James Harden and Luka Dončić redefined how we perceive athleticism. Both are not the fastest or quickest guys on the court, but they have one elite skill – deceleration. Harden and Dončić can stop on a dime, and use it to their advantage. One shamelessly draws fouls; the other is from Slovenia.
But, when talking about the most athletic player in NBA history, we still look for the obvious stuff. Speed, leaping ability, strength, agility. When you talk about the best in those categories, the usual suspects pop up every time—Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and most recently Zion Williamson. Kendrick Perkins recently tweeted his support of LeBron as being the most athletic player in NBA history. Then a guy not talked about in those terms dropped a few facts.
It’s challenging to make the case that an 11 x NBA champion is overlooked or underrated, but let me try. It’s a classic example of the ranking mentality. In his era, Russell was the team player, making everyone around him better and doing whatever was necessary. Wilt, on the other hand, would chase stats and dominate individually. When most people recognized Wilt as the most athletic player of his era, we stopped thinking about Russell in those terms. I don’t know about you, but this looks quite athletic to me.
As Russell pointed out in his tweet, he was a standout track and field athlete, particularly in the high jump. In his graduation year in 1956, Russell was ranked as the 7th best high-jumper in the world. One of his highest jumps occurred at the West Coast Relays, where he achieved a mark of 6 feet 9 1⁄4 inches (2.06 m). At the meet, Russell tied Charlie Dumas, who would later in the year both win gold in the Melbourne Olympics for the United States and become the first human to high-jump 7 feet (2.13 m).
Keep in mind Russell didn’t use the technique you can see today, where the jumpers leap and land on their back (the Fosbury Flop high-jump). We can only speculate what would’ve been his personal best if he did, but we know it would’ve been much better. Russell also competed in the 440 yards (402.3 m) race, which he could complete in 49.6 seconds.
So next time you talk about the most athletic players in NBA history, make sure you include Bill Russell on that list.