Greatest team player of all time
MICHAEL ANGELO B. ASIS
The Manila Times
NBA legend Bill Russell passed away at age 88. He is hailed as the greatest team player in American professional sports history. Russell’s NBA career spanned only 13 seasons as he refused to stay longer if he cannot play at a high level. In those 13 seasons, he was a champion in eleven. What? Eleven out of 13 seasons? He has more championship rings than fingers, and while Phil Jackson also carries that distinction, Russell’s percentage is much better, and he did as a player and also as a player-coach. Jackson, also known as the Zen Master, did it only as a coach of two of the biggest dynasties in the league, from 1989 to 2011. As with any achievement in the Russell-Chamberlain era, there would be critics who would undermine it since the NBA was closer to the pre-PBA tournaments since they only had eight teams. The chances of winning a title is easier than winning a title in the current PBA. The reverse argument is that talent was more compressed, so there were no “patsies” or tanking teams. Looking beyond himself No matter how many teams are playing, the rivalry between Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain was also a dream match between the greatest team player ever and the greatest individual force in the sport’s history. It’s not a one-onone competition, so Russell has 11 titles and Chamberlain has two, and one of them was won when Russell retired. That was not an accident. Both players wanted to win, and they knew they had to be the best of themselves, especially against each other. How did Russell keep beating Chamberlain, practically bullying him his entire career? While Chamberlain believed in himself, and felt that he needed to be superhuman to carry his team, Russell believed that the entire team must fully embrace their roles in order to win. Which approach is more successful? The numbers have the answer. Overcoming adversity While Russell had less teams to study, he battled against a bigger foe, bigger than Wilt “the Stilt” Chamberlain himself: Racism. When Red Auerbach recommended Bill Russell as the heir to his coaching job, it was met with huge objections. In a community like Boston, it was not easy for them to accept that a black man will lead and direct white men, even in sports. While Russell was already the leader of the team on the floor, this time, it’s an official position, and Boston fans were not having it. It went as far as fans vandalizing his home with racist vitriol. This is why Russell placed his loyalty to the game and his team, which he called “the Celtics” and not with the city of Boston. You won’t see that with today’s players, who are practically worshipped in their community, especially when they win. And Russell did that eleven times. Winning all the time The NBA Finals MVP trophy is now named after Bill Russell — an award that didn’t exist back in his playing years, but he would have won it 11 times since he was always the best player in that Celtics championship run. Now, he is guaranteed to win every year, and he always made it a point to hand over the award personally, as he relished being among winners. Side note: Racist Boston fans credited Bob Cousy for their success, and assumed that the team would not contend after 1963, when Cousy retired. Yet another challenge that Russell used as fuel to propel him to win. It also established the stereotype that point guards are the smartest players on the court. There aren’t too many athletic centers coaching in the NBA or other leagues, especially compared to guards. Russell broke that stereotype as well. Many would say that Russell was overrated, and that he beat Chamberlain because he had a better team around him. But that is the point of basketball — a team sport. Russell understood this concept, obsessed and centered his career around it. He will always be remembered as the winner who won more than anybody else, and that makes him the greatest team player of all time.