We’re all thinking a lot about Bill Russell this week as basketball lost one of its greatest, most influential, and successful players of all time. The NBA rolled out its plans to honor Russell this week with the No. 6 being retired league wide, players wearing patches, and courts being adorned with clovers for the upcoming season.
This all got me thinking: What if NBA 2K followed suit? Easily one of the most memorable additions in franchise history are the “Jordan Challenges,” which first appeared in NBA 2K11 are being rebooted in 2K23. From winning the National Championship at North Carolina, to the flu game, and hitting “The Shot” over Craig Ehlo, the Jordan Challenges perfectly hit the right chord of nostalgia and difficulty.
When it comes to Russell, however, it’s a whole new ball game. We’re talking about taking players back to the 1960s and asking them to absolutely break the game using one player. Even against sub-par competition and old-school basketball sensibilities, could we really expect someone to achieve any of these Bill Russell challenges?
The Entire Show: March 11, 1965 vs. Pistons
Challenge: Score 27 points on 40 percent shooting or better, record 49 total rebounds, while committing only one foul
Honestly, you would have to drop someone into the fourth quarter with this one already recording 40 rebounds to make it work. Getting reliable rebounds in 2K isn’t exactly easy, ask asking for 49 is ridiculous.
This was an incredible game that highlights Russell’s overall dominance. He led both teams in points, assist, and rebounds (obviously) with nobody coming remotely close to him on boards. After Russell the second highest rebounder was Detroit’s Jackie Moreland, who brought down 10 — again, RUSSELL HAD 49!
While this mid-season game wasn’t exactly a high stakes affair, it was an incredible example of how so few were close to him on the court.
The Triple Double: Game 6 of the 1962 NBA Finals vs. Los Angeles Lakers
Challenge: Record a minimum of 10 points, 20+ rebounds and 10 assists
Here’s a challenge we have to tone way back. The 1962 NBA Finals featuring Russell and Sam Jones dueling Jerry West and Elgin Baylor is one of the legendary NBA Finals’ series in history. While the Celtics prevailed in seven, it was Game 6 where Boston leaned on No. 6 to be the entire damn show, opening up the court for Jones to score 35 points as the volume shooter.
Russell finished the night with 19 points, 24 rebounds and 10 assists. It would have been one of the first triple-doubles in NBA history if that was a recorded stat back in 1962. The added level of challenge playing against a team the caliber of the early-60s Lakers makes this one to put in the game.
Changing history: January 30, 1968 vs. 76ers
Challenge: Beat Wilt Chamberlain and the Philadelphia 76ers
This is one of those legendary games that often gets overlooked because of the box score. In late January of 1968, Russell and the Celtics were absolutely swallowed alive by Wilt Chamberlain in a 125-118 loss.
The final score doesn’t do justice to just how utterly demolished Russell was in this game. In an era before statistics were fully tracked we don’t have a great grasp on the matchup in the paint outside of knowing that Russell went 3-of-10 from the field, while Chamberlain went off for 23 points, 29 boards, and 13 assists.
It’s a great opportunity to put the Russell vs. Chamberlain in a match where No. 6 was the underdog in one of the rare cases in his career.
Block Party: February 7, 1966 vs. Warriors
Challenge: Record 20+ blocks in a win over San Francisco
Part of the fun of a challenge mode like this is going back and applying modern concepts to old games. In this case it’s blocks. Russell is unequivocally regarded as one of the greatest shot blockers of all time, but at a time before blocks were a recorded statistic.
There have been huge fan projects to track down every game report possibly to try and estimate blocks from this era, with it being generally accepted that Russell blocked approximately 8.1 shots per game during his career. Inside of this ridiculous number one Russell game stands head and shoulders above the rest — against the poor Warriors, who were obliterated in 1966.
Local write ups of the game attributed 25 blocks to Russell against San Francisco. This seems to mesh with the official box score, which shows the Warriors shooting 37-for-88 from the field (below their average) and Russell recording an uncharacteristically low 11 rebounds — potentially because he was blocking so many shots instead.
Even if there’s a little fiction to this it would be an extremely fun addition to the mode.
The last hurrah: Game 7 of the 1969 NBA Finals vs. Los Angeles Lakers
Challenge: Hold Wilt Chamberlain to 18 points
The final game of Bill Russell’s NBA career was also one of his most important. Once again facing the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals, it was Russell’s first time staring down a team containing Jerry West, Elgin Baylor AND Wilt Chamberlain with everything on the line.
A back-and-forth series pushed both teams to the limit, and it was clear that an aging Russell no longer could be a difference maker offensively against Chamberlain, a player to whom he’s so often compared, and had his number in the past.
West, playing like a man possessed, was desperate to win a ring that went off for 42 points in the game and overcame an early Celtics lead and out-scored Boston 30-17 in the fourth quarter. Elgin Baylor added another 20, and with Wilt averaging 30.1 during the season, all the Lakers needed was a typical game from their big man in the middle.
Chamberlain ended up scoring 18, stuffed at the rim by Russell’s defensive prowess. The Lakers would go on to lose 108-106 — allowing Russell to retire from the NBA with yet another championship to his name.