Basketball Hall of Famer Bill Russell is cited for his gruff exterior as often as he's noticed for his sense of humor and infectious cackle of a laugh. So when word hit a few weeks ago that the 78-year-old Celtics legend underwent a significant and scary heart procedure to replace a valve, it was assumed by many that it would take a while for the 11-time champion to rebound back to full and (relative to Bill, of course) effusive behavior.
Apparently "a while" turned out to be just three weeks. Because Russell, in a revealing interview with NBA Entertainment's John Hareas, seemed ebullient in nature and downright giddy at the prospects of the 2012-13 NBA season in an interview transcribed on NBA.com on Thursday.
Before getting into his thoughts on the upcoming season, Russell was asked to weigh in on the debate centering around the barroom talk of how the 2012 Team USA Men's Basketball squad would fare against the 1992 "Dream Team" version of the same outfit.
I have this theory that it's impossible to play against ghosts -- past, present or future. That kind of discussion is that guy, I always thought that it was like playing against ghosts. Past, present and future and I never get into that discussion. You can only play against your contemporaries.
Basketball -- out of all of the sports -- is the most evolving. Whoever the best player is, that's how the game is played for a generation.
You never hear the name George Mikan being discussed. But George Mikan won five championships in six years and where does that put him among the all-time greatest players? You can't do it because the game is always changing. The game is dictated by centers. You had Mikan, Wilt, Kareem. Then you build off that with the forwards, Elgin, Larry Bird. Then there is Michael and the guards.
Each era produces a style of play. For someone to say this style of play is better than this style of play, that person doesn't know what they are talking about. So, I never get into that discussion.
Well, he kind of (sensibly, tactfully) did get into the discussion before smartly dismissing it. It's almost as dismissive to compare human beings to man-made machines, but the evolution of the form dictates that any comparison between modern creations and those from the past won't take you very far. Lust for that 1967 Mustang all you want, in all its aesthetic glory and nostalgia-inspiring hum, but the modern version is going to be bigger, better, faster, more efficient, and easier to repair. It's just how these things grow.
(And I like Russell's NBA family tree that leads from the history of the great big men, to forwards, to the age of guard driven play … to now. He should have ended it with, "and then you have whatever the hell Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, LeBron James and Kevin Durant are.")
Following that breakdown, in something that warms my heart after Russell was asked about players that "play with the most pride" (totally quantifiable), the big man mentioned Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah:
A player who doesn't get much attention and is one of my favorites to watch is Joakim Noah. The Bulls don't utilize some of his skills. Not only is he a good rebounder but he's an excellent passer. A good passer is more important to a team than a good shooter on offense.
Noah is an underrated passer, and in ways that don't always show up in assist ratio or assists per game. He opens the floor up with his decision making from the top of the key or elbow extended, in ways that often lead to the defense collapsing on the player he dishes to, which frees up a corner 3-pointer or streaking guard or forward for the second pass and finish. And with Derrick Rose possibly out until early next spring as he recovers from an ACL, Noah's Bulls are going to need whatever they can get when it comes to inventive offense.
The Los Angeles Lakers are attempting to get creative with their offense, initializing a Princeton-styled attack that has some confused in its application (take the ball out of Steve Nash's hands? Force Kobe Bryant into another read and react offense), even if its potential boggles the mind. Russell was possibly thinking of this but mostly referencing the additions of Nash and Dwight Howard before he offered this bit of analysis to NBA Entertainment:
Los Angeles: It's going to take them at least half a season -- at least -- before we know how good they can be.
One of the more remarkable things I've seen in my basketball-watching lifetime is the way that Phil Jackson's 1999-00 and 2003-04 Lakers got off to such hot starts despite many reasons to need that half a season. The first group had to adjust to a new triangle offense on the fly, mostly with an injured Kobe Bryant on the bench with a broken right wrist. The second had to acclimate Karl Malone and Gary Payton into the lineup with an out-of-shape Shaquille O'Neal, and still peeled off 20 wins in its first 25 games.
Phil Jackson is in Montana this time around, it will be up to coach Mike Brown and his cast of veterans to acclimate both new players and a new offense. A big part of us thinks talent will win out and that the Lakers will peel off gobs of wins even without a champion's sense of cohesion initially, but we also have to be mindful of the fact that this is William Felton Russell we're listening to.
There is much, much more to Hareas' interview than what we highlighted here, on his charity work and rehab from that frightening surgery. Give it a read, and then ask NBA Entertainment to ring Russell's phone every three weeks between now and when he hands the 2013 NBA champion its trophy.