Bill Russell Told Michael Jordan to His Face That His Celtics Played in a Tougher Era Than MJ’s Bulls
There’s no denying that Bill Russell and Michael Jordan are two of the greatest champions in the history of the NBA. Russell won 11, yes, 11 titles with the Boston Celtics back in the ’50s and ’60s. Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to six titles in the ’90s.
Now, it’s never easy (and quite pointless, in this writer’s opinion) to compare eras in any sport. There are so many variables to consider. Sure, it can be fun sometimes. But, in the end, it’s simply a way to pass the time, and nothing really ever comes out of it (again, just one opinion).
However, that didn’t stop Bill Russell from telling Michael Jordan straight to his face that the Bulls would have never won a title in his era. He also threw a little shade at John Paxson.
Bill Russell and the Celtics won eight straight NBA titles and 11 in 13 seasons
Bill Russell led the University of San Francisco to back-to-back NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956. Then, he continued his winning ways with the Boston Celtics at the NBA level. The Louisiana native averaged 14.7 points and 19.6 rebounds as a rookie to help the team win its first-ever championship in 1957.
Russell won the first of five NBA MVP awards in 1957-58 as the Celtics again reached the Finals, only to lose to Bob Pettit and the St. Louis Hawks in six games. The run that followed, however, still hasn’t been matched after six decades.
Beginning with the 1958-59 season, the Celtics won eight straight NBA titles. Five of those title wins came against the Los Angeles Lakers. After being upset by Wilt Chamberlain and the Philadelphia 76ers in the Division Finals in 1967, Bill Russell & Co. bounced back and won back-to-back titles in 1968 and 1969. At this point, Russell retired with 11 titles in 13 seasons while averaging 15.1 points, 22.5 rebounds, and 4.3 assists.
Michael Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to six NBA titles in eight seasons in the 1990s
It took Michael Jordan a bit longer to make an impact after entering the NBA out of North Carolina in 1984. However, he did have some early personal success winning both NBA MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in 1988.
As far as team success, however, the Bulls constantly came up short in the postseason, specifically against the Detroit Pistons, who knocked them out of the playoffs three years in a row before Jordan & Co. finally got the better of the “Bad Boys” in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals.
Michael Jordan and the Bulls went on to defeat Magic Johnson and the Lakers in the NBA Finals. They won their first of six titles in eight years, which some believe would have been eight in eight had MJ not left the league for a year and a half following the tragic death of his father, which led to his attempt at a baseball career.
Around that time, Michael Jordan and Bill Russell had a conversation about who played in the tougher era.
Bill Russell told Michael Jordan that his Celtics played in a better era than MJ’s Bulls
Bill Russell once gave an interview in which he discussed a round of golf he played with Michael Jordan. MJ’s competitive side came out (shocking) as he told the Celtics legend he and the Bulls were going for his record. Russell asked, “Which one?”
Of course, he was referencing both the eight straight NBA titles and the 11 he won overall. Russell told Jordan that he wouldn’t live long enough to get to either. He explained that Jordan said it was easy to win titles in the ’60s. At that point, Russell made a valid point that essentially argued that his era was better because the overall talent in the league hadn’t been watered down due to the fact that there were so many more teams during Jordan’s era.
“So I said, ‘Think about it this way. When I was a rookie there were 80 jobs in professional basketball so a lot of good players didn’t make it.’ I said, ‘If there were 12 teams, you wouldn’t win a championship. Because you did a great job penetrating and you dished out to Paxson and he hit the open shot, won the game. If there were 12 teams in the league, he couldn’t make that shot because he would be up in the stands. And that is not a knock on him but it’s about the quality of the NBA.'”Bill Russell
The Paxson reference makes us think that the round of golf took place after the 1993 NBA Finals when Michael Jordan and the Bulls beat Charles Barkley and the Suns to win their third straight title. Jordan averaged 41 points per game in that series. But Paxson’s 3-pointer in Game 6 sealed the series. And Russell can say that’s not a dig on Paxson, but there’s really nothing else you can call it.
As for his bigger point, there’s certainly an interesting argument to be had on both sides if you wanted to go that route. As I said early on, I’m usually not one for such discussions. But it’s certainly funny when someone isn’t scared to say something that Michael Jordan doesn’t like to his face. When you’ve got 11 rings as Bill Russell does, that becomes a much easier thing to do.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference