It’s no secret that basketball is one of the most thrilling and popular sports around the world. With 213 members of FIBA, the sport is a staple in many countries around the world. That being said, the United States is the country that dominates the sport and the National Basketball League has long been considered the home of the finest basketball players in the world.
There have been numerous great basketball players in the world but some belong to the top-most of categories. Here are 5 of SportCo’s greatest basketball legends.
The G.O.A.T. His Airness. Air Jordan.
It is impossible to talk about basketball without mentioning Michael Jordan. The man from Brooklyn, NY, is undisputedly the greatest player to have graced a basketball court. That’s not us, that’s his official NBA bio speaking.
The list of accolades for Jordan is endless. In a career that lasted from 1984-1998 and then from 2001 to 2003, Jordan is a six-time NBA champion with the Chicago Bulls. He’s also a six-time NBA Finals MVP along with a 5-time league MVP.
Jordan was drafted third overall by the Bulls in 1984, after he had an impressive college career with UNC’s Tar Heels. He made an immediate impact as he was named the NBA Rookie of the Year for that season.
The 10-time scoring champion won his first NBA championship in 1991, after falling short on multiple occasions in the Eastern Conference to the Detroit Pistons’ ‘Bad Boys’. But, 1991 opened the floodgates as the Jordan-led Bulls won three straight championships. He was also the star of the 1992 Dream Team that won the Olympic Gold.
MJ announced a shock retirement in 1993 in order to pursue a career in baseball which turned out to be unfruitful. He returned to the NBA in March 1995 re-joining his former team and led them to another three-peat, winning the NBA championship in 1996, 1997 and 1998 before retiring once again. Interestingly he returned to the NBA again in 2001 suiting up for the Washington Wizards.
MJ averaged an extraordinary 30.1 points per game in his entire career along with 5.3 assists. He was also a stellar defender, winning the NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 1988.
Jordan will forever be the man every other NBA great is measured against.
No man has won as many NBA championships as the great Bill Russell has. In a 13 year career, Russell served as the lynchpin of Red Auerbach’s Boston Celtics dynasty.
His joining of the Celtics is a tale for the ages itself. The Celtics did not have a high-enough pick in the 1956 draft to bag Russell. The other NBA franchises knew he was talented and the consensus was that he would be picked first by the Rochester Royals.
Auerbach, however, offered the Royals, who wanted an ice show at their arena, a set of Ice Capades if they did not pick Russell. The Royals agreed, but Russell was then picked by St. Louis Hawks who had the second pick. Auerbach, however, was able to get his man by trading Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan.
It turned out be a franchise-turning trade as Russell became the NBA’s premier defensive big man. He was part of a legendary lineup that included KC Jones, Bob Cousy and John Havlicek.
Russell won the NBA championship in 1957, followed by eight straight championships from 1959 to 1966. He added another three to his kitty in 1967, 1968 and 1969. In all these years, his rivalry with the great Wilt Chamberlain became a stuff of legend. With 11 rings, Rusell however holds the bragging rights in this one.
In an era defined by the Civil Rights movement in the US, Russell was seen as one of the pioneers. He was the first African-American to coach in the NBA and win a championship as one too.
What defines his legacy in the sport is this; the NBA Finals MVP award is called the Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP award.
Magic Johnson-Larry Bird
After the retirement of Russell and Chamberlain, the NBA saw somewhat of a decline in the 1970s with stagnating TV ratings and lesser competition. Enter the duo of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and the landscape of the sport changed.
It is hard to talk about one without talking of the other, such was their impact. Both were first round picks with Bird joining the Celtics in 1978 and Johnson joining the Los Angeles Lakers in 1979.
As both players entered their peak in the early 80’s, one of the NBA’s finest rivalries developed as the Lakers and Celtics won a combined eight NBA championships between 1980 and 1990.
The Magic-led Lakers became NBA champions in 1980 but Bird and the Celtics got one in 1981. As they traded championships, the NBA became must-watch TV with hysteria surrounding who’s the better player.
Both players’ stats speak for themselves. Magic Johnson averaged 19.5 points per game and 11.2 assists in his career. Larry Bird averaged 24.3 points and 6.3 assists. Where Johson served as a creative point-guard, Bird was the finisher.
Johnson was a five-time NBA Champion and Bird a three-time NBA champion. They also won three NBA League MVPs each along with a combined five NBA Finals MVPs. But more importantly, it was their rivalry that gave the NBA a much-needed catalyst in the years of the growth of TV networks.
It’s hard to find an NBA player who’s been loved and also hated as much as LeBron James. A player whose constantly in the discussion as the one who surpassed Michael Jordan. Love him or hate him, but you cannot deny that LeBron James is one of the greatest players the NBA and the world of sports has ever seen.
Growing up in Akron, OH, LeBron was a high-school basketball sensation. To add to his amazing story, he was drafted straight out of high school in the 2003 draft as the first overall pick by his hometown team, the Cleveland Cavaliers.
It only took year for the prodigiously talented James to achieve stardom, and his first All-Star call. From then on, he built on his legend and made perennial strugglers Cleveland, a playoff-caliber team.
James took the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals in 2007, where they were swept by the San Antonio Spurs. His Cavs side was a constant presence in the Playoffs but lack of capable help from his teammates meant that LeBron was unable to win a title.
In 2010, he made a controversial move, televised as The Decision to join the Miami Heat. He was followed suit by All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh who formed a much feared Big 3. While Miami suffered a disappointing loss to the Dirk Nowitzki-led Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA finals, they bounced back winning back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013 with James winning two straight NBA MVP and NBA Finals MVPs in those years.
He re-joined the Cavaliers in 2014 and then led the team to four straight finals appearances. He also finally won an NBA title with Cleveland, defeating the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals. The title was the first for the Cleveland franchise and the first major American sports championship for the city after 52 years. What made that title even more remarkable was that the Cavaliers were down 3-1 in the seven-game series and James inspired them to win four straight games. The Warriors, in that season, had set a new NBA Regular season record, winning 73 games and losing only nine.
James joined the Los Angeles Lakers after two successive finals losses to the Warriors in 2017 and 2018.
Regarded by analysts and fans alike as one of the most complete basketball players, James’ legacy is not finished yet. The 2018 season is the start of another chapter in the story of the kid from Akron.
When you talk about NBA players who could were extremely productive, Kareem-Abdul Jabbar’s name is the first to pop up on the list. His productivity was so good that till date, he remains the NBA player with most points scored and most career wins.
For the generation before Michael Jordan, Kareem-Abdul Jabbar is the undisputed G.O.A.T. The man, born as Lew Alcindor, played out a career that was filled with success and championships in both college basketball and the NBA. Abdul-Jabbar won six NBA Championships in his 20 year career in which he represented the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers. The UCLA standout won one championship with the Bucks and five with the Lakers.
Abdul-Jabbar was also an NBA record six-time league MVP, two-times finals MVP and the all-time league leader in points scored. His trademark sky-hook shot had a lot to do with the points total.
Beyond the court, Abdul-Jabbar is known for his activism around causes related to race and religion. The NBA great has written multiple essays for a number of reputed media houses. One of his more prominent pieces was calling for compensation to college athletes in the US.
The San Antonio Spurs are one of the NBA’s most successful teams, having won five NBA Championships. None of them were won before Tim Duncan joined the team.
That itself speaks volumes of the impact that Duncan had on the franchise. Joining the Spurs as a star college player for the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, Duncan played for 19 years and is considered the greatest power forward of all time.
Duncan was the first pick of the 1997 draft and quickly formed a deadly front-court tandem with David Robinson. The duo was called “The Twin Towers” and they were known for their stifling defense close to the rim which forced opposing players to take low percentage shots.
Duncan was named the NBA Rookie of the Year in 1998 and he won his first NBA title the next year. He averaged 27 points in the finals against the New York Knicks and was duly named the NBA Finals MVP.
As Robinson aged, Duncan assumed the leadership of the Spurs franchise and added four more titles to his and the team’s name. He would form another solid partnership with the likes of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili in the process. During his 19 year tenure, Duncan was named League MVP twice (2002, 2003) and the NBA Finals MVP twice as well. He was selected as an All-Star 15 times and is the only player to be selected to the All-NBA teams and the All-NBA Defensive teams 13 seasons in a row.
Known as the quiet and unassuming face of the model Spurs franchise, Duncan is also widely involved in philanthropy. He is also great friends with his now-former coach Greg Popovich and the duo is considered by many to be the best player-coach partnership in NBA history.
There are few players in NBA history who have been as polarizing as Kobe Bryant. In one moment, he could be a frustrating ball-hogger and in another he would produce a clutch play out of nowhere. His achievements might always be under the scanner, but his talent and greatness never is. For many, Kobe is the greatest Los Angeles Laker of all-time and that itself takes serious talent.
Drafted right out of high school by the Charlotte Hornets, and then traded to the Lakers, Bryant took some time to adjust to the rigors of the professional game, but by 1999 he was becoming a force to reckon with.
Bryant entered stardom by being a key piece of the Lakers side that won a three-peat of NBA Championships from 2000 to 2002. The guard became known for his explosive scoring and ability to single-handedly win games. After Shaquille O’Neal, he was the Lakers’ biggest offensive threat during this period.
The years following the three-peat were controversial for Kobe as his feud with teammate O’Neal escalated and the latter had to be traded. The Lakers and Kobe would bounce back after a couple of years, with Kobe winning the NBA Scoring Championship in 2006 and 2007.
With the addition of Pau Gasol, the Lakers became NBA title contenders again. Gasol’s arrival also helped Kobe raise his game as he won the 2008 League MVP award, but fell short in the NBA finals against the Celtics.
In 2009 and 2010, Kobe and the Lakers returned to the top, winning two successive NBA championships. Bryant was named the Finals MVP on both occasions for his efforts.
Kobe retired from basketball in 2016 and his jersey numbers, 8 and 24, were retired by the Lakers franchise as a sign of appreciation for his mercurial talent. His talent and achievement were such that Kobe was considered by his contemporaries like Dirk Nowitzki, Dwyane Wade and more as their generation’s “version of Michael Jordan”. Praise doesn’t get any higher than that.