By: CJ Nadeau, Intern
COMMENTARY-LeBron James is 25 years old and right now he is the face of the NBA. Earlier this season LBJ announced that he will hang up his 23 in honor of Michael Jordan and instead don the number 6.
In an ESPN article James said that he was making the switch out of respect for Jordan, saying that when anyone sees 23 they think of Jordan and that he believes his accomplishments must be honored soon.
Jordan’s numbers do speak for themselves along with the success that followed those numbers. Jordan has done an incredible amount for the game, including winning six titles in eight years.
LeBron James has a special connection with number six as well. It was his Olympic number, his first child was born on the sixth of October, his second child was born in the sixth month of the year, and his second favorite player, Julius Erving, wore number six.
By switching his number James is trying to start a petition to get Jordan’s number retired by all teams in the NBA. The same way Major League Baseball retired Jackie Robinson’s 42 and the National Hockey League retired Wayne Gretzky’s 99.
But what about Bill Russell?
Bill Russell and Michael Jordan will both go down as two of the best to ever play the game, but is LeBron right in honoring one and not the other?
If you put the two careers side by side the answer is clear. Whether he knows it or not, LeBron is slighting one of basketball’s best.
Jordan played 109 more games than Russell, but when Russell began his career with the Celtics there were only 72 games in an NBA season.
As far as scoring is concerned, Jordan dominates every offensive category. He doubles Russell’s career points per game average with 30.1 ppg, compared to Russell’s 15.1. Also Jordan has one more assist than Russell per game in career averages.
Where Russell makes his mark though, is with his 21,620 career rebounds. Jordan had just 6,672, less than a third of Russell’s total.
Russell was a defensive monster at center and Jordan, a shooting guard, was a nightmare for opposing defenders, so how can the two be compared?
Jordan was an amazing individual player, and arguably one of the most skilled players to ever grace the court.
His resume is impeccable: He won the rookie of the year, has as many Finals MVP awards as he does championship rings (six) and he was a 14-time NBA All-Star. MJ copped the NBA Defensive player of the year award, made the All-NBA first team ten times (and the second team once) and was a member of the all defensive first team nine times.
Jordan’s bona fides also includes membership on the All Rookie Team, three All-Star MVP awards, and an NCAA national championship (1982).
But dust off Bill Russell’s resume and you see why he is one of the greatest the game has ever seen.
Russell missed a chunk of his rookie season when he was busy captaining the US to the Olympic Gold Medal in Melbourne, disqualifying him from rookie of the year considerations.
He still was able to adjust his game, however, in time to contribute to the C’s in his rookie season as his team won the championship in the team’s first ever appearance that year.
From there his career took flight. He was the regular season MVP five times, an All Star 12 times, three time member of the NBA first team and eight times made the second team. He was selected to the NBA All-Defensive Team once and took home an NBA All-Star game MVP trophy.
To complete his playing resume, he won 11 championships in his 13 seasons in a Boston uniform. He also won two more in his collegiate days at the University of San Francisco before that (1955 and 1956).
Jordan didn’t even have 11 winning seasons in Chicago.
Both players have incredible personal resumes, but what stands out in favor of Russell is the success of his team.
Chicago was rebuilding around Jordan but Russell’s Celtics had never won a championship before he got there.
Herb Brooks and his 1980 US Olympic hockey team proved that team chemistry wins championships over talent. Before that it was Bill Russell in Boston that set the example.
Sure, Russell did focus on how many points he scored per game, or how many assists he had, or even how many rebounds he had. But it was only in relation to the final score.
Russell was the consummate teammate. He made everyone better. He was Larry Bird before Larry Bird.
When one thinks of the upper echelon of NBA players, the very greatest often come in pairs: Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. Jordan had no other player great enough to challenge him during his tenure in the league.
However, a measure of Russell’s dominance lies in his 11 championships as a 6 foot 9 inch center playing every year against one of the all-time great centers, the 7 foot 2 inch Chamberlain. How dominant would Jordan have been if he had played against Russell, Chamberlain, Bird or Magic during their primes?
Russell teammate Don Nelson said in an interview with the Boston Herald that “there are two types of superstars. One makes himself look good at the expense of the other guys on the floor. But there’s another type who makes the players around him look better than they are, and that’s the type Russell was.”
Russell elevated the play of his teammates while revolutionizing the way defense was played in the NBA. He was so quick that he was able to double team other players and still get back to his man if the ball was passed to them. Blocking shots, playing on his toes, and a force like no other on the glass, Russell made an indelible mark on the NBA.
En route to his 11 titles, Russell was busy breaking down racial barriers as well, and that is the main reason why LeBron James has committed his biggest error by switching his jersey to number six.
Despite the racial bigotry Russell had to deal with in his day-to-day life he still made enormous strides for blacks during his playing career.
As the first black player to reach superstar status, Russell was named league MVP after the 1957-58 season.
But he was snubbed when the league only named him to the second All NBA team. According to a story on the NBA’s website, the reason for this at the time was that other centers were better in terms of skills but no other player meant more to their team.
This happened to Russell three out of the five times that he won league MVP.
Before the 1966-67 season, Red Auerbach retired as coach of the Celtics and he made a wise choice in Russell, a move that made the center the first black head coach in the NBA.
After securing his eleventh championship in the 1968-69 season, his second as a coach of the team, Russell retired. He went on to coach again in the NBA, revitalizing the Seattle Supersonics in the 1970’s and serving an ill-fated two year stint with the Sacramento Kings in the late 1980’s.
To get back to the matter at hand, both Michael Jordan and Bill Russell are equally deserving of having their numbers honored by current players.
But as a fan of the National Basketball Association this writer would hope that someone informs LeBron James of Bill Russell’s accomplishments and the legacy he left behind.
It would be the greatest of ironies if LeBron makes the NBA finals one of these years and wins the MVP award.
The new name of the trophy? The Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award.
There’s only one true number 6, and it belongs in green and white. Apologies to Dr. J, of course.