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Q&A: Legendary columnist Bob Ryan talks former and current NBA stars

Ryan, also known as 'the quintessential American sportswriter', describes how much the game has changed and LeBron vs. Jordan.

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

Bob Ryan covered the NBA for several decades as a reporter with the Boston Globe.

When Bob Ryan was the sport’s premier voice, he was affectionately and respectfully known in NBA circles as “the commissioner.” There is a legendary story told how Ryan and the real commissioner at the time, David Stern, were engaged in conversation once and when someone approached them and said “Hey, commish,” both men turned and looked.

Even if that didn’t really happen, it feels true and warranted. Ryan held that much clout among coaches, players, fellow media members and yes, the four commissioners who served during his stellar journalism career. For four-plus decades at the Boston Globe, first as a beat writer and then a columnist, Ryan had a front row seat to witness some of the greatest events and greatest players in league history. Many faithful fans of the game anxiously awaited his recap, which always provided tremendous depth and perspective that you couldn’t get elsewhere, in the next morning’s newspaper. Yes, hard to believe nowadays, but it was newspapers and not the internet or 24-hour sports networks where folks received their daily basketball fix.

Ryan, understandably, had a strong following in the Boston area, where the Celtics continuously had winning and championship seasons on his watch, but his voice and reach carried nationally as well. His profile expanded with his regular guest appearances on “The Sports Reporters” every Sunday on ESPN. It was not uncommon for coaches to seek his “take” on games and strategies, nor for Stern, especially, to bounce ideas off Ryan.

Ryan retired from the regular grind following the 2012 London Summer Olympics but still writes on occasion and dutifully follows the NBA. He’s a four-time national sportswriter of the year and winner of the 1996 Curt Gowdy Award from the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Bob Ryan agreed to share his views on the game and its players, both past and present, in a thoughtful question-and-answer. Editor’s Note: The following 1-on-1 conversation has been condensed and edited. You had great timing during your career as a reporter in Boston, given the greatness of the Celtics, and also covering the NBA, which had unprecedented growth. But you started in 1970, the year after Bill Russell retired. Do you feel you missed out on that?

Ryan: Because the newspaper had free tickets, I was able to sit in the stands for Game 5 of the 1969 Finals, and then five months later I’m covering Opening Night on the Celtics beat because our regular writer moved on. I would’ve never seen that coming. I didn’t know Russell until he was coaching Seattle, that’s when I got to meet him. But I didn’t dwell on that missed opportunity. I was just thrilled and overwhelmed what I was walking into. They hit me with this new assignment two days before Opening Night. I hadn’t covered an NBA game before then. But after two months on the job, I knew this was the real deal.

You’ve developed a relationship with Russell. What can you tell us about him? He seemed complex to outsiders, and after retirement, he revealed how he felt mistreated in Boston and was a victim of racism. Did you have any concept of that at the time?

I don’t know exactly when I became aware of the off-the-court problems, when he wanted to move into his house and discovered there were problems with that. We knew he was very proud and forceful and independent. But the full scope of what I now know, that came much later, having talked with him about this in later years, how he was feeling then. He was hard to read for reporters at the time. He was somewhat aloof as a player. He said, `I only owe the public a performance.’ He also didn’t sign autographs. He got away with it because he was Bill Russell.

Celtics’ Bill Russell shoots a hook shot against the Knicks in 1967 at Madison Square Garden.

What was the genius of Red Auerbach?

He was just smart. Had extreme self-confidence and foresight. He could see certain things in players that others didn’t. There was an arrogance about him that he wasn’t afraid of making a mistake. He was so convinced of his own brilliance. He was a born leader. He could’ve been a general or CEO. A bright guy. He just chose basketball. He had a set of basketball principles he lived by.

Elgin Baylor, who recently passed away, seems like someone whose skills would translate to today’s game. You agree?

My thesis is Elgin Baylor is the most important individual offensive player of the last 60 years. He invented individual offensive basketball. He took a game that was occasionally vertical and made it vertical. He invented shots that no one had seen before. He perfected the reverse layup, the hesitation, the crossover, the up and under. He brought a new concept of individual offense. His direct descendants are Dr. J, Michael and LeBron. They carried the torch of Elgin. Everybody playing today has incorporated something in their game that was not there before Elgin Baylor.

Given that free agency didn’t exist in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s quite like it does now, with stars moving from team to team, would the bulk of those 17 Celtics championships have ever happened if free agency was this rampant?

Probably not. What do you think, in the context of his time, a 27-year-old free agent Bill Russell would command on the market? It’s almost unimaginable. At the absolute peak of his total package, his physical ability and intelligence and competitiveness was unsurpassed. He had 11 championships and would’ve won a 12th if he had not gotten hurt in 1958. Sorry St. Louis, but that’s the truth. What if (Larry) Bird and Magic (Johnson) said, `Hey, lets do it?’ What if they didn’t have to wait until the Dream Team? Yeah, it would’ve been a different world and result, for sure.

Is Nikola Jokic, who might be the front-runner for MVP this season, the Bill Walton of this era?

He’s the closest thing to Walton as a passer and might be his equal. Walton has been the gold standard as a passing center. Jokic is right there with the half-court passing. He’s in that discussion. But nobody today throws the outlet pass with regularity at all, certainly not like (Wes) Unseld and Walton. Kevin Love was the last one who threw it and he’s not a center.

Draymond Green recently called himself the greatest defensive player who ever lived because he guards multiple positions and does it well. Your reaction when you heard this?

After I threw up? I was predictably irked, on the verge of outrage. Hey, he’s pretty good and I’m a fan of his. I couldn’t believe he went 35th in the Draft. But is he even better than (Scottie) Pippen or (Dennis) Rodman? And there was this Russell guy. The thing about Russell, and it’s impossible to tell this generation about a guy who played his last game on May 5th, 1969, is he was tremendous. I’m telling you, he would be so made for today’s game. Talk about pick and roll defense. His lateral movement has never been matched as a center. He was an athlete so far ahead of his time, and then you add the brain power. You want to switch on the pick and roll? Russell could stay with anybody. Look, Draymond says many things. That one was out of bounds.

Steph pours in 49 points vs. 76ers

Warriors star Stephen Curry heats up in a win over the 76ers.

Steph Curry is dropping 3-pointers at a rate that seems unreal and averaging 40-plus points over the last few weeks. What’s your sense of him as a shooter?

This is the greatest shooter who ever lived. The shots he takes and makes are just beyond comprehension. The difference between him and the other great 3-point shooters, Ray Allen and Reggie Miller, is pretty clear. It’s the dribble. That’s what sets him apart. Ray was a catch and shoot guy, not a guy with a handle who could clear space. Reggie came off the screens. Steph is tremendous. This could be the greatest roll of his career right now. He’s got to be in your top 3-5 for MVP. If he’s playing like this and they get a decent playoff seed, put him in the discussion.

LeBron, Jokic, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo are all front-court players. One of them will not make first-team All-NBA this season, which almost seems wrong. Who’s the unlucky one?

Your cop-out answer is LeBron on (fewest) games played. If you don’t want to do that, I’d have to say Joel, but I don’t know. What I do know is the most inappropriate verb is `snubbed.’ Nobody’s getting snubbed here. There were difficult decisions that had to be made and you weren’t snubbed. It speaks to the talent level. (Editor’s note: LeBron James and Joel Embiid have both played 41 games at the time of this article publication.)

List these landmark events in order of their influence on the NBA: The 24-second shot clock, the ABA-NBA merger, the 3-point line, and the arrival of Magic and Bird.

The 24-second clock was an absolute necessity; the league had a crisis on its hands. You got to start with that. It changed the flow of the game. Second would be the profound detrimental influence the 3-point shot has had on the game. It’s the single worst thing to happen to basketball in my lifetime. It has distorted the game on every level and has destroyed the balance of the game in terms of inside-outside play. What I would pay to see another Kevin McHale play. Well, nobody’s going to try to be one. And there never will be another if they don’t encourage big men to be big men. The game was in trouble five years after the merger when Bird and Magic came along, so those two would be next. Then I go with the merger.

Which raises this question: Are players today better, and is the game better, than back in the day?

The game is not better. The game peaked artistically in the ‘80s, period. There is, however, a higher degree of overall athleticism, defined as running and jumping, with today’s players. On any given night there are alley-oops, even from big men to guards, that would’ve been impossible to imagine even 10 years ago, let alone 40. The game wasn’t played that way. And the shooting is better when you consider the 3-point shot is the currency. So many players shoot 35% from that range, which is not bad. (But) there were guys (years ago) who had 3-point range. Oscar Robertson would’ve adapted. Same for Jerry West. (John) Havlicek was already a 3-point shooter. The athleticism (today) can make up for mistakes, but I’m not so sure the acumen is any better.

OK, here’s the question that obviously needs to be asked: LeBron or Jordan?

LeBron is bigger, stronger and just as fast, a better rebounder and better passer. Michael had to deal with hand checking and physical play that LeBron didn’t, so let’s mention that. Michael is a better defender, he can guard anybody when he wants to. Here’s what’s interesting about the two: Michael didn’t win the whole thing until he learned how to share. The 1987 Michael wasn’t making those passes to (John) Paxson and (Steve) Kerr for those game winning baskets because he didn’t trust anybody but himself. LeBron, on the other hand, didn’t win until he accepted the responsibility of being the best player on the floor and acted accordingly. LeBron quit on his team in the 2010 playoffs against the Celtics, and in 2011 he didn’t want the ball against the Mavericks (in the Finals). I don’t know what transformation took place, whether he looked in the mirror or somebody got to him, but that LeBron is ancient history. And so, if I were playing for my life tonight, I would take Michael because he was the ruthless competitor unmatched.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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