As we enter Michael-Fest this weekend at the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, hagiography is blurring history a little.
Michael Jordan is the “The Best Ever.” ESPN The Magazine says so in a special Hall of Fame issue. The Chicago Bulls website says so. (You’d expect someone else?) Many, many followers of the NBA think that is the case as well.
It’s become unfashionable, bad form and even blasphemous these days to suggest otherwise. Not to diminish or devalue what Jordan did; he is, unquestionably, the greatest player of his time. But of all time?
I recently came across this quote from Bulls executive John Paxson, a former teammate of Jordan’s: “I know I’m biased because I played with him, but in my mind, he’s easily the greatest player to ever play. I don’t know how you can match what he did on the floor or his winning.”
It’s the second sentence, not the first, which calls for a response. Specifically, the last three words: “or his winning.”
Michael Jordan won a lot. He won six NBA titles. He won two Olympic Gold medals. He won an NCAA title. You’d want him on your starting five if the fate of western civilization was on the line. But, Mr. Paxson his “winning” doesn’t come close to matching that of one William Felton Russell. No one’s does.
So, if you define greatness as success, or as achieving your goal constantly above all else and all others, there is no one in the history of American team sports, not just the NBA, who won more than Bill Russell.
This isn’t a case of a Boston bias. In 1980, the Professional Basketball Writers Association named Russell as the greatest player in NBA history. He had retired 11 years earlier after a remarkable record that, in all likelihood, will go unmatched. He played 13 seasons in the NBA and his teams won 11 NBA championships, including eight in a row. It lost in the Finals one year when he was hurt. Nobody, not even Jordan, put up numbers like that.
Russell completely revolutionized the game. Until he came around, the notion that a defensive-oriented center could dominate and control a game was unthinkable. But he did. He did it with a combination of amazing athleticism (he also was a high jumper at the University of San Francisco), timing, jumping ability and, above all else, intelligence. There probably weren’t many games when Russell played that he wasn’t the smartest player on the floor.
There was no model for Bill Russell when he entered the NBA in the 1956-57 season. He wasn’t the logical “Next Player XX.’ He set the mold. The Celtics had a good team when he joined them – as opposed to Jordan, who joined a terrible Chicago team – but it had never so much as advanced to the NBA Finals, even with Hall of Famers like Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman on the roster. Russell changed all that – and in his very first season.
Jordan, too, revolutionized the game in one aspect: no guard had ever led a team to the success the Bulls had in the 1990s. While he seemed to be the logical descendant of Elgin Baylor and Julius Erving, they never matched his success. Jordan won three titles with Luc Longley for goodness sakes.
But back to the winning. Here is a remarkable statistic that cuts right to the chase. Over his basketball career, including college, Olympics and the NBA, Bill Russell participated in 21 games which, for lack of a better term, can be called “winner take all” games. His record in those games: 21-0. In the NBA alone, Russell competed in 11 such games, 10 Game 7’s and one Game 5 in a best-of-fiver. The Celtics won all of them.
Jordan first played in a winner-take-all game in the NBA in 1988, his fourth year in the league, when the Bulls won Game 5 against the Cavs. They won another Game 5 the following year (“The Shot” against the Cavaliers) and then lost in 1990 to the Pistons in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. The only other Game 7’s on Jordan’s resume were in 1992 (second round against the Knicks) and 1998 (Eastern Conference Finals against Indiana.) The Bulls won those as well.
That was Jordan’s time and while the Bulls didn’t dominate the way Russell’s Celtics dominated, they were pretty much unbeatable over an eight-year stretch. (They might well have won in 1994, without Jordan, save for a brutal officiating call against the Knicks in the second round of the playoffs.)
You couldn’t escape Jordan or the Bulls during that span. Cable television, ESPN, sports talk radio – all of that started to emerge or was emerging as the Bulls began their run. By then, of course, the NBA playoffs were televised and the Finals were in prime time.
But who saw Russell all those years, other than the fans at the games? There was scant television coverage. There basically was Johnny Most’s not-to-be-missed accounts from “high above courtside” and the newspaper morgues. That was it.
But they did play the games in the 1950s and 1960s.
Yes, you could argue that Russell benefited from a shorter season, not as much travel, a lighter playoff schedule. All of that is true. But Russell averaged an astonishing 42.3 minutes a game (second only to Wilt Chamberlain’s 45.8.) He battled Wilt, Oscar, Bob Pettit, Elgin and Jerry West on an annual basis. After Russell’s very first playoff game, Dolph Schayes, himself a future Hall of Famer, wondered how much Russell made and whether his team could put together enough cash to pay Russell to stop playing for five years.
I didn’t come to bury Jordan. I came to praise Russell. Michael deserves the accolades and the acclaim, but if the gold standard in sports is winning, and it should be, then no one was greater than Bill Russell. Twenty-nine years ago he was deemed the best in NBA history. Seems like a keeper to me.