There are a lot of ridiculous debates in NBA circles about who is the Greatest of All Time — the GOAT — most of them centered around Michael Jordan and the self-promoting LeBron James, who has openly proclaimed himself the greatest, more than once (“I am the greatest basketball player people have ever seen ...”). There are other players who get some mention, as well.
But all of them take a back seat to one man who is never mentioned. He was the greatest player ever in a totally quantifiable way. He was the GOAT when it came to winning, and ultimately isn’t that the point? He was the greatest champion in basketball — and all of sports.
Bill Russell was a 6-foot-10, left-handed center for the Boston Celtics from 1956 through the 1968-69 season. With a couple of glaring exceptions, his offensive stats are relatively modest. He averaged 15 points and 4.3 assists per game. He was not a natural shooter from the field, and he was a terrible free-throw shooter, making about half his shots. But he also averaged 22.5 rebounds per game — over his entire career. Only Wilt Chamberlain averaged more (22.9). No one else is close to them.
Where he excelled was on defense. In college Russell was such a dominant defensive player that the NCAA reportedly changed its rules — i.e., widening the lane — in response. He used his knowledge of offensive players — he spent hours studying offensive players' footwork and tendencies on film — plus his 7-foot-4 arm span, to knock down shots.
The NBA didn’t keep stats for blocked shots in that era, but according to Bleacher Report, newspaper accounts of the games involving Chamberlain and Russell “would often mention how many shots they blocked — it was not unusual for them to block six to eight shots in a typical game. … Referees who officiated a lot of Chamberlain’s and Russell’s games said that both of them probably averaged at least six to eight blocks per game over their careers, which would put both of them ahead of the official all-time leaders by a comfortable margin.”
Russell also played an average of 42 minutes per game (second only to Chamberlain). There was no taking a night off in those days, no “load management."
But back to the point: What Russell did best was simply win. He played 13 seasons in the NBA; he won 11 NBA championships, including eight consecutively. He played in the NBA Finals 12 times. All for one team — the Celtics. He was a player/coach for the last two championships, in 1968 and 1969.
If you don’t count Russell’s teammates — Sam Jones had 10 titles, Tom Heinsohn, K.C. Jones, Satch Sanders, John Havlicek had eight apiece — the next closest in total championships is Robert Horry, who had the good fortune to play for three different teams that gave him seven titles.
In all of sports, only one other athlete matched Russell: Hockey’s Henri Richard won 11 Stanley Cup titles as a player for the Montreal Canadiens during much the same era, in the 1950s and ’60s.
Russell also won two NCAA championships at the University of San Francisco (winning 57 of 58 games), the only championships in the school’s history.
He won a gold medal as captain of the 1956 U.S. Olympic team.
That means, beginning with the 1954-55 season and ending with the 1968-69 season — which covers his last two years of college and his NBA career — he won 13 championships and an Olympic gold medal in 15 years.
He was at his best when his back was to the wall. ESPN’s Paul Hembekides tweeted these stunning statistics: “Bill Russell played 21 winner-take-all games in his career (NBA, Olympics, NCAA Tournament). His teams went 21-0. Ten of those were NBA Game 7s, and in them he played 488 of 495 minutes and averaged 29.3 rebounds.”
Bill Russell, the 12-time All-Star, the five-time MVP, died Sunday. He was 88. It’s difficult to imagine that anyone will ever match what he accomplished on the basketball court.