One of the timeless arguments in sports is this: Russell or Wilt? And there are those who would add this element: Why not Kareem over either of them? For my alltime NBA Dream Team, I choose Russell as the first-team center, Chamberlain for the second team and Abdul-Jabbar as the best 11th or 12th man in the history of the planet. I don't pretend for a minute that Wilt and Kareem would report for training camp under those circumstances, but....
Why Russell over Wilt? Never mind an analysis of those old intangibles like "attitude" or "heart" or "ability to win." Russell gets the nod purely because he's a better fit for my team, which needs defense and rebounding far more than the estimable offensive presence of Wilt or Kareem. It has enough estimable offensive presences. Yes, yes, Wilt and Kareem could do those Russell-type things too—but that wasn't their game. Russell's game began with defense, so there would never be a question of his getting in the way here.
In the way of whom? Baylor. He was the Julius Erving of his time, a showstopping, acrobatic, high-scoring (career average 27.4) forward who also averaged double figures in rebounds in 11 of his first 12 seasons. Bird. It's impossible to compare Bird to anyone because there never has been, and probably never will be, as versatile a forward. Jordan and Johnson. It would take one mean backcourt combo to put the Big O and Jerry West on the pine, and this is it. Jordan can do everything West could do—including, most important, producing in the clutch—while Magic's leadership and unselfishness give him the edge over Robertson. And let's not forget Magic's six feet, nine inches, which make him something of a basketball category unto himself.
Once the first team was picked, the second was relatively easy. The Robertson-West backcourt speaks for itself, as does the "reserve" center. Erving makes it if only for his larger contributions to the game, though he deserves to be here as a player, too. His frontcourt mate, Pettit, was the prototypical power forward, a lithe but bruising player who could score both inside and outside. Rounding out the team are Abdul-Jabbar, who provides consistent inside scoring (which may rank as the alltime understatement), and Havlicek, our Swiss army knife who could play either forward spot as well as shooting guard. I wish there was room for Bob Cousy and for Charles Barkley, but....
And I wish, finally, that there was room for two coaches, but given the egos of my two candidates, it would not be possible. Though Arnold (Red) Auerbach has to be considered in any discussion of alltime coaches, I choose Riley. In an era when it was difficult even to reach the NBA Finals in consecutive years, Riley won four championships and finished second three times with the Lakers. And considering his fix of the Knicks last season, he may well win a few more. Besides, I need an L.A. guy to tell Kareem that he's only on the third team.
Left to right: Havlicek, Abdul-Jabbar, Pettit, Erving, Robertson, West, Chamberlain, Bird, Russell, Riley, Johnson, Baylor, Jordan.
G: MAGIC JOHNSON, L.A. LAKERS
G: MICHAEL JORDAN, CHICAGO BULLS
C: BILL RUSSELL, BOSTON CELTICS
F: LARRY BIRD, BOSTON CELTICS
F: ELGIN BAYLOR, L.A. LAKERS
G: JERRY WEST, L.A. LAKERS
G: OSCAR ROBERTSON, CINCINNATI ROYALS
C: WILT CHAMBERLAIN, PHILADELPHIA/S.F./L.A.
F: BOB PETTIT, ST. LOUIS HAWKS
F: JULIUS ERVING, N.Y. NETS/PHILADELPHIA 76ERS
MILWAUKEE BUCKS/L.A. LAKERS
JOHN HAVLICEK, BOSTON CELTICS
COACH: PAT RILEY, L.A. LAKERS/N.Y. KNICKS