Among NBA players, Michael Jordan is largely untouchable. Even if you don’t think he’s the GOAT, it’s impossible to argue with his body of work. Jerry West, the man who inspired the Association’s logo, even considers MJ his all-time favorite player.
During a recent interview, however, the former Laker came to another legend’s defense. In light of Bill Russell’s death, West gave his take on why the late Celtics star doesn’t receive the same level of GOAT recognition as someone like His Airness.
Jerry West addresses Bill Russell’s standing in the NBA pantheon
As Vince Lombardi once said, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” While we can debate the merits of that philosophy, winning does hold an important place in historical debates. When you’re trying to compare two players who hit the hardwood in different eras, championship rings usually matter.
Bill Russell, however, was somewhat of an exception. While the Celtics center usually took the top spot as basketball’s greatest winner, he rarely reached the top of GOAT rankings. Dan Patrick noticed that reality and asked Jerry West about it.
“We look at Michael Jordan as the greatest of all time,” Patrick wondered before posing the question to his guest. “But Russell’s the greatest winner. Why don’t we recognize, if winning is the ultimate, why isn’t Bill considered the GOAT?”
“Well, today we honor individual achievements, you know,” West began. “I watch today in sports, and here in Los Angeles and in Orange Country, we have two incredible baseball players on the Angels teams that everyone doesn’t understand why they can’t win. Obviously, they’re not good enough to win. Mike Trout and Ohtani. And I look at those players, and I marvel at what they’re able to do and be the most valuable player on the team that wasn’t a great team at all last year. … And, I say to myself, ‘You would think those awards would be given to [players] on winning teams, but they’re not. They’re recognized for individual achievement.”
After that diversion into baseball, West circled back to the basketball court.
“Today, the sports have changed completely,” he continued. “You know, it’s about self-promotion, it’s about, also, a lot about social media. And there’s so many kids today who are really into that. I think one of the things that’s the most shocking to me is when kids go to college today, and they’re on these social media pages, and they have thousands of followers in places you’ve never heard of. … So, there’s a different approach, I think, to sports today than maybe we’ve ever had before. And Bill’s excellence, not only as a player but a human being, will far outlive some of these others in my mind, I believe.”
West does raise a valid point, even if some of his comments seemed a bit out of touch
While some of that — especially the part about self-promotion and social media feels a bit “back in my day” — West does get at a valid point. Claiming that an entire generation values specific things is a bit broad, but comparing anything across eras is always tricky.
Michael Jordan had the good fortune of playing basketball exactly when the NBA became a global force. Even though social media wasn’t a thing then, MJ’s era was still recent enough that those who saw him are the ones driving most of the narratives. Take The Last Dance, for example; it would be almost impossible to construct a similar series about Russell.
By that same token, the game has also changed over the years. Rebounds weren’t divided into offensive and defensive boards during Russell’s day; similarly, blocks weren’t an official stat. Maybe seeing those numbers would affect how we see the Celtics star?
At the risk of being Pollyanna about things, the ideal answer is probably to push beyond the GOAT debate and pay Russell the appropriate amount of respect independently of any other player. The big man won 11 rings and posted an impressive stat line (15.1 points, 22.5 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game) while doing so. Forget about all-time greatness, what each era of basketball values, or anything else.
That career, not to mention Russell’s off-court efforts, are timeless.
Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference