Bill Russell, the consensus GOAT in when Michael Jordan was in his prime, once told him to his face that the 60s were tougher to win in than the 90s.
Michael Jordan is currently the consensus GOAT, and has been so since his first retirement around 28 years ago. He made it a point to never compare himself to greats like Wilt Chamberlain. He retained an utmost respect for the eras that shaped basketball into a truly modern, global game.
But this didn’t mean that the older generations didn’t clap back at the praise MJ received. ‘Old-timers’ today are ridiculed for arguing the game was tougher in the 90s. The old-timers of the day were young ‘uns who argued for their era against those who rooted for the 60s.
Bill Russell compares his era to that of Michael Jordan
Bill Russell once gave an interview in which he discussed a round of golf that he played with Michael Jordan. MJ explained that he was chasing after Russell’s record, to which the Celtics legend replied, “Which one?”
“So I said; think about it this way. When I was a rookie there were 80 jobs in professional basketball so a lot of good players didn’t make it. I said if there were 12 teams you wouldn’t win a championship.”
“Because you did a great job penetrating and you dished out to Paxson and he hit the open shot, won the game. If there were 12 teams in the league, he couldn’t make that shot because he would be up in the stands. And that is not a knock on him but it’s about the quality of the NBA.”
Bill Russell’s point is rendered quite moot because it is too simplistic. It doesn’t account for increased training, increased competition at the high school and college levels and new skills evolving. It also doesn’t account for the difference between his amateur generation and the pro generations that followed.
However, there is the additional consideration that Russell’s generation also played with tougher rules. The plays that MJ and Shaq endured were not allowed in the 60s because the physical element hadn’t crept into the game yet.