(August 1) The greatest basketball player who ever lived was Bill Russell, who died Sunday at age 88.

Apologies to Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and other claimants to the “greatest ever” title, but, as superb as they are, Russell stands alone.

Basketball is a team game, and it is indisputable that Russell made everyone else around him a more effective player. He didn’t really care about his own statistics (although they were phenomenal); he just cared about winning. And win he did. A rebounding specialist and extremely smart, team-oriented player, he won two NCAA championships in college. He won an Olympic gold medal. In his first year for the Boston Celtics, he led the NBA team to its first-ever championship. He led them to the finals again the next year, but when he injured his ankle in the final series, they couldn’t win without him at full strength. Then, they won titles in 10 of the next 11 years, with him as not just a player but also head player-coach for the final two seasons.

Just as the Celtics won no titles before he joined them, so they also failed even to reach the finals in the first four years after he left. And even his fiercest on-court rival (but off-court friend), superstar Wilt Chamberlain, recognized that Russell was the only one who could have led the way to those astonishing 11 titles in 13 years. “If I had played for the Celtics instead of Russell, I doubt they would have been as great,” Chamberlain said in retrospect in 1996.

Stylistically, Russell was an innovator, turning the blocked shot into both an element of intimidation and an art form. That lesson was not lost on one of his Celtics understudies, John Thompson, who built an NCAA championship-winning Georgetown team around a similar shot-blocking and shot-altering center, Patrick Ewing. With the attention from those Ewing teams, Thompson in turn used his fame as a platform for insisting that college basketball was about education first and foremost — a message Russell vocally supported. … [The full column is here.]


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