Phil Jackson would take Bill Russell (left) over Michael Jordan if given the choice. (Jeff Haynes AFP/Getty)
If given the choice of any player in NBA history to start a franchise, legendary coach Phil Jackson says Celtics center Bill Russell would win out over his former player Michael Jordan.
"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."
In addition to his 11 titles with the Celtics in the 1950s and 1960s, Russell was a five-time MVP and 12-time All-Star. Jordan won six championships playing for the Bulls in the 1990s under Jackson, earning five MVP awards and 14 All-Star Game selections.
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 is promoting his new book, Eleven Rings, in which he compares Jordan and Bryant extensively. The Zen Master told Time that he believes the 34-year-old Bryant's quest for a sixth ring, to match Jordan, will prove difficult after a season-ending Achilles injury.
"He's going to be hard-pressed," Jackson said. "He's at an age where I think Michael Jordan won a couple more, but he hadn't suffered the type of injury that Kobe went through at the end of the year this year. Devastating. Achilles tendon is a very difficult injury to survive and come back at the same level. Not too many people do it. If anybody can, Kobe will."
In the book, which was released this week, Jackson paints Jordan as a better leader, shooter and defender than Bryant, prompting the Lakers guard to say that the comparisons are "apples to oranges".
Jordan comparisons have been a particularly hot topic recently as the Hall of Fame guard turned 50 in February. Before All-Star Weekend, Jordan offered his thoughts on Bryant and Heat forward LeBron James, expressing a preference for Bryant because of his advantage in championships.
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“If you had to pick between the two," Jordan said, "that would be a tough choice, but five beats one every time I look at it. And not that he [LeBron James] won’t get five, he may get more than that, but five is bigger than one.”
James at first brushed off that talk -- tweeting "I'm not MJ, I'm LJ" -- but later made it clear that he very much seeks the Greatest Of All Time title.
“I want to be the greatest of all time,” James declared in February. He added: “As my talent continued to grow, as I continued to know about the game, appreciate the game, continued to get better, I felt like I had the drive, first of all, the passion, the commitment to the game to place myself as the greatest of all time, the best of all time, however you want to categorize it. I don’t do it to say I’m better than this guy or that guy. I do it for my own inspiration. I inspire myself. When I go out on the floor, I want to be the best of all time. That’s how I help myself each and every night.”
In April, longtime NBA trainer Tim Grover, who has worked for years with Jordan and Bryant, told SI.com that comparing Jordan to anyone besides Russell would be a mistake.
"Michael Jordan was six-for-six in Finals, never lost a Finals, never needed a Game 7 to do that," Grover said. "Just by saying that alone, that puts him in a category I don’t think anybody else is in, except maybe a Bill Russell. Other than that, I don’t know if you can really put [Jordan] in the same category [with anybody].
"I think what [James] should do, instead of worrying about where Mike was at, he should be trying to get to the accolades, get to the Finals, as many times as Kobe had. ... I think the comparison [for James] should be more toward a current player he’s playing against now because of what Michael already did, and LeBron, in the early part of his career, faltered two times in the Finals. I think that [the Jordan/James] comparison can’t be made, just from that alone."
Last summer, Bryant made headlines when he suggested that his 2012 USA Basketball team could defeat Jordan's 1992 Dream Team.
"It'd be a tough one, but I think we'd pull it out," he said.
Jordan responded by telling The Associated Press that he "absolutely laughed" at Bryant's statement and that there was "no comparison" between the two teams.
Bryant, of course, was asked for a response to that response.
"So what? He knows I'm a bad mother [expletive]," Bryant told reporters after an exhibition game in Las Vegas. "I'm not really tripping."
Jackson has been in the news a lot recently, launching a Twitter account in March to promote his book, uncorking a great one-liner about Jordan's famous push-off on Jazz guard Bryon Russell during the 1998 Finals and serving as a consultant to the Pistons during their ongoing coaching search.
Jackson, 67, was linked to a return to the Lakers’ bench after coach Mike Brown was fired following a 1-4 start in November. Lakers executive vice president Jim Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak reportedly met with Jackson before hiring Mike D’Antoni.
"I was kind of offered that by the Lakers this year, but it didn't work out, and that's fine," Jackson told Time. "That was the only situation in which I could ever think of coaching again."
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