlled shots better than anyone, even Wilt Chamberlain. I would have Bill, who covered for his dude but, if you lose yours, make the dude wish that you still defending him.

Russell would subtly change everyone’s game – his whole team is for the better and everyone on your team is for the worse. But no one would make him change his game at all. And we would win. You do not think ? Enjoy the hell.

Russell, who died Sunday at age 88, retired from the NBA in 1969 just before I joined the Washington Post’s athletic department. So I never covered it. And I only met him once. (I just said “Thank you.”)

But, with each decade, as fewer and fewer sportswriters remembered him as a player, as Russell was damned with the low praise of being a legend of an era when most TVs were in black and white, I found myself among a declining group. of the keepers of the flame “Russell is the greatest of all time”. It was the opinion that earned me the most pitying “poor old” looks. But I persist.

Jerry Brewer: Bill Russell made America better by demanding better of America

Russell is not the GOAT because he has 11 rings, more than anyone in any professional sport, and has done so in 13 seasons. Russell almost had an “undefeated” career – every world title, every year.

He’s not the GOAT because he was the greatest defenseman in NBA history. In fact, he may be the greatest defensive force in any of the four major sports – more effective at preventing goals than any NFL passer, NHL goalie or pitcher who doesn’t. only starts every few days.

And Russell isn’t the GOAT just because of his skills: rebounding (22.5 per game), shot blocking (all-time best), enough points (15.1 points), smart passing and triggering the fast break with out passes as well as any big man. for ever.

Russell was all of that, as well as the player-manager of his last two championship teams. However, what Russell had more than any player I have ever seen in any sport was a fierce, indomitable seriousness, allied to elite intelligence regarding both his sport and the psychological weaknesses of his opponent. His walk to center court evoked a wise and menacing warrior.

Russell sprinted onto the pitch – sweat dripping from his goatee, his long limbs pumping – as if ready to die of exhaustion before allowing his team to lose. His presence, his competitive threat, his fearless and reckless abandon in the air, and his desire to peer into the opponent’s psyche and smash crucial equipment made him exhilarating and frightening to watch.

I remind my colleagues that Russell was 6ft 10in tall, but his wingspan was 7ft 4in. In a famous anecdote, Russell met his perfect foil – Chamberlain – for a photo shoot when Wilt entered the NBA. Photographers wanted a side-by-side, the implication being that the chiseled, 7-foot-1, 275-pound Wilt was Goliath to Russell’s lanky David.

Then Russell called for a shot with both holding their hands as far as they could reach above their heads. With his long arms, Russell had a fingertip advantage. Bill was taller in some basketball sense – and as a college high jump champion, Russell probably had a vertical advantage.

Anyone who thinks Russell hasn’t “played big enough” for this century is probably wrong.

Now, for the confession before this GOAT thing gets overdone, in a week when we should just be united in celebrating a distinguished American life. I am biased. Russell was, and still is, my favorite athlete of all time.

Russell broke into the NBA in 1956, the same year I became a sports-addicted kid. The Celtics topped the NBA’s weekly national telecast, so Washingtonians got to see it often. The fact that he became one of the most prominent athletes to take strong political positions in the 1960s – and throughout his life – only added to my admiration at the time and keep his memory powerfully relevant today.

In Honor Of Bill Russell’s 11 Songs, Here Are 11 Of His Greatest Moments

I didn’t go to college in New England because the Celtics were on TV there. But, given what I could see from 1965 to 1969, that might have been a good reason.

In those four playoffs, Russell faced Wilt. In the first three years, Wilt was joined in Philadelphia by three other future Hall of Famers – Hal Greer, Chet “the Jet” Walker and Billy Cunningham, as well as towering stars Luke Jackson and Wali “Wonder” Jones. . In two of those years, six-time All-Star Larry Costello came off the bench.

In the fourth season, Wilt was traded to the Lakers to join Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, creating a Supernova three-team that the 21st Century has not matched, as at the time some believed that trio included the best guard, front and center in history.

The Celtics have won the title in three of those four years.

In Russell’s last game – a Game 7 for the ring, naturally – Chamberlain took just eight shots and was so competitive by Russell’s ownership throughout his career that the Lakers put him on the line. bench in the last moments of a match 108-106.

Was Wilt rattled that Russell would pick the bigger spot to smash his “unblockable” jump shot or dismiss his fearsome power dunk? Or did fear of the free-throw line (45% that year) spoil it too?

In those 1969 Finals, Russell held off Chamberlain, who was still powerful enough offensively to average 27 points the Next season, at 11.7 points per game. Celtics players Larry Siegfried and Don Nelson beat Wilt – while playing a fraction of his minutes.

In his early years, Russell had Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Tom Heinsohn, Frank Ramsey, Sam Jones and KC Jones — all future Hall of Famers — as running mates. But when I watched him in college, ever ready to play 48 minutes a game in the playoffs, Russell turned the great John Havlicek and an aging Sam Jones, as well as modestly gifted obscure men like Em Bryant, Siegfried, Nelson and Satch Sanders, in Champions.

At the last two titles, Russell was also the coach, while Red Auerbach became team president.

Many who knew Russell personally will cite all the injustices he endured and overcame in his life to form a complex character full of insight, conscience and depth.

I only know what I saw. For eternity, I will choose Bill.

Sign up for our weekly NBA newsletter to get the best basketball coverage in your inbox