Bill Russell: Most Want to 'Be Like Mike' but I'd Rather 'Be Like Bill”

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Bill Russell: Most Want to 'Be Like Mike' but I'd Rather 'Be Like Bill”
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Now that the NBA Playoffs are set to start there are many questions. 

Should Derrick Rose be named the MVP?

Will the Los Angeles Lakers and Kobe Bryant repeat as champions?

Can the Miami Heat and LeBron James hoist the championship trophy this year?

Looking beyond the spectrum of this years playoffs I asked a fellow journalist the following question: Who is the greatest winner in NBA history?

Without hesitation he uttered, "Michael Jordan of course."

Good choice.

Jordan was the skinny kid who was cut from his high school basketball team.  He turned the negative into a positive in college as he helped lead the North Carolina Carolina Tarheels to the NCAA Championship as a freshman in 1982.

Jordan won two Olympic Gold Medals in 1984 as an amateur and in 1992 as a pro.  When Jordan helped lead “The Dream Team” to Olympic gold some experts suggest it was the greatest team ever assembled.

Jordan was selected third in the 1984 NBA draft by the Chicago Bulls.  He essentially took the torch from Julius Erving from an athletic standpoint and raised the bar to another level. 

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Jordan electrified fans for 14 years.  His array of high-flying dunks and clutch last second shots were the stuff of legend.  We also know about his six NBA championships and six finals MVP awards as well.

Jordan, who is currently is the owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, ended his career with the Washington Wizards in 2003.  His career scoring average is the best in NBA history at 30.1 per game.

While there is no doubting Jordan’s impact on the NBA there is someone else whom I consider better for various reasons.  This player has 11 NBA championships; two of which came as player/coach in 1968 and 1969.

His name is Bill Russell.

Like Jordan, Russell also won Olympic gold at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.

Before Russell embarked upon his stellar pro career he led the University of San Francisco to become NCAA Champions in 1955 and 1956.

Russell starred for the Boston Celtics from 1956-1969.  He was the centerpiece of arguably the greatest dynasty in team sports.

Russell averaged 15.0 points and 22 rebounds per game during his career.

There is a lot more to Russell than meets the eye.  Russell recently received the prestigious Medal of Freedom Award.  It represents the highest honor a citizen can receive.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Russell was a man who did things the right way but he did them his way.  After receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama, Russell stated, "It's very flattering because I've tried to live my life doing what I think is right and for the right reasons and one of the reasons was never to get accolades or honors."

Today many athletes are about money, women and notoriety: In Russell’s day it was about inclusion, rights and activism on and off the court.

As a superstar athlete Russell was revered, but on the streets of Boston he often encountered racism.  For instance, Russell wanted to move into white suburb of Redding just outside Boston.  Despite being the star of the Celtics, citizens of Redding formed a petition to keep Russell out of the neighborhood.

As a player Russell’s home was broken into by racists. They proceeded to defecate on his bed and threw garbage throughout his home.  The intruders also destroyed many of his trophies and personal belongings.

In 1975, Russell was inducted into the Hall of Fame. He boldly refused entry because of the mistreatment he experienced from a segment of the Boston faithful.

Later that year the Celtics wanted to hold a ceremony in Russell’s honor to retire his jersey but he declined: Instead Russell hoisted his No. 6 to the rafters of the Boston Garden with only his teammates and coaches present.

Why?

Russell wanted to be in the presence of those who really respected him as a man.  Russell felt he shouldn’t allow fans to cheer him as an athlete and disrespect him as a man. 

Russell didn’t bow down to the establishment.   He once proclaimed, “I owe the public nothing.”

In my opinion Jordan has the social-consciousness of a door-knob.  With respect to activism, Jordan is bankrupt.  He has never uttered a word that could be construed as controversial. 

Jordan was a corporate pitchman who was given scripts to read and he obliged.  Jordan even famously stated, “Republicans buy sneakers too.”

Translation: Jordan wasn’t about making a difference.  He was about making money. 

Unlike Jordan, Russell was pioneer on and off the court through his activism.  He was active during the Civil Rights Movement and routinely spoke his mind during a time when the African-American athlete used their platforms for more personal gain.

Activists like Russell often act in accordance with a vision that is vastly distinct from mainstream ideology.  An activists’ vision often prompts them to lead movements rather than be one of many who follow.

Typically, those who are closed minded negatively label those who use their platforms for more than making a buck.  Russell wasn’t moved by money—he was moved by doing what he considered right and he refused to allow others to dictate his destiny. 

Pioneers like Russell continue to press forward because they know what’s labeled as controversial today will be embraced tomorrow.

To his credit, Jordan has extended his success in a realm that’s often eluded the grasps of African-Americans and that’s ownership. Yet Jordan’s success can be directly attributed to pioneers like Russell who helped create opportunities for African-Americans in both society and sports.

Many can construct a viable argument for Jordan being the greatest basketball player of all time. 

That’s fine.

But without question Russell was likely the most important basketball player and the greatest winner of all time.

Personally, I’d much rather “be like Bill” than “be like Mike.”

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