Indeed, Bill Russell was the best player of all time.

Bill Russell would be my first choice if we were all on a playground in the afterlife and we had to choose sides to choose who would go to heaven or hell.


Anyone else is yours to have. LeBron James comes to me after you take Michael Jordan. I get Magic Johnson, and you get Larry Bird. Stephen Curry or Jerry West. And so forth. Since none of their skill sets are distinct from the other, they essentially cancel each other out. First and foremost, each and every one of them—whoever you would choose with all of eternity at stake—would be a star on the offensive end of the court.


But Russell, without a doubt the best player, would take my vote. He scored enough goals without feeding the opposition and hardly needed to touch the ball. Russell recovered the ball for his team more often than anyone else, even Wilt Chamberlain, by controlling his shot blocking and grabbing rebounds. I would have Bill, who protected his man, but if you lost yours, it would make the man wish you were still standing up for him.


Russell had the ability to quietly alter everyone’s game, both for the better on his own squad and for the worse on yours. But no one would force him to alter his strategy in any way. And we would prevail. Do not believe so? Have fun in hell.


Russell left the NBA in 1969, the year I started working in The Washington Post’s sports section. He passed away on July 31 at the age of 88. I never covered him, thus. I had met him only once, too. (I just expressed gratitude.)


But as time went on, fewer sportswriters remembered Russell as a player, and he was saddled with the meek praise of being a legend from a time when most TVs were black and white. As a result, I found myself in a shrinking group of people who continued to believe that Russell was the greatest player of all time. The opinion that has earned me the most pitying, “old-timer” stares is that one. But I keep going.


Jerry Brewer: Bill Russell improved America by holding it to a higher standard.


As the most ring winner in professional sports, Russell has won 11 rings over the course of 13 seasons, making him far from the greatest of all time. Russell nearly had a “undefeated” career, winning every world championship possible.


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