Originally created 09/15/99

Russell stands alone on ESPN's list of athletes



NEW YORK -- Bill Russell is in a class by himself. Of all of the living athletes on ESPN's "SportsCentury" list, he is the only one to refuse an interview for the project.

The cable network released the names of the top 20 athletes Tuesday at the opening of its newest ESPN Zone restaurant in Manhattan.

Russell was among the elite 20 -- a list presented in alphabetical order -- and surprisingly showed up for the event.

"Bill Russell won't do an interview, but we did speak to his daughter, Karen," said ESPN's Mark Shapiro, who heads up the project. "He has chosen to decline."

The former Boston center, who won 11 NBA titles in 13 seasons with the Celtics, always had a rocky relationship with media and fans.

"It wasn't necessary to do an interview," Russell said. "For the last 15 years, I haven't done any. The only reason I am here is because my daughter convinced me to and she is my best friend."

Russell joined Jim Brown, Wayne Gretzky, Carl Lewis and Martina Navratilova at the Times Square restaurant.

The others on the list: Hank Aaron, Muhammad Ali, Wilt Chamberlain, Ty Cobb, Babe Didrikson, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Joe Louis, Willie Mays, Jack Nicklaus, Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Babe Ruth, Jim Thorpe and Ted Williams.

Cobb is No. 20 and a 30-minute show will air Friday at 10:30 p.m. EDT.

Seven of the top 20 are baseball players, while four come from basketball and track and field. Just two women, Navratilova and Didrikson, made the top 20.

The panel of voters consisted of broadcasters, writers, historians and ESPN personnel.

ESPN will begin two shows a week in December on the list. The final one-hour program, featuring the top two athletes on the list, will be shown Dec. 26 on ABC.

Russell said being selected "doesn't mean much", but his choice for the century's top athlete would be Brown.

"This list gives us a lot of conversation," Russell said. "I never put myself in a class with these people because my agenda was different. It was winning games and that was all. Jim Brown is the best player ever to play football and was far and away the best lacrosse player ever."

He was surprised that a fellow ex-Celtic, Larry Bird, was not closer to Johnson on the list. Bird was No. 30 and Johnson is among the top 20.

"The only reason they do that is because Magic won five titles and Larry won three," he said. "I think they should be a tie."

Shapiro estimates more than 1,500 interviews have been done since the project began two years ago. He said Russell is the only player to decline an interview, but he has had a few strange requests.

Sugar Ray Leonard's manager would grant ESPN an interview only if he was the second boxer on the list after Ali. However, Leonard didn't even crack the top 100.

Some of the others that didn't make the cut are John McEnroe, John Elway, Frank Robinson, Nancy Lopez and Pete Maravich.