Trying to compare LeBron James to another player I’ve seen is impossible. There has never been anyone quite like him in pro basketball. He’s so unique it took these six great players to explain how I see him.
KARL MALONE (30%) Have you ever seen the 6’9″, 260 lb. Karl Malone filling the outside lane on the fast break? Scary! His body was a weapon and nobody delivered at the rim like “The Mailman”. When you look at LeBron in transition you see something similar. He’s a freight train and it might be smart to move aside. I watched Karl score 37,000 points and many of them were playing “bully ball” like James has. They each seal defenders off down low, and guys bounce off their muscles. They both hit about 74% of their foul shots. LeBron is durable and sometimes seems bionic. He will get hurt, and will be running full speed a few minutes later. Malone played 80 or more games an incredible 17 times.
EARVIN “MAGIC” JOHNSON (25%)
Among the greatest passers, my favorite was Magic. He was the ultimate conductor and it seemed like he had four guys on a string. LeBron, like Magic before him is obsessed with making his teammates better. They both lead with joy and a brain for the game. James was a share first guy from day one, and is one of the elite passers in his own right. He comes up with crafty stuff, especially getting the ball cross court. The King and Magic are also a perfect match as rebounders. LeBron seems to go the Finals every year, a place Johnson found himself 9 times over 12 seasons.
SCOTTIE PIPPEN (15%)
It’s the point forward thing. Mostly it’s that Scottie Pippen was a defensive terror with athleticism and length. He could matchup all over the floor. LeBron can check anyone in the league in a pinch. His defensive versatility is arguably his most impressive trait.
MICHAEL JORDAN (20%)
Michael Jordan took what he wanted when driving to the hole. He’d pull up and go glass, go around you, over you, and even through you. LeBron James is unstoppable driving to the basket. Finesse and power come together in harmony. Nobody had energy like Jordan. He only slept four hours a night during his prime. Dropping 22 in the final quarter, while shutting down his man was just another Tuesday night for Mike. King James is producing a new kind of energy. He has a body and a skill set that has him on pace to be great at an older age than anyone in NBA history. In his 15th pro season, LBJ is slapping father time in the face.
Jordan is the greatest player I’ve ever seen. It was not because he was 6-0 in the Finals….He actually just played basketball better than everyone else has. As LeBron ages, he reminds me more of Michael now than ever.
CLYDE DREXLER (5%)
LeBron also has a smooth side. I think of Clyde “The glide” at his best. Drexler would spin and lay it in pretty. He may dunk it from 10 feet out, or swoop in for a timely finger roll.
DWYANE WADE (5%)
On a professional and personal level LeBron and D Wade are close and share a lot of beliefs and history inside the game. Both guys are explosive scorers. Their similar styles were evident in the alley-oop connection they displayed in Miami. King James is a much better clutch player than his reputation suggests.
I’M ONLY RANKING THE PLAYERS I HAVE SEEN IN MY TIME OF OBSESSIVELY WATCHING NBA BASKETBALL (1987-2015). The years noted next to the players are the span of time they played, not necessarily the exact seasons. Guys that are active are still climbing an ever-changing list like this one. There are a handful of players I saw play, but count them for this list. I did not see them enough or at their best.
PLAYERS I WATCHED THAT I DID NOT COUNT FOR THIS LIST: Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Moses Malone, Adrian Dantley, Bernard King, Mark Aguirre, Alex English, Dennis Johnson, Robert Parish, Rolando Blackman, Fat Lever , Ricky Pierce, Xaiver Mcdaniel, Tom Chambers & Larry Nance.
HONORABLE MENTION: Gilbert Arenas, Brad Daugherty, Mark Price, Tim Hardaway, and Derrick Coleman.
THE 60 BEST PLAYERS I’VE SEEN AS OF JULY, 2015:
#60- ANTHONY DAVIS (Active) I’m giving Davis an early ticket on this list. Like Shaquille O’Neal being voted a “top 50 player” too early, sometimes you can give credit for upside. Most NBA insiders think Davis is THE next guy. It’s obvious he’s going to be in the conversation.
#59- JAMES HARDEN (Active) For all that he has yet to do, it’s clear Harden’s impact level is here to stay. His step back jumper allows him to get shots off with little space. James is a master at drawing contact. I did not think he would ever end up second on an NBA MVP ballot.
#58- KEVIN JOHNSON (1987-2000) Many think of the images of the 6-foot-1 Johnson hammering it on Hakeem Olajuwon and Mark Eaton. The mayor could ball! In 105 playoff games KJ averaged 19.3 points and 8.9 assists per game.
#57- DERRICK ROSE (Active) Derrick is the youngest player to ever be named NBA MVP (22). It may be difficult for Rose to get back to that level again. I’ve seen enough to know he’s one of the most explosive, determined guards to play the game.
#56- LARRY JOHNSON(1991-2001)If healthy, Larry Johnson would have been a Hall of Fame player. He had elegance in his power game. Johnson hit one of the biggest shots and free throws in New York Knicks history.
#55- RUSSELL WESTBROOK (Active) Russell charging at a defense makes me think of back peddling in a panic. Former player Antoine Carr described his reason for liking Westbrook, “He seems to play angry every night man.”
#54- CHRIS BOSH(Active) After his last season in Toronto, I thought Chris peaked as the 12th best player in the NBA. His contribution was a huge reason the Heat went to four straight Finals and brought home two rings. Bosh plays outstanding pick and roll defense.
#53- MANU GINOBILI (Active) The 57th overall pick of the 1999 draft has become an unforgettable gem. Manu is the perfect combination of showtime and grit.
#52- CHAUNCEY BILLUPS (1997-2014) Basketball people love Billups. He went from a hard-working journeyman to a five time NBA All-Star and a Finals MVP. With a name like “Mr. Big Shot” we can assume this guy did alright.
#51- BUCK WILLIAMS(1981-1998)Before I saw him play Buck had five 1000 plus rebound seasons. I remember when he competed in 58 playoff games with the Blazers over a few year stretch. He could bang with someone like Karl Malone and make it a fair fight in the toughness category.
#50- DIKEMBE MUTOMBO(1991-2009)Mutombo made his name with smothering defense and a cool finger waggle. He was an eight time All-Star and four-time Defensive Player of the Year.
#49- AMAR’E STOUDEMIRE (Active) Amar’e was an exotic talent. He was a better Blake Griffin. Stoudemire was at his best during the Western Conference Finals versus San Antonio in his second season. He dropped 37 a game in dominating fashion. I thought then he was the third best player on the planet.
#48- SHAWN KEMP (1989-2003) Kemp was the first player I ever thought of as a “man child”. Even raw and young, he would explode off of the television. Shawn helped the 1996 Seattle Supersonics to 64 wins and the NBA Finals. As an older player in Cleveland he started burying the outside shot from the elbow.
#47- RASHEED WALLACE (1995-2013)Rasheed had great extension on his shot and range that stretched deep. Wallace was unstoppable when he was aggressive. He is the most gifted, reluctant player of his time (Odom is number two).
#46- TONY PARKER (Active) The longer Tony keeps his dribble alive, he seems to get more dangerous. His 17 foot jumper and his floater are staples that have helped his teams win four World Championships.
#45- CARMELO ANTHONY (Active) The media loves to talk about the holes in Carmelo’s game. I gained my respect for Melo watching his Olympic play in 2008. When he’s on your side it’s easy to see his scoring prowess. His mid range game is butter, and he can be trusted in crunch time.
#44- VINCE CARTER (Active) Vince was an aesthetically pleasing player to watch. His aerial game left you waiting for his next new move. Carter became a weapon from the three-point line and has a 50 point playoff game to his credit. His transition to excellent role player in his later years is a the bow on his Hall of Fame caliber career.
#43- JOE DUMARS (1985-1999) Rolling with a group of “bad boys”, Joe was the face of class and integrity. He shot it well, passed with precision, and was cool late in games. Dumars deserves the label of “combo guard.” Michael Jordan admired the challenge Joe presented him.
#42- PAU GASOL (Active) His mix of length and skill are transcendent. Gasol was the lead guy in Memphis on a 50 win team. He was the difference maker for Kobe’s Lakers teams that played in three straight Finals series. As a Chicago Bull in the 2015 campaign, he had the most Double doubles in the NBA with 54.
#41-DWIGHT HOWARD (Active) Dwight has become so overrated, hes underrated. His body and athleticism have aided him in being a historic defender. Howard has been the league leader in blocks five times. For all of those that dump on him the last few years, don’t forget Dwight is a 19.5 point, 14.1 rebound, and 2.6 block guy in 84 playoff games.
#40- MITCH RICHMOND (1988-2002) Richmond’s great play was a little under the radar in Golden State and Sacramento. Mitch finished strong at the cup. He scored 21 points per game or more in 10 straight seasons and hit 85 percent of his career free throws.
#39- CHRIS MULLIN (1985-2001) Chris watched the 1988 All-Star game from rehab. A year later he was playing in the 1989 All-Star game in Houston. He went from 30 pounds over weight to being part of “Run TMC” and leading the league in minutes twice. Mullin had super vision.
#38- DENNIS RODMAN (1986-2000) Rodman made hustle sexy. His energy seemed tangible and it drove his teams and his home crowds. Dennis led the league in rebounding over seven consecutive years, pulling down an eye-popping 16.7 a night.
#37- RAY ALLEN (1996-2014) When Ray Allen was in town I would always show up early to watch his pre game shooting routine. It was more than spectacular. It was a front row seat to the reminder that being great does not happen on accident.
#36- CHRIS PAUL (Active) He wears how bad he wants to beat you on his sleeve. Chris has led the league in steals per game five times in his 10 seasons. Although CP3 has not advanced to a Conference Final, the shot he hit to beat the Spurs in game seven (2015) should validate him the same.
#35- PENNY HARDAWAY (1993-2008) Penny had it all in his game. He was a big guard who had hops, could post, and was a suburb show passer. On a desperate Orlando team in 1997, Hardaway scored 42 and 41 points in back to back playoff wins.
#34- REGGIE MILLER(1987-2005)His constant motion was as much his staple as his long distance shooting. He was so difficult to chase it consumed teams. Miller would embrace pressure. He was always willing to dare the moment, which made for great theater in the clutch.
#33- TRACY MCGRADY (1997-2012) In his Orlando days, Tracy was an athletic phenom. He was like “Kobe East.” As a Rocket he remained a scoring expert, while his ability to pass the ball cross court was on full display. McGrady was a two-time scoring champion.
#32- ALONZO MOURNING(1992-2008)After a December 2007 game in Salt Lake City, I asked Mourning “what is the number one thing you have learned about yourself over the last few years?” He took his time cutting his last toe nail, looked up and said, “that I’m a tough son of a bitch.”
#31- GRANT HILL (1994-2013) Grant burst onto the scene as the new age point forward. He was a smooth and dynamic ball player. Late in a career full of injuries, Hill developed a reputation as a good defensive player.
#30- JAMES WORTHY(1982-1994)He would wave the ball above his head, palming it like a grapefruit. If Worthy didn’t get you with his first step, he would feel the defenders and quickly spin to the rim. “Big Game James” went 15 for 22 from the field in game seven of the 1988 NBA Finals.
#29- STEPHEN CURRY (Active) He’s only a puppy, and showing us things we have never witnessed before. His handles and shot are arguably the best we have seen. His ability to shoot off the dribble and the pass is seemingly effortless. This makes him the leading man in the long distance shooting era.
#28- JASON KIDD (1994-2013) Kidd was the unselfish play maker of the day. His ability to pass and hit the boards made him a triple double threat every night (his 107 is 3rd all time).
#27- PAUL PIERCE (Active) Pierce thrives in pressure moments. He is in the closer’s club. Paul is a Boston Celtics legend whose playoff career will be the roots of his legacy. Defensively Pierce created a hurdle for LeBron James. His nickname “The Truth”, was given to him by Shaquille O’ Neal.
#26- GARY PAYTON (1990-2007) When I think of “the glove”, I picture him in his defensive crouch. His palms out, his head rocking side to side, and chewing his gum like the cockiest man alive. Gary Payton was also awesome at basketball.
#25- KEVIN MCHALE(1980-1993) His odd framed body combined with all of his pet moves made McHale a back to the basket wizard. Charles Barkley said about Kevin, “He was almost an impossible cover. I would just stand there with my arms raised up as high as I could get them. Then you just hoped he missed.”
#24- KEVIN DURANT (Active) He has the unique physical tools, the strong mental makeup, and the drive that makes him a lock for greatness. KD will begin his prime years of play this winter. Durant has already been the league MVP. He has finished in second place in the voting three times.
#23- DOMINIQUE WILKINS (1982-1999) Dominique Wilkins was left off the NBA’s 50th Anniversary Team in 1996. Wilkins became the popular name missing from the top 50 list. Magic, Bird, and Jordan quickly made the point Nique deserved the same honor that they did. His 1988 playoff performance with 47 points remains a record for a game seven.
#22- CHRIS WEBBER(1993-2008)In my opinion, Webber was the top player in the NBA for the first half of the 2000 NBA season. Chris had good patience under the rim. He had amazing hands and caught everything. At the time C Webb was the best front court passer since Larry Bird.
#21- SCOTTIE PIPPEN (1987-2004) Pippen is the most disrespected star of my lifetime. He is perceived as a player that was carried to his success. The reality is, Scottie won six Championships while ranging between the 3rd and 12th best player on earth. He was a lock down defender and as well-rounded as they come.
#20- PATRICK EWING (1985-2002) He was the prize of the 1985 draft and did not disappoint. Patrick had all of the rugged traits with an iconic turn around shot from the baseline. Ewing was named “Player of the Month” 5 times.
#19- ALLEN IVERSON (1996-2010) Iverson destroyed defenses with his relentless play and blinding quickness. He was constantly on the floor sacrificing his body. Allen led the league in average minutes seven times. A guy that scores 30 points in the opening half of his first NBA Finals game, is obviously not scared.
#18- STEVE NASH (1996-2014) Steve had excellent balance and footwork. He was a degree of difficulty shot maker, and did it shooting elite percentages. His style could seem chaotic but Steve was in complete control. Teams were built around his unique abilities.
#17- DIRK NOWITZKI (Active) I’ll never forget his 2011 Finals performance. It was among the greatest efforts where one man carried a group. You could see his experiences paying off in the fourth quarter. Dirk slowly out matured the Miami Heat when it mattered the most.
#16- CLYDE DREXLER (1983-1998) I can see Drexler dribbling full speed ahead with his head down. Clyde was traded to the Rockets in 1995. Some teammates resented him because they missed Otis Thorpe. After dropping 41 points, 9 rebounds, and 6 assists in a playoff game down two games to one to Utah, ended questions over the trade. Kenny Smith said, “we remembered quickly he was special.”
#15- ISIAH THOMAS (1981-1994) Isiah played the game like he knew he was being watched. He was a crowd pleaser and was a difficult player to upstage. His 1,123 assists remain an Eastern Conference record that will be hard to touch.
#14- KEVIN GARNETT (Active) KG was an animated character. At his best, he could guard every player on the court. Garnett was so wound up in his early years, he would not let the ball go in his teams hoop even after the whistle had blown.
#13- DWYANE WADE (Active) The self security Wade showed in how he handled James and Bosh in Miami was vital to the bond and the winning. His hesitation dribble sets up his beautiful drives into the paint. The 6-foot-4 Wade has 717 blocks in only 781 games.
#12- CHARLES BARKLEY (1984-2000) There was nobody quite like Charles. For his size, his rebounding numbers are epic. He shot 58 percent from the floor over his first six seasons. Being the standout player on the original “Dream Team” is his coolest accomplishment.
#11- JOHN STOCKTON(1984-2003)Stockton was so good at making decisions he made me think and guess the game as a viewer. John scored 19, 711 points shooting 51.5 percent on field goals. On the side, he was busy crushing opponents physically in the pick-setting part of the game. Only three players have produced a 1,000 assist season. John accomplished that feat seven different times.
#10- DAVID ROBINSON (1989-2003) “The Admiral” was chiseled, mobile, and cat quick. The last quadruple-double in the NBA was February 17th, 1994. Robinson had 34 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists, and 10 blocks against the Pistons. After the height of his individual glory, he tutored Tim Duncan which paid off with two Championships.
#9- KARL MALONE (1985-2004) One of the most impressive sights in modern basketball was the 6-foot-9 inch, 260 pound “Mailman” running the outside lane on the fast break. Backing his guy down in the paint, Karl would seal the player on his hip and it was over. Nobody was stronger and he was not going to be outworked. Malone made the ALL-NBA First Team 11 times.
#8- HAKEEM OLAJUWON(1984-2002)At his apex (1993-97), Hakeem had the most impact on offense and defense in harmony than anyone else I’ve seen in the NBA. He mowed down beasts of the game to win his two titles. “Dream” remains the only player with over 200 blocks and 200 steals in the same season.
#7- LEBRON JAMES (Active) James is the finest combination of power and finesse the game has seen. He is as unselfish as an elite scorer can be. His defense is wildly versatile. LeBron’s on the level where being the best ever has to be his goal.
#6- SHAQUILLE O’NEAL (1992-2011) Phil Jackson coaching Shaquille O’Neal in his prime created a monster. The motivated, refined version of Shaq was so dominant, it made us all think of Wilt. O’Neal was the most automatic bucket in the NBA. He led the league in field goal percentage 10 times.
#5- TIM DUNCAN (Active) Tim is arguably the best player during his time in pro basketball. Duncan is a five time NBA Champion whose teams have won 50 or more games in 16 straight years. He’s everyone’s favorite model of poise and consistency.
#4- LARRY BIRD (1979-1992) Bird had an intimidating swagger about himself. He seemed to be playing cat and mouse with his opponents. He made an art form out of crafty play. Larry was the leader of arguably the greatest team of all time, the 1986 Boston Celtics (40-1 at home).
#3- KOBE BRYANT (Active) I believe Bryant is the greatest, fundamentally sound offensive player in the history of the game. His footwork and tough shot making ability are incomparable. Kobe once out scored the Dallas Mavericks 62-61 through three quarters. Dallas had played three more minutes than him.
#2- MAGIC JOHNSON (1979-1996) Magic smiled while he humiliated people. He always seemed to have his four offensive teammates on a string. Johnson had an incredible feel for what his team needed. He played in 9 NBA Finals. If you needed a 50 foot shot to win the game, Magic would give you a solid chance. He has the most fitting nickname in sports.
#1- MICHAEL JORDAN (1984-2003) Jordan is the best team sports athlete I’ve ever seen. He often owned the game and seemed to take what he wanted on the floor. He was asked to live up to “Jordan standards” every night. It’s amazing how often he would match or exceed those expectations. Michael scored 40 or more points in a game 37 times…in 1987 alone.
We lost one of the world’s great people just over one year ago. As missing him continues and even increases, it’s also getting easier to understand the impact he had on my life. I’m learning to have a friendship with my memories of him. Outside of his loved ones, sports was Rusty’s number one passion. I’m excited to share more of the things that made him tick.
#1-KARL MALONE WAS HIS FAVORITE NBA PLAYER OF ALL TIME: He used to study Karl on VHS tapes rewinding them over and over. He especially loved Karl’s post moves. Rusty loved his defense and his over the shoulder pass. He would boast “nobody runs the floor and rips down the rim like Karl.” In high school he signed his name Rusty “the mailman” Riggs.
#2- HE TAUGHT ME HOW TO THROW THE BALL IN THE POST: The first time we played in the “Roundball Ruckus” (3 on 3 basketball tournament) I blew our last game. I was being smothered on the perimeter and kept turning the ball over as Russ begged for the ball down low. We lost the game because of this and Russ was pissed. In rare form he gave me a personal jab over me “not being able to make a simple post pass.” It hurt to let him down and needless to say by the next year, I was a master at the variety of ways to pass the ball in the post. I got Rusty the ball, he scored 16 of our 20 points and this time we won. He pushed me with joy and yelled, “that’s how you pass the ball in the post boy!” That moment meant a ton to me. Every time I make a post pass, it’s him.
#3-RUSS HAD AN EXTRA GOOD REASON TO FOLLOW DEREK SMITH’S CAREER: Rusty played on the same field with Derek Smith in ninth grade. Riggs knew exactly how tough and good Derek was from that experience. Rusty watched him play every snap of his high school career. We were blown away how good Derek was at football, especially on defense. After Snow College Derek had gone on to play at Arizona State. One night in 1996 I got a call from Russ saying “Derek Smith is dominating against one of the best teams in the country.” That was when we realized Derek was really on his way. Derek played 12 seasons in the NFL against and with people that were larger than life to Rusty and I. Smith was a starter and one of the best tacklers in pro football. Derek gave Rusty a great deal of inspiration.
#4- HE WAS A DALE MURPHY FAN: Russ took a lot of pride in the fact that Dale Murphy was a Mormon. He would always bring up his back to back NL MVP awards and liked to mention how close he was to being a Hall of Famer. He was annoyed his guy was two home runs short of 400. I spent a couple of hours with Murphy in 2002. He was such a nice guy. I told Dale how much Rusty admired him.
#5- HE LIKED TO SAY GOODBYE TO THE VISITING NBA TEAMS: One of his favorite things to do after going to a Utah Jazz game was watch the visiting team leave on their bus. Russ was a die-hard fan. He would have no problem waiting an hour to catch a glimpse of the players. It wasn’t just him being in awe, he wanted to be close to something he knew he could be a part of as a future media member. He loved that we were flipped off by a member of the San Antonio Spurs.
#6- HE WAS GOOD AT MAKING PREDICTIONS: He seemed to be on fire for about a decade predicting games. It became a bother for me because he would use it as argument leverage. If he didn’t agree with me on something he might go, “look here little Jaybird, you don’t have to watch any NBA playoff games this weekend. I’ll just tell you what will happen and save you the time.”
#7- HE WAS SO HAPPY JARED AND I WORE IDENTICAL SHIRTS: For months Rusty had been anticipating meeting, and playing basketball with my buddy Jared. I can’t remember why, but I ended up making the horrible decision of wearing the same t-shirt as Jared. The shirts had a cartoon face of Michael Jordan. This was like handing Rusty comedy dynamite. For about twelve years he made a phone books worth of jokes over this.
#8- HIS NAME BECAME “RUSS” IN THE HOT SUMMER OF LOUISIANA: When he left on his LDS mission in early 1994, his name was Rusty. In the community of Algiers ( New Orleans) he came away with a different name. He was playing basketball on a hot summer day. Coming from Highland Utah it was culture shock for Rusty and his companion to be the only white people among 25 guys. Rusty described the competition as “unbelievable”. He said the best player there was a 6’8″ black guy who had played at the University of Houston. The guy was cool to Rusty as he dominated everyone. As Riggs started to perform some guys started calling him “Utah.” The stud ball player started calling him “Russ.” He adopted the name from there with pride. It was important for him to earn the respect of these guys.
#9- HE ADORED MARCH MADNESS: He could sense the NCAA Tournament coming each year. He bragged about teachers in high school that would play the tourney on t.v. during class. Rusty would go to the games anytime they would be in Salt Lake City. His biggest selling point was how popular March madness was. I eventually caved to its popularity which made him happy.
#10- HIS WADE/LEBRON ARGUMENT WITH ME BECAME LEGENDARY: It started in the spring of 2006 when I said, “right now Wade is as good as LeBron.” Russ freaked out over my statement. From that time on LeBron James versus Dwyane Wade was a factor in our friendship up until four days before Russ passed away. It would probably rank as one of our eight greatest sports arguments. I had several niche advantages in this debate, but he won this one with the safe choice of James on his side. He would often make remarks like, “Wade in a little back pack on LeBron’s back like Yoda and Luke.”
#11-RUSTY HAD GREAT APPRECIATION FOR MARSHALL FAULK: August 10th, 1992: He was there to witness San Diego State getting their first ever win in Provo. Marshall gutted the Cougars for 299 rushing yards and three scores. That game was burned into Rusty’s memory and he followed Faulk for his entire NFL career.
#12- HE HATED THE UNIVERSITY OF UTAH: He believed hating the school on the hill was part of his life’s job description. I felt like he put 80 percent of the energy into hating Utah as he did loving BYU. If someone walked by with Utah gear on it’s as if he was smelling an enemy from a strange planet. Utah wins hurt him. Utah losses made him feel great. Utah beating BYU was a nightmare, and beating Utah was like winning the Super Bowl for Russ. When BYU quarterback Max Hall verbally ripped Utah to shreds after a 2009 win, I’ll never forget Rusty’s words. “To say everyone at the University of Utah is classless is obviously not true. It was crazy for him to be so harsh with the microphones in his face. Part of me loves him more for ripping them so bad though.” He was unapologetic for feeling this way about the U of U.
#13- RUSS, HALLOWEEN, AND LAMAR ODOM GO TOGETHER: I have a random but clear memory of Halloween night 2008. I was driving on Redwood Road and on the phone with Russ. We were arguing about Lamar Odom. He claimed Lamar was not going to get any better while I stated he could still improve by a level. We must have gone on about this for an hour. That was the same call in which he told me about his families Halloween tradition to eat donuts and chili. He laughed when I said it was weird yet made perfect sense. Odom went on to get better, but not enough for me to ever bring it up again.
#14- HE HAD TO KNOW THE SCORE NOW: When he was in the rare situation of having to work during a BYU football game, he was not going to wait until later to watch on tape in its entirety. We were broadcasting a football game at Davis High School years ago. BYU was playing at the same time. Every time we went to commercial he yelled “score?” Russ ended up buying a student dinner to keep him updated throughout the night. On the drive home he said he was going to go re watch the game. I asked him if he was sure Ruth had taped it? He said, “bro, she’s a professional at this point.”
#15-HE GREW UP ON NFL FILMS: We always shared common ground here. It makes sense that he loved “NFL Films.” Ed and Steve Sabol captured the art of football in a very romantic light. It was about the sights, sounds, and by far the best view of the National Football League. It’s no surprise Riggs dug this part of pro football. He was a very sentimental person.
#16-HE LOVED HIS GAME DAY ROUTINE: BYU game day Saturday’s were his greatest reward in the life of being a sports fan. He would only allow college football talk on the radio. It’s the only time I remember him never listening to his R&B music. He was feeling joy as he heard scores from other games around the country. He always parked in the same neighborhood. I often said, “are you sure you can park here?” He’d always respond, “my family has been parking here for 25 years dude.” He would often park in tight spaces, weird angles, whatever it took. He was parking in this little semi-circle no matter what.
#17- LAVELL EDWARDS STADIUM WAS HEAVEN ON EARTH TO RUSTY: He always wanted to be there early. We would walk down the North side of the stadium when we arrived. As Russ got near , his religious type experience would begin. You could almost hear “Rudy” music as he would soak in just how happy he was to be there. Russ thought this stadium was a hallowed NCAA beauty and he felt lucky it was like his back yard. He would often go to an intersection to sell an extra ticket. I initially struggled to realize this was legal. He would constantly make fun of me for it. He would go “Jay, scared to cross the road.”
#18- HE WAS NEVER LOYAL TO AN NFL TEAM OVER THE LONG HAUL: He liked the 49ers as a kid and then later on as he followed Steve Young. He spent some time cheering for some of Andy Reid’s Eagles teams. He was never really attached to an NFL team. He knew it would be over load with the energy he put into BYU and Utah. The April before he died he claimed, “I guess I’m cheering for the Detroit Lions now.” The Lions had two BYU players ready to make an impact.
#19- BYU OVERMIAMI WAS HIS FIRST BIGGEST WIN AS A FAN: September 28th 1990: Rusty was there to see his Cougars beat the number one ranked Miami Hurricanes 28 to 21. On his mission tape in 1995 he describes this day. “At the time I’d never been so pumped up for a game. When Miami came onto the field with all their glory and cockiness I got a rush and lost a little breath. Ty threw for 406 yards, and we beat them! I’ll never forget the embrace with my dad and just going crazy. This was my “1984.”
#20- RUSS WAS VERY GOOD AT BASKETBALL: American Fork High School had a large student body and was one of the best basketball schools in the state of Utah. He was in the last group of five guys that did not make the varsity team his senior year. He was a star on his “city league” team. Of the 20 or so people we hung out with over a few year window, he was the best player of the group. He was a solid defensive player, but awesome on offense. Bigger guys who would play physical (i.e. Alan Owens and Kevin Franson) could give him fits, but Russ scored points. He had several pet moves in the post including a tricky hesitation drive he was proud of. He could shoot outside and developed three-point range in his early twenties. An inside player who would get hot shooting outside is nice. Remember that he was six feet four inches tall. Rusty scored buckets. He got hot and usually stayed hot. I was very proud of the basketball player he was.
#21- HE WAS ABLE TO INTERVIEW JERRY SLOAN: While working for the ‘”Davis County Clipper” Russ had the opportunity to interview Jazz legend Jerry Sloan. Jerry is a hard-nosed man and I was curious to ask Russ what his first question was? He said, “right before I opened my mouth I thought don’t say anything stupid, think defense.”
#22- RUSTY SPENT MANY HOURS TALKING ABOUT TONY ROMO: Because of my interests, Russ spent more time talking about Tony Romo than I’m sure he would have chosen to otherwise (Steve Riggs and Dan Merrill got a taste of these talks). Russ was a master at arguing. He knew how to jab me with Tony’s failures but keep me on board by praising his talent. The last play Russ saw Romo make was a season saving, fourth down pass to beat the Redskins in 2013. Russ text me, “and with a hurt back? That’s pretty impressive Tony.”
#23- A LOOK AT THE LAST 3 BYU FOOTBALL GAMES HE WATCHED: The last home game he saw was a 59-13 victory over Idaho State. The last regular season game was a 28-23 win at Nevada. The last BYU football game he ever saw was a 31-16 loss to Washington in the Fight Hunger Bowl. The game was December 27th, 2013. When BYU lost it hurt Russ. At 38 years old he had gotten good at knowing how to handle it.
#24- RUSS WAS AN ALLEN IVERSON FAN: He didn’t love him right away. Over time he saw a guy tough enough to live diving on the floor, and brash enough to take on Jordan. Russ was mesmerized by Iverson’s quickness. He backed him the entire way during his 2000-2001 MVP season.
#25- HE BAILED ME OUT AT DAVIS HIGH SCHOOL: He and I were broadcasting a High School football game on TV. He got several of these little gigs over a few year period and always asked me to join in. This was being taped beforehand and would be played later in the night. We had to do a shot of ourselves on the sideline before we went up to the booth. I kept screwing it up. I was stumbling on the line and messed up for the third straight time. I walked away in disgust as the camera guy seemed a bit surprised. Russ bumped me and said, “compared to what you have done, this is like goofing off in the back yard. This is too easy for you bro. You got this.” I calmed down and made it happen. His support was like a jolt of excitement. As the play by-play guy he nailed his job like always.
Kobe Bryant was denied the credit he deserved while playing with Shaquille O’Neal. Any time the discussion of Kobe’s place in history would come up related to his three rings I was told “Kobe had Shaq.” How many times did I hear “Shaq carried Kobe?” My favorite was “Kobe will never win it all without Shaquille.” I was offended by these outlandish takes. I told you guys then Kobe would succeed, and now I’m here to remind you. When the Lakers beat the Orlando Magic in the 2009 NBA Finals, I heard a broadcaster say a line that really left an impression on me. He said, “four time champion Kobe Bryant.” What did I just hear? Did he win four titles tonight? I don’t remember him getting credit for the first three. His fourth title, and first without O’Neal validated Kobe out of a shadow he should not have had to fight.
Peoples fixation on “Kobe HAVING Shaq” comes from a few places. Kobe had so much swagger out of the gates, having proved zero, it rubbed people the wrong way and made him an awesome villan. Michael Jordan fans resented Kobe for talking like Michael, chewing his gum like MJ, and using his moves. Those same Jordan lovers feared Kobe. Phil Jackson had made it clear Kobe was Michael’s equal in skill and killer will. The last and most obvious reason is Shaq was an amazing basketball player. O’Neal is one of the 10 greatest players of all time. During the Lakers three peat in the early 2000’s, he was the most dominant and best player on the planet. Shaq was the ultimate mismatch of the day. He was as close to an automatic bucket or dunk as you can get. What you may not remember is Bryant was the NBA’s most skilled player, and its second best overall.
The Los Angeles Lakers of the early 2000’s were a unique dynasty. They were a top heavy team who had the world’s two best ball players. When you get into comparison talk don’t give me that “Batman and Robin” garbage when you talk about Shaq and Kobe. Robin had very little game. Kobe Bryant during his physical prime was not like a little pet lending a helping hand. Here are some perspective points to Kobe’s level while playing with Shaquille:
Over the three championship seasons Kobe averaged 25.1 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 4.9 assists. He attained these numbers having to contain himself and cater to O’Neal.
In 2002 the Lakers were an all time best 15-1 in the post season. Bryant averaged 29.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 6.1 assists.
He was on the ALL-NBA Team and the All-Defensive Team each year.
In game four of the 2000 NBA Finals after Shaq fouled out in overtime, a 21-year-old Kobe told his teammate “I got you.” Bryant hit all five of his shots in the extra session leading the Lakers to victory.
In February of 2003 Kobe scored over 40 points in nine consecutive games. He dropped 50 plus in two of them and the Lakers went seven and two over that stretch.
Shaq set the tone and was the unquestioned hammer. Kobe was the wicked talent and the closer. He handled the ball in the last five minutes of games play making for himself and others. Kobe also was protecting O’Neal at the end of contests because he hit 31 percent more of his free throws.
Kobe was an impatient young man who wanted to rule pro basketball. Shaq was the alpha dog and big brother figure in the locker room. Kobe thought he worked harder than O’Neal, while Shaq thought Bryant was a hot dog. Soap opera or not, when the lights came on Shaq and Kobe performed and played brilliantly together. They did not have the connectivity of a Stockton to Malone or Magic to Worthy. They didn’t have the cool similar styles that MJ and Pippen or LeBron and Wade had. Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant won big and did it with opposing game styles and personalities. These two players are both legends of the game. Why hasn’t anyone ever said, “Shaq had Kobe?”
After escaping the Boston Celtics in game seven of the 2010 NBA Finals a reporter asked Kobe…”I know for you this is a team accomplishment first, but what does this fifth world title mean for you individually?” With zero hesitation Bryant said, “one more than Shaq.”