There’s certainly 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 while 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 as 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). But 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 while also throwing a little shade at John Paxson.
Bill Russell and the Celtics won eight straight NBA titles and 11 in 13 seasons
After Bill Russell led the University of San Francisco to back-to-back NCAA championships in 1955 and 1956, he continued his winning ways with the Boston Celtics at the NBA level, averaging 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 1957-1958 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, is one that still hasn’t been matched after six decades.
Beginning with the 1958-1959 season, the Celtics won eight straight NBA titles with five of those title wins coming 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 right back and won back-to-back titles in 1968 and 1969, at which point Russell retired having won 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
As for Michael Jordan, it took him a bit longer to get to the promised land after being drafted into the NBA out of North Carolina in 1984, although 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 were constantly coming 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 then went on to defeat Magic Johnson and the Lakers in the NBA Finals to win 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.
And it seems to be right around that point in time that 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 that he played with Michael Jordan in which MJ’s competitive side came out (shocking) as he told the Celtics legend that he and the Bulls were going to go for his record, at which point Russell asked, “Which one?”
Of course, he was referencing both the eight straight NBA titles and the 11 he won overall and told Jordan that he wouldn’t live long enough to get to either. Russell then explained that Jordan said that it was easy to win titles in the 1960s, at which point Russell made a very 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 is what makes us think that the round of golf took place after the 1993 NBA Finals in which 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 it was Paxson’s 3-pointer in Game 6 that 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 always funny to me when someone isn’t scared to say something that Michael Jordan doesn’t like to his face. And when you’ve got 11 rings as Bill Russell does, that becomes a much easier thing to do.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference