When it comes to basketball, what defines “the best”? Is it the player that can score the most points? That can garner the most box score stats? That has won the most MVPs? Bill Russell has always made it clear that he judges greatness in only one way: by winning. Since basketball is a team game, individual accolades have never seemed to impress Mr. Russell. And this weekend he reiterated that, with a not-so-subtle jab at the reigning King of the MVP in the process. In a recent interview, LeBron James named the four players that he would put on his “Mount Rushmore” as the greatest players of all time. His list didn’t include Mr. William Felton Russell. During the All Star game festivities this weekend, Craig Sager caught up with Russell and asked him what his thoughts were on being excluded from LeBron’s list? “Hey, Thank you for leaving me off your Mount Rushmore. I’m glad you did it. Basketball is a team game, it’s not for individual honors. I won back-to-back state championships in high school, back-to-back NCAA championships in college. I won an NBA championship my first year in the league, and NBA championship in my last year, and nine in between. That, Mr. James, is etched in stone.” – Bill Russell First of all, this was an awesome response. Russell managed to take the high road about LeBron excluding him while simultaneously getting in some body blows of his own. Despite, or perhaps because of, Russell’s team-only attitude his career resume is probably the biggest outlier in sports history. There has never been anyone in any sport that won the way that Russell did, and there likely never will be. I enjoyed his comment immensely because it was a needed reminder that basketball greatness was not invented by the marketing of Air Jordan. People forget that, prior to Michael Jordan’s Bulls, greatness was not tied to scoring and one-on-one basketball the way that it often is now. When Jordan came along, Larry Bird’s Celtics and Magic Johnson’s Lakers owned the NBA. Both the Legend and the Magic Man were known as much for their incredible passing and team dominance as ever they were as scorers. The Bad Boy Pistons and Doctor J/Moses Malone 76ers won the only other titles of the 80s, also with a team-based approach. In the generations prior to that Bill Walton’s Blazers, the Cowens/Hondo Celtics, the 70s Knicks, and of course Russell’s Celtics had shown time- and time-again that a strong team led by a non-ball dominant superstar was the best way to win it all in the NBA. Since Jordan’s dominance of the 90s, that sentiment has changed. Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and now Kevin Durant have taken turns capturing the imagination of the general NBA public with individual offensive achievements and aesthetically beautiful games in the Jordan image. Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowtizki have been just as dominant and, in the case of the latter three, done so without dominating the ball to put up video game scoring stats. In fact, of the superstar wings, the team-based family of stats would suggest that only James even belongs on the same tier with the four big men in terms of impact on winning games. But based upon the casual barber shop conversations that I encounter the most, it is the high scoring, iso wings that get the most attention as potentially being “the best”. No one would argue against the four players on James’ Mount Rushmore – Jordan, Bird, Magic and Oscar Roberson being among the best of all-time. In the same interview where James named that grouping, he said that he expects to be on that list when his career is over as well. And again, love him or hate him, LeBron is playing in rarefied enough air that his inclusion is at worst a defendable statement. However, basketball is a team game. And not only has no player ever won the way that Russell did, but that winning can be directly tied to Russell’s presence. Those Celtics won with a defense that dominated in a very quantifiable way. That defense arrived with Russell, peaked at Russell’s peak, then went away when Russell retired. So Russell wasn’t just great because his teams won…his team’s won because he was great.
In my eyes, basketball greatness isn’t measured by your points. Or your box score stats. Or your individual accomplishments. Or even, necessarily, your number of rings. To me, basketball greatness is measured by how much a player can help his team to win. And by that measure, there is no Mt. Rushmore in NBA history that should exclude Mr. Russell. And that, too, should be etched in stone.