Former low-post enforcer Kendrick Perkins wasn’t exactly going out on a limb when he named his former Cavaliers teammate LeBron James “the most athletic player in NBA history.” James, a Michelangelo-sculpted Greek god who probably could have played in the NFL had he chosen that route (he was an All-State receiver in his native Ohio), may be the closest thing we have to a real-life superhero. But don’t let recency bias cloud your judgment.
Hoops legend Bill Russell decided to chime in, schooling Perkins on his athletic qualifications.
Russell, who paced the U.S. in scoring throughout their gold-medal run at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, was—in addition to being arguably the greatest center to ever set foot on an NBA hardwood—a world-class track athlete. The 11-time NBA champ starred at the University of San Francisco, where he was ranked second nationally in the high jump, clearing 6’9” at the prestigious West Coast relays. Also an accomplished sprinter (he blazed a sub-50 440-yard dash), Russell may very well have stood atop the Melbourne podium in ‘56 had he prioritized track, but rules back then required he stick to one sport. Basketball was the easy choice for the five-time NBA MVP.
Perkins changed his tune pretty quickly after Russell’s clap-back, instantly declaring him the greatest athlete in basketball’s storied history. If Russell’s 11 rings didn’t settle the debate, his long list of track accolades sure did.
Everyone is entitled to their own opinion—Pelicans phenom Zion Williamson has wasted no time in wowing us with his superior athleticism and could soon push LeBron and Russell for top billing in that regard. But if you publically snub him, expect the Celtics great to respond emphatically. Perkins learned that life lesson the hard way.