Ever seen 87 candles on a birthday cake?
I hadn’t, either, until last Friday. That’s when the video surfaced of Bill Russell celebrating the 87th anniversary of his birth.
“Whew, I made it to 87!” exclaimed Russell in the video. “I want to thank my wife for another amazing cake, and the small forest fire upon it. Thanks [Shawn Kemp, Jr.] for standing by with the fire extinguisher just in case. Next time bring a CPR kit!”
Of course, Russell managed to blow out all 87 candles. What else would you expect from the greatest of all time?
There’s been quite a bit of discussion on this topic since Tom Brady led his Bucs to their Super Bowl win. Being Brady’s seventh title, and being independent of the Patriots system, this win apparently launched Brady into first breath in the GOAT discussion.
Only Otto Graham, the great Browns quarterback of the ‘40s and ‘50s, can match Brady’s seven titles. But four of Graham’s titles came in the old All-America Football Conference, which the Browns dominated to such an extent that they ruined the league.
And while we’re talking Browns, Jim Brown remains the best back I ever saw carry a football in the NFL. Yet his Browns won but a single title.
Yogi Berra’s a worthy candidate for GOAT discussion. He played on 10 World Series winners, though during a time when his Yankees dominated the American League. Berra came up with DiMaggio’s Yankees, and played with Mantle’s Yankees, but it was Berra who knocked in the most runs. All the while managing the pitching staff and calling games behind the plate.
But was Berra better than Babe Ruth?
And if titles are definitive, which Montreal Canadiens player would you choose: Henri Richard (11 titles), or Jean Beliveau and Yvon Cournoyer (10 each).
Myriad worthy names have been tossed into the discussion. But there has generally been one glaring omission: William Felton Russell.
So glaring, in fact, that Russell sent out a tweet last week, showing him wearing his 11 championship rings with the comment “You’re getting closer.”
Perhaps his omission is a result of the dwindling number of those of us who actually saw him play. His game really needed to be seen to be appreciated. Maybe we’ve become victims of the modern hype machine, fueled by ESPN, where whatever is happening now is the biggest, the best ever, and not to be missed.
But if we’re talking team sports, the goal is to win the championship. And no one in the history of sports was a greater champion than Bill Russell.
He led the University of San Francisco to back-to-back NCAA championships in ’55 and ’56, the Dons’ only titles. Russell then led the USA to the gold medal in the Melbourne Olympics.
Only then did he join the Celtics, who hadn’t won a thing prior to his arrival. They proceeded to win 11 titles in Russell’s 13 years. The last two came with Russell as player-coach.
Russell’s Celtics reached the NBA Finals 12 times, and he made 12 all-star teams. He was voted the NBA MVP five times, and the NBA Finals MVP award is now named in his honor.
The ultimate team player, Russell averaged only 15.1 points per game, but dished out 4.5 assists, a robust number for a big man. He also averaged an incredible 22.5 rebounds per game.
Russell’s Celtics were known for their fast-break style of play. It was Russell, the defensive workhorse and rebounder extraordinaire, who ignited that fast break.
The NBA didn’t keep track of blocked shots during Russell’s era, so his astounding numbers are lost to history. But Russell realized that blocking a shot and sending the ball into the fifth row of the stands really didn’t do his team any good, intimidation factor aside.
Russell devised a technique of blocking a shot by swatting at the side of the ball, spinning it, and causing it to stop in mid-air. The ball would then fall into Russell’s arms, and his outlet pass would ignite another Celtics fast break.
Russell also revolutionized the way defense was played in the NBA.
Quoting his legends profile at NBA.com, “His ability to leave his man and slide over to cover an opponent driving to the hoop was startling. He was unmatched at swooping across the lane like a bird to block and alter shots. The rest of the Celtics defenders began to funnel their men toward Russell and became more daring with their perimeter defense, knowing that he was looming behind.”
For those who prefer more modern metrics, Basketball-Reference gives Russell a defensive win share of 133.64 for his career. Translated, that means Russell’s defensive abilities accounted for over 133 wins during his career. A distant second on the list is Tim Duncan, with 106.34.
So not only is Russell the greatest champion of all time, he’s also the greatest NBA defender of all time, and probably the greatest team player of all time.
If that doesn’t make Bill Russell the greatest of all time, you’re entitled to your opinion. Just make sure you include him in the discussion.