Basically, it all goes back to 46 years ago, when I took the job with the Washington Caps. I gave up the security of being a teacher and a coach at George Washington University to go with the new pro league. What crossed my mind in those days was that unless you had totally poor management, the success of the league would be predicated on the success of college basketball, which was very high in those days. More than any other college sport, including football, the basketball players were readily recognizable. I felt that by being on the cover of so many magazines and by playing without a helmet, without pads, and with the size and ability of these guys, college basketball players would arouse the curiosity of fans around the country concerning how well they would play at the next level.
When Bill Russell was in college, playing on an undefeated team at San Francisco and winning an Olympic gold medal [in 1956], everybody wanted to know how good he'd be in the pros. The same with Bob Cousy, when his Holy Cross team won the 1947 NCAA tournament. You go on and on, every year there were one or two or sometimes three players who received so much national exposure that they aroused everybody's curiosity. You could go from Cousy, Russell, Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek and Bill Bradley to Patrick Ewing, David Robinson and Shaquille O'Neal today. On and on and on. The average sports fan today knows Shaquille O'Neal and Alonzo Mourning, but he can't tell you who drafted who in football. Or hockey. Or even baseball. So pro basketball, in my opinion, always had a big edge over the other pro sports.
SI: The fact that the game fits neatly inside a television screen doesn't hurt, either.
RA: The adaptability of the game to television. Perfect. The size of the court. You can see the ball. Perfect. The game's also easily explained. It's a simple sport. It's the type of game that everybody plays at every school, in every town, every playground, because it's inexpensive. Basketball, you see, you can play by yourself, and contrary to what people say, it has no real age limit.
I did predict one other thing. I predicted worldwide popularity. Cousy and I used to talk about it, because 35 years ago, when he was playing, we'd go all over the world giving clinics. You could see even then that interest was spreading. They knew me. They knew Cousy. They knew Russell.
SI: Is basketball played better now than it ever has been?
RA: I've said this before. You talk about the Dream Team—great team. From my era—and believe me, I don't live in the past, I live in the future—I could put together a team that could beat the Dream Team 50 percent, 60 percent of the time. I'll give you an example. Can you see a team composed of Russell and Wilt Chamberlain as the centers, with maybe Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Nate Thurmond on the bench? At forward I'll take Elgin Baylor, Bob Pettit, Dolph Schayes, Dr. J. At the guards I'll take Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Bob Cousy, John Havlicek. The Dream Team would have a little edge in the backcourt with Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. But up front we'd be much better. We're bigger, better rebounders, and we'll block more shots. I'm not taking anything away from David Robinson or any of these other current guys, but Russell was superior. And you have nobody today who could handle the power of Chamberlain. Nobody to stop Abdul-Jabbar. Who do you have to stop Baylor? Cousy is the same size as John Stockton. Who'd you rather have? Cousy or Stockton? I'd take Cousy.
They say today's players are bigger, stronger, smarter. I don't know about that. There are just more of them. We might've had 20 great players in our era, while today there might be 50. That's all.
SI: The rise of the black player has been a big thing in the league, hasn't it?
RA: Oh, my god, yes. To me, a person always has been a person, whether he could play or couldn't play, regardless of his religion or color. If he were better than the next guy, hey, he should play.