Q: I read that your grandchild once asked you if you were as good a basketball player as Michael Jordan, but I never read your answer.
A: I told him, that’s the wrong question. The question is, was Michael Jordan as good as me.
Q: Wayne Embry, who’s been in Canada with the Toronto Raptors, said that you were not the greatest player to play basketball but you would be the first player that he would want if he was going to start a team. That makes no sense to me.
A: Aha! Well, there’s my whole history, okay? The reason is that when people talk about great players they’re always talking about the offence, there are no real adequate stats for defence. When I was in college, my junior year in college we were 28-and-1. I was MVP at the Final Four. We won it, okay? I was first team all-American, my team was the number one defensive team in the nation. At the end of the season they picked another centre as player of the year. And my second year in the NBA the players voted me MVP, and the writers voted me second team all-league. So I’m used to that. But by my way of thinking, individual stats are great for golf, tennis, and most track and field [events].
Q: Individual sports.
A: Yes. But I played a team sport. So to my way of thinking, the only important thing is how does my play impact my team’s winning or losing. I won MVP five times, I never once led my team in scoring. I led in rebounding, and I was always second in assists. So, my impact on my team was offence and defence. But a long time ago, I dismissed individual honours.
Q: I notice you’re wearing a big ring.
A: Well, this ring is from NBA commissioner David Stern, who’s a friend of mine. Years ago, everybody used to ask me, “Which rings do you wear?” because we won 11 championships with the Boston Celtics. So David had this ring designed for me. It’s one of a kind. It has a cloverleaf, for the Celtics, with a six—my number—and on the side it has all 11 NBA championships. So I don’t have to make that decision anymore about which ring I’m going to wear.
Q: David Stern did that?
A: Yeah. For my birthday.
Q: I’m really interested in the notion of a team player versus a great player, because you’re often referred to as the greatest team player and it seems . . .
Q: . . . that even people in basketball are missing the point.
A: Right, that’s why we won so many championships!
Q: I know, you’ve won a lot of championships, and one would think that players are in it to win championships, so why not look at the example of people who won championships, and how they did it?
A: I played organized basketball for 21 years, and I was on 18 championship teams. Now, you could call it luck.
Q: You could.
A: But I’m perfectly satisfied with it. In fact, I personally reject those individual things. I don’t know if you know that I have never been to the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Q: I’m surprised at that.
A: Well, because if I say that I reject that because of negatives I can’t turn around and say the positives I’ll accept.