NBA coaching legend Phil Jackson is something of an authority on what it takes to win championships, but he typically hasn't weighed in on the more contentious basketball topics about which players are best or give their teams the best chance to win. In promoting his new book "Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success," Jackson has switched up his approach and made some stronger statements on these debates. For instance, he's directly compared Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant for the first time ever, adding to an argument that probably won't stop even after science allows us to pit their clones against each other in hand-to-hand combat.
However, that does not mean Jackson believes that Jordan is the best player ever to serve as the centerpiece of a championship team. In a new interview with Time.com, Jackson gives that edge to Boston Celtics great Bill Russell. As transcribed by Ben Golliver of The Point Forward:
“In my estimation, the guy that has to be there would be Bill Russell. He has won 11 championships as a player,” Jackson said in an interview with Time. “That’s really the idea of what excellence is, when you win championships.” [...]
Jackson dodged when asked to select between Jordan and Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, whom he coached to five titles between 2000 and 2010.
“I would flip a coin,” he said. “Whichever one came up heads or tails, I’d take that person. They were that good.”
Jackson's argument is pretty simple: Russell beats Jordan in championships, 11-6, so that must mean he's more likely to win with this hypothetical team not bound by the limits of the space-time continuum. There are several complicating factors here, including the difficulty of comparing players across very different eras or the interplay of each legend and his teammates. Whatever the case, Jackson is giving Russell credit for his career, which doesn't easily fit into the binaries occupied by Jordan, Kobe, LeBron James, and other scorers.
In a way, winning this debate has become Russell's identity as one of the greatest players in basketball history. Many pundits have called him "the greatest winner," a designation that relies primarily on the sheer number of titles he won. Unfortunately, the description often doesn't go beyond that figure — it's used as shorthand for a host of cliches about what it takes to win rather than as an entry point to discuss the entirety of Russell's important legacy both on and off the court. He is remembered primarily as the most important player on the most successful dynasty in NBA history, not someone who changed the way defense was played at every level of the game or a dynamic talent of uncommon skills and athleticism. The "greatest winner" classification has simultaneously locked down his place in history and obscured the qualities that made him so important in the first place.
This is only so sad, because Russell's place near the top of these lists ensures that he won't be lost to history entirely. However, it's worth wondering exactly what placing him — or anyone, whether it's Jordan or Wilt Chamberlain or some active star — into a ranked discussion does to our memories and considerations of these players. Elite traits get defined as inferior to those of others, nuance falls away in favor of reductionist argumentation, etc. It's as if we argued over whether the god of thunder were greater than the god of the sea, forgetting that either deity holds more power than we can ever dream of. These rankings can be a fun diversion, and it's no surprise that they exist. It remains an open question as to what purpose they serve.