There are those whose role it is to remind us that history didn't begin with yesterday's games and that the latest incarnation of something isn't perforce the best. I mention this in light of recent proclamations, including my own, that Michael Jordan is the best basketball player in the history of this or any other galaxy. I still believe in Jordan's preeminence but feel obligated to include a historical asterisk offered by Jeremiah Tax, a former writer for and editor of SI who was covering NBA championship games before Jordan was born.
"I'm not suggesting that Bill Russell was a better player than Michael Jordan," Tax said last week. "But if Jordan had to go through what Russell went through, I wonder how much harder it would've been for Jordan to achieve what he has achieved."
An episode during the 1958 Finals makes Tax's point. Russell, then in his second season with the Boston Celtics, had severely sprained his right ankle during a Game 3 loss in St. Louis that had put the Celtics down 2-1 in the best-of-seven series against the St. Louis Hawks. Those were the days before sophisticated rehabilitation techniques that put a player back on his feet quickly. Boston coach Red Auerbach didn't even take Russell back to St. Louis for Game 6, but the night before the game, as Auerbach, Tax, Bob Cousy and Tom Heinsohn sat conversing in a hotel lobby, Russell limped through the revolving door and headed for the reception desk. He hadn't arrived aboard a chartered plane, as one of today's players might; he had flown commercial out of Boston, which in those days meant making two connections to get to St. Louis.
"What are you doing here?" Auerbach asked him.
"I didn't come to watch," answered Russell.
Russell was hungry, so the five men walked to a cafeteria. They lined up at the counter and discussed the chances of tying the series. (The Hawks would win Game 6 to interrupt what would've been a string of 10 straight Celtics titles.) Soon it became clear that the counterman was ignoring them. "I don't think they're going to serve me," said Russell.
"That's right," said the man. "We don't serve colored here."
The group walked out. Auerbach remembered a hamburger joint around the corner. They sat down on stools at the counter. A waitress said to them coldly, "We don't serve colored here."
The fivesome returned to the hotel and headed for their rooms. As the world celebrates Jordan, Tax can close his eyes and see Russell, a proud man who was the Jordan of his time, hobbling on a swollen ankle toward the elevator, angry and ravenous, the night before a championship game.