As LeBron James, Stephen Curry and other stars create a new NBA before our eyes — while standing on the shoulders of giants — we are presenting the 100 NBA players who have done the most to change the way we play the game, how we talk about the game, and the culture of basketball.
For this special edition of #NBArank, we asked our panel to choose the players who have influenced the game most, both on and off the court: the real game-changers.
Our NBA panel — with members from across ESPN, including TV, radio, ESPN.com, The Undefeated and ESPN The Magazine — voted more than 11,000 times to select the top 90 game-changers, and a smaller committee of writers and editors selected the final 10.
25. George Mikan
Minneapolis Lakers (1947-54, 1956; head coach 1957-58)
George Mikan carried pro basketball for the decade following World War II and nearly broke the sport.
Exemplifying his domination was a famous marquee at Madison Square Garden declaring “George Mikan vs. the New York Knicks.” Despite the slight at Mikan’s talented Minneapolis teammates, the marquee spoke a truth. In his eight seasons playing in the NBL, BAA and finally NBA, Mikan’s team won seven titles. The only year his team didn’t win the title was 1951, when he had a broken leg.
His domination of the paint with ambidextrous hook shots caused the NBA to widen the lane and adopt the shot clock as teams would too often stall, preventing the superstar from getting a shot. The bespeckled Mikan’s play was the catalyst — even if unintended — for revving up the pace and speed of basketball. — Curtis Harris
24. Tim Duncan
San Antonio Spurs (1997-2016)
The résumé of five championships, two MVP awards, 15 All-Star selections and a 20-season record of incomparable consistency represent only a fraction of Duncan’s quiet influence on the game he mastered. He also was the spiritual leader of basketball’s most admired organization.
“Before you start handing out applause and credit to anyone else in this organization for anything that’s been accomplished, remember it all starts with and goes through Timmy,” said Gregg Popovich on the eve of the 2014 Finals.
As the Spurs continued their reign of excellence and resilience, winning titles despite inferior athletic talent, the rest of the league looked to imitate them. A generation of NBA executives recognized that Duncan’s emotional intelligence was the connective tissue that helped Popovich execute the vision in San Antonio. They then went out to find their Tim Duncan, so that they could fashion a team culture modeled after the Spurs. — Kevin Arnovitz
23. Elgin Baylor
Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers (1958-71); New Orleans Jazz (head coach, 1974, 1976-79)
Elgin Baylor had a remarkable career that always seemed to have an ill-fated quirk.
He has the third-highest scoring average in NBA history, but never led the league in scoring for a season. He appeared in the Finals eight times and set a Finals single-game record of 61 points, but never won a title. His play saved the Lakers franchise financially, and yet when he gracefully retired early in the 1971-72 season, that’s when the team went on a record-setting win streak and finally won the championship.
Regardless of the quirks, Baylor is a titan of the sport and human dignity. He showed the league what hangtime was all about with an array of reverse layups, contorted one-handers and double-pump jumpers. And after his playing career, he served 22 years for the often woeful Los Angeles Clippers, winning Executive of the Year in 2006.
Off the court, he protested segregated hotels and restaurants. During the 1964 All-Star Game strike, Tom Heinsohn recalled that Lakers owner Bob Short yelled at someone, “You go tell Elgin Baylor that if he doesn’t get his ass out here fast, I’m done with him!'” Baylor’s reply summed up his determination to see the strike and labor movement through: “Tell Bob Short to go [expletive] himself.” — Harris
22. Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper, Nat Clifton, Don Barksdale and Wat Misaka
Unlike with baseball and Jackie Robinson, integration in the NBA hinged not on a single player but on multiple players arriving in 1950, three years after Robinson’s MLB debut.
Though Chuck Cooper was the first black player drafted, Earl Lloyd was the first to play in an actual game. Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton was the first to join the league from the Harlem Globetrotters. Don Barksdale was the first black All-Star and before joining the NBA was the first black NCAA All-American and first black player to win gold in basketball at the Olympics.
Lloyd would later go on to be the first black player to win an NBA title and serve as an assistant coach.
In 1947, Wat Misaka joined the BAA (forerunner of the NBA) to become the league’s first non-white player and the first player of Asian descent.
Within a decade of the debuts of Lloyd, Cooper, Clifton and Barksdale, the NBA had many black players, including MVPs Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. –– Harris
21. Steve Nash
Phoenix Suns (1996-98), Dallas Mavericks (1998-2004), Suns (2004-12), Los Angeles Lakers (2012-15)
Mike D’Antoni might have been the intellectual godfather of the “7 Seconds or Less” movement, but two-time MVP Steve Nash was the engine that propelled it. Bursting off a drag screen in transition, then probing into the gut of a backpedaling defense, Nash created the chaos and then delivered the pinpoint passes that found his 3-point shooters and empowered the small ball that defined an era.
“When we first got Steve, it was like, ‘OK, let’s run,'” D’Antoni says, “But he’s already going. I’m like trying to direct from the sidelines a little bit, plays and stuff, set, but was gone. So I’m going, ‘This is great!'”
A revolutionary playmaker, Nash also was a superlative shooter who compiled a 49.0 percent average from the field, drained 42.8 percent of his 3,939 3-point attempts and shot over 90 percent from the free throw line. That combination of kinetic energy, creative passing and sharpshooting endures as a blueprint for the prototypical point guard in the modern, high-pace era of NBA basketball. —Arnovitz
20. Dirk Nowitzki
Dallas Mavericks (1998-present)
Nowitzki is the greatest NBA player from Europe, an MVP, an NBA champion and a Finals MVP. He has more than 30,000 points and counting at age 39. Just those credentials would easily secure him a place on this list.
But there’s more. Just as teams used to look for another Michael Jordan or another Tim Duncan, they now have their sights set on finding another Nowitzki, from no matter where. His outside shooting has been so accurate and prolific that it has changed the way teams look at power forwards, with stretch-4s (and 5s) being prized.
Over the years, his unique talent helped the Dallas Mavericks to put up some of the most efficient offensive numbers in history and allowed coach Rick Carlisle to create innovative schemes with more shooting on the floor, culminating in an NBA title in 2011.
And let’s not forget “The Dirk,” his signature one-legged fadeaway that players around the league have picked up — but to varying degrees of success, indicating perhaps there really is only one Dirk Nowitzki. — Adam Reisinger
19. Phil Jackson
New York Knicks (1967-78), New Jersey Nets (1978-80); Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Lakers (head coach, 1989-2011)
Jackson’s consistent success as a coach seemed surreal, as he showed up in the Finals year after year, leading the Bulls and Lakers to the three three-peats (the first since Bill Russell’s Celtics) before finally losing in the Finals — and then tacked on two more titles before retiring from coaching, to go along with the two he won as a player.
Just as otherworldly was his approach to the game. Unlike many other coaches, the “Zen Master” believed in guiding players with a light, almost spiritual touch, as spelled out in influential books like “Sacred Hoops” and “More Than a Game.”
Tim Keown captured some of Jackson’s magic during Jackson’s 10th title run:
“If there’s genius in getting out of the way, Jackson has perfected it. I’d make the case that it’s a tougher approach to follow because it shifts a huge share of the credit to the players. Obviously, he has had great players, but he’s managed to create a system in which the players can excel, then has trusted them to execute it. Does that make him a button pusher or a master of preparation? And, yes, it does help to have a guy like Kobe who can create when the offense breaks down. It also helped Auerbach to have Russell coming from the weak side to deflect shots into the hands of Sam Jones or John Havlicek when the Celtics’ defense broke down.
“As former Jackson assistant Jim Cleamons told The New York Times, ‘Every situation that Phil has coached in, the team hadn’t won before he got there. That, too, is a fact.'” — Royce Webb
18. Pat Riley
San Diego Rockets (1967-70), Los Angeles Lakers (1970-75), Phoenix Suns (1975-76); Lakers, New York Knicks, Miami Heat (head coach, 1981-2003, 2005-08)
Riley’s reach across the decades has shaped and reshaped the NBA. After his career as a role player and a short stint as a broadcaster, Riley took over the Showtime Lakers and led them to four championships, quickly gaining popularity as a stylish sideline manager — indeed “The Winner Within” is one of the most successful sports-based management books ever.
But Riley wasn’t the run-and-gun coach many assumed, as he proved in his next stop: New York City, where as coach and GM he put together one of the most rugged defensive squads ever seen. Riley’s Knicks were beloved locally and despised by rivals — Phil Jackson accused them of playing football, not basketball. But the Knicks’ physical, all-defense approach was extremely influential, contributing to a subsequent decline in NBA scoring and fan appeal.
By then, Riley was already off to his current destination: Miami, where as an executive and sometimes-coach he has led the Heat to three titles. His major innovation in Miami might be his most enduring, as he was the architect of the NBA’s most infamous superteam, starring LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, who shocked the league by using free agency to team up and win two titles in four Finals appearances, thereby encouraging other stars to join forces to have fun and chase championships. — Webb
17. Shaquille O’Neal
Orlando Magic (1992-96), Los Angeles Lakers (1996-2004), Miami Heat (2004-08), Phoenix Suns (2008-09), Cleveland Cavaliers (2009-10), Boston Celtics (2010-11)
Just the man’s name evokes a sense of glee. O’Neal’s massive, media-friendly, hyperbolic personality and dozens of nicknames found their way into movies, albums and commercials at a pace unlike any seen before in the NBA, and he remains a household presence on TNT.
The hard brevity of “Shaq!” is also a reminder of his powerful, overwhelming presence on the court. Despite just one MVP trophy, he earned his self-awarded Most Dominant Ever moniker, and he was without a doubt the most physically imposing player of his generation.
His agility and ability at his size made every team lust for a player like Shaq, even with his memorably poor free throw shooting and occasional brushes with teammates. Ultimately, O’Neal’s three consecutive titles and Finals MVPs demonstrated that he reached a level of inside devastation that might never be seen again in an NBA evolving away from interior play. — Harris
16. Hakeem Olajuwon
Houston Rockets (1984-2001), Toronto Raptors (2001-02)
Originally from Nigeria, Olajuwon played center with grace, quickness and overwhelming talent on each end, making him a unique figure in the NBA’s evolution. In the post, his moves — particularly the Dream Shake — showed players of all sizes the kind of footwork and agility possible and made him more than a match for the great centers of his day, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing and Shaquille O’Neal among them.
As a former member of the Phi Slama Jama “fraternity” at the University of Houston, and alongside his Twin Tower Ralph Sampson, Olajuwon took the Houston Rockets to the NBA Finals in his second season. As an individual talent, he was astounding — he posted a quadruple-double, led the league in rebounds and blocks, and was a perennial All-NBA and All-Defense selection — even as Sampson and the Rockets faltered.
Team glory was secured during 1994 and 1995 as Olajuwon took his game to new heights. With a renewed dedication to his Islamic faith, he became the first foreign-born player to win MVP and also was named Finals MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. To date, he is the only player to win all three awards in the same season. In 1995, he led the underdog sixth-seeded Rockets back to the title, defeating four teams that had won 57 games or more, a challenge no champion has faced before or since. — Harris
15. Kevin Garnett
Minnesota Timberwolves (1995-2007), Boston Celtics (2007-13), Brooklyn Nets (2013-15), Timberwolves (2015-16)
Garnett’s legacy is secure for any number of reasons.
The first thing to truly set him apart: He was the first player in 20 years to go straight to the NBA from high school without enrolling in college — a decision that has helped make him the highest-earning player in NBA history and a role model for Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and dozens more.
His game-changing ability — particularly on defense, for which he made 12 All-Defensive teams — was constantly apparent in Minnesota, where the Timberwolves still haven’t made a postseason trip since 2004, the year he won the MVP award and three years before Garnett initially left the franchise via trade.
That deal would alter the course of the NBA, enabling Boston — who also acquired Ray Allen that year — to make the biggest single-season improvement in league history and win the 2008 NBA championship.
Even from a style and cultural standpoint, Garnett is still relevant: His fiery intensity remains legendary, as demonstrated by his trendsetting move of jumping to block jumpers after the whistle, intended to intimidate and break the confidence of opponents. And Garnett is a regular on TNT’s broadcast from his “Area 21” set. — Chris Herring
14. Charles Barkley
Philadelphia 76ers (1984-92), Phoenix Suns (1992-96), Houston Rockets (1996-2000)
Where do you start with Charles Barkley?
First, with his play on the court, which is occasionally forgotten but is the foundation of his appeal: An 11-time NBA All-Star for the Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns and Houston Rockets, the 1993 MVP led the Suns to their last NBA Finals appearance 25 years ago. Barkley was also a Dream Teamer (and pal of Michael Jordan) who ran roughshod in the Olympics, and he averaged 22.1 points, 11.7 rebounds and 3.9 assists for his NBA career.
At just over 6-foot-4, he played power forward with incredible speed, power and skill. He was an unstoppable force, whether on the break or on the boards, and he could pass and score. His signature rampaging dunks still show up on NBA highlight reels, and he was remorseless in delivering hard fouls. For years, every short power forward was compared to Barkley, known as “The Round Mound of Rebound” for his physique.
What ultimately has made Barkley a game-changer is his personality, his voice. He has starred on TNT’s “Inside the NBA” for years, and is outspoken on racial issues and every other topic that comes to mind. As perhaps the most popular sports broadcaster of today, Barkley is entertaining whether he’s saying something provocative, hurling an insult or dropping a hilarious or self-deprecating line.
The Hall of Famer once said, “I am not a role model,” in a Nike commercial. But he is the forerunner of today’s more outspoken players, and that makes him one of the game-changers of the NBA’s past three and a half decades. — Marc J. Spears
13. Allen Iverson
Philadelphia 76ers (1996-2006), Denver Nuggets (2006-08), Detroit Pistons (2008-09), Memphis Grizzlies (2009), 76ers (2009-10)
“We’re talking about practice. Not a game. Not a game. Practice.” When you think about Allen Iverson, his prized, hilarious quote from May 7, 2002, certainly has to come to mind.
But there are so many answers to why “The Answer” was a game changer. At just 6-feet, Iverson was still one of the most dynamic scorers in NBA history — more relentless and improvisational than refined, and able to get buckets on fast-break dunks, impossible layups and jumpers from any spot on the floor. Iverson led the league in scoring four times and steals three times, and those skills went hand in hand, as he gambled and scored fearlessly.
In the halfcourt, the crossover was his signature move, most memorably against Michael Jordan and Tyronn Lue, when he scored on Lue in the Finals and stepped over him. As Steve Kerr told Chris Haynes, “The crossover, in my mind, changed the way players played. Before Iverson, his move was a carry, and guys had to keep their hand on top of the ball. So he was groundbreaking with that move because it was a hesitation into the crossover that nobody had really done before.”
Just as influential was how Iverson, the league’s MVP in 2000-01 and an 11-time All-Star, popularized hip-hop culture and a new look in the NBA. His braids, tattoos, chains and oversized jerseys set the fashion standard in his day and thrilled a generation of young fans. They also turned off some fans, and Iverson certainly played a role in the NBA instituting a dress code in 2005. But the ex-Georgetown star guard also received a lifetime contract from Reebok. — Spears
12. Kobe Bryant
Los Angeles Lakers (1996-2016)
Kobe Bryant followed in the footsteps of Michael Jordan, but he was also a maverick — a brilliant, driven talent who made his own path and got tens of millions of fans to follow.
Bryant’s 1996 announcement from his high school gym that he was headed to the NBA came when that was still considered a brash move, but when the Lakers traded for him at the draft, stardom seemed assured. And stardom did follow quickly, as Bryant was voted the youngest All-Star starter in history even before he was a Lakers starter.
As a young player, Bryant had a knack for blowing minds on the court with spectacular basket forays and annoying traditionalists with his self-centered play, later known as Hero Ball. But he formed an uneasy alliance with Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson to win three straight NBA titles, giving Bryant the superstardom and success he craved.
In 2003, Bryant was charged with sexual assault in Colorado — the charge was eventually dropped when the accuser declined to testify, Bryant issued an apology and the parties settled a civil suit out of court.
By this time, Bryant was developing a reputation as not only a great clutch shooter but a gritty, intense player — a persona he would call Black Mamba, inspired by a character in Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” films. This aspect of his personality led to clashes with O’Neal, and their feud contributed to O’Neal’s departure in a trade to Miami, making Bryant the sole face of the Lakers. In 2007, after the Lakers failed to build a contender, he angrily requested a trade, but reversed course after the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol in 2008 and won titles in 2009 and 2010, declaring himself a Laker for life.
Kobe created a devoted cult of fans that often seemed to care more about him, his jerseys and his shoes than his team. And his fan base cuts across many cultures and nationalities in the U.S. and around the world, particularly China. Over his 20-year career, all in a Laker uniform, Bryant’s game evolved and his mastery of the finer points of the game increased — he became one of the most skilled players in NBA history. But more than any particular accomplishment, it was his personality that seemed most magnetic and influential.
As Ramona Shelburne wrote: “He traded everything — his friends, his family, his identity, his body, ultimately his humanity — in pursuit of basketball immortality. His entire career was built upon accepting nothing. After he ruptured his Achilles, he looked Lakers trainer Gary Vitti in the eye and asked whether he could still play. When he tore his right rotator cuff, he just started shooting left-handed. Vitti and Lakers coach Byron Scott had to yank him out of the game. When questioned why he’d do such a thing, he defiantly responded, ‘Why? God gave us two hands.'” — Webb
11. Jerry West
Los Angeles Lakers (1960-74; head coach 1976-79)
Though West is best known to many later-generation fans as a swashbuckling front office executive who presided over the Lakers’ dynasty of the 1980s, he was the defining combo guard of his time, a natural to serve as the silhouette for the NBA’s iconic logo.
“Basketball is, and always has been, a huge, huge part of me, the canvas I tried to paint each time I stepped on the court and never stopped trying to perfect,” West wrote in his autobiography “West by West: My Charmed, Tormented Life,” published in 2011.
West was a paragon of consistent excellence who was an All-Star in each of his 14 seasons, and helped guide the Lakers to nine Finals appearances. West’s jumper — its economy, quick release, silky follow-through — made him the league’s most efficient shooter during his prime. On the other end, West was a rugged, handsy competitor, whose defensive crouch and laser focus tormented opposing guards. — Arnovitz
10. Stephen Curry
Golden State Warriors (2009-present)
The sports bar debate has been settled.
“He’s the greatest shooter to ever step on the court,” Warriors teammate Kevin Durant said during the preseason.
He leads all guards in career true shooting percentage (by a considerable margin), and all guards who started a majority of their career games in 3-point percentage. Yet Curry’s supremacy as a shooter transcends the ledger: He also changed the definition of what constitutes a quality shot from the field in an NBA game.
Fans across the nation line up hours before tipoff to get a glimpse of his warm-up routine. In live games, Curry’s unconscionable pull-ups from ungodly distances, his step-backs under extreme heat, bombs that materialize out of nowhere thanks to his handles and lightning-quick release — all of them nearly impossible or entirely ill-advised for most NBA shooters, but high-percentage looks for the two-time NBA champion and Most Valuable Player.
Curry will go down as not only the avatar of the NBA’s Golden Age of Shooting, but as the inspiration for generations of kids who see him as the model for how to refine their skills and overcome bigger, more athletic players. — Arnovitz
9. Larry Bird
Boston Celtics (1979-92), Indiana Pacers (1997-2000)
Larry Bird seemed like a fictional character come to life, “the Hick from French Lick” who arrived in Boston to turn the Celtics and indeed the entire NBA around. Along with his rival Magic Johnson, who played a much glitzier style of ball in Los Angeles, Bird brought a beautiful game featuring ball movement back to a league that had lost favor with fans.
Bird’s shooting prowess and command of the game became the standards for new generations to follow. He passed better than any forward before him, but he could also score on anyone, or any team, and would tell them about it before and after. His 1988 Game 7 duel with Dominique Wilkins and the Hawks — won by Bird and the Celtics, naturally — is the stuff of legend.
To note that he won national college player of the year, three MVP awards, three NBA titles and a gold medal as an aging member of the Dream Team seems almost beside the point. But the honors did arrive at a furious pace in his relatively brief playing career, and he is the only player in NBA history to win Rookie of the Year, MVP, Finals MVP, Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year, the latter two for his work with his home-state Indiana Pacers.
Despite his Hoosier State roots, Bird will forever be associated with Celtic Green.As Jackie MacMullan wrote, “He epitomized qualities the city of Boston loves: fearless, gritty, arrogant, passionate and relentless. Bird won three championships but could have easily had a handful more had his teammates matched his intensity … and if his body hadn’t so cruelly betrayed him in his final years. One of Boston’s best clutch athletes of all time.” — Webb
8. Julius Erving
Virginia Squires (1971-73), New York Nets (1973-76), Philadelphia 76ers (1976-87)
Dr. J set the standard for NBA style, combining originality, huge hands, hang time and elegance to show future generations the kind of artistry possible in basketball. But as much as the Doctor has been praised for his highlight dunks, cool personality, voluminous afro and flair that carried the ABA and NBA for almost two decades, his actual play is still undervalued.
That’s crazy to say that about a 16-time All-Star who still is recognized by fans who weren’t even alive when he retired. But check this: The man scored over 30,000 points, grabbed over 10,000 rebounds and dished out over 5,000 assists. And he was a freelancing terror off the ball, pilfering over 2,000 steals and racking up nearly 2,000 blocks. Without those well-rounded skills, he might be remembered as a circus act.
Sure, appreciate the sinuous finger rolls, the effortless cradle-rocking dunks, and the soaring free-throw-line slam that left humanity bewildered in 1976. But all the style in the world doesn’t get you four MVPs and three championships. The man had game, on and off the court. — Harris
7. Oscar Robertson
Cincinnati Royals (1960-70), Milwaukee Bucks (1970-74)
The triple-double. That’s always where you start with Robertson. He had 181 triple-doubles in his career, an NBA record. Over the course of his first five seasons, he averaged 30.3 points, 10.6 assists and 10.4 rebounds, numbers that seem absurd now. But leave behind the triple-double.
The Big O was the first guard to shoot 50 percent for a season and the first player to average over 10 assists per game. He won back-to-back high school titles in basketball-crazy Indiana. He won Olympic gold in 1960. He was MVP in 1964 and NBA champion in 1971. But we’re still not precisely there on why Oscar Robertson is foundational to basketball history.
As the third president of the NBPA and a civil rights activist, Robertson fought for over a decade to secure pensions and free agency for players. His antitrust lawsuit, Robertson v. NBA, destroyed the reserve clause that tied a player to an NBA team in perpetuity.
That clause’s annihilation and the free agency that sprung from its ashes now shapes the modern economic and labor structure of the NBA. LeBron James’ decision, ESPN’s coverage of every summer’s free-agent bonanza, and the NBA’s own promotion of blockbuster signings and trades depended on Robertson’s steadfast refusal to accept the unfair status quo. — Harris
6. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Milwaukee Bucks (1969-75), Los Angeles Lakers (1975-89)
The magnitude of Abdul-Jabbar’s prolific contributions to basketball, both as player and citizen, are unparalleled. He’s the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, a six-time champion and most valuable player, and he patented the skyhook.
During his career and in retirement, Abdul-Jabbar has established himself as sports’ most imminent renaissance man and its most measured voice. His earnest critiques of wide-ranging issues from civil rights to popular culture have been rigorous and elegantly expressed.
“I don’t have any delusions that I’m shining a bright light through the political and social jungle to guide our way, but I do hope that I’m adding some value to the national discussion and maybe helping people understand the causes of our polarity and how we might make things a little better,” Abdul-Jabbar told Smithsonian magazine in 2016.
More active NBA players have waded into the waters of political advocacy in recent years. For Abdul-Jabbar, speaking up is nothing new. He defined a position on the court, and never shirked from one off it. — Arnovitz
5. Wilt Chamberlain
Philadelphia/San Francisco Warriors (1959-65), Philadelphia 76ers (1965-68), Los Angeles Lakers (1968-73)
Chamberlain set a slew of records, some of which will never be broken. And that’s not including the 100-point game, which someone could conceivably top one day. The 55-rebound game? That one’s untouchable. Averaging 50 points a game for a season? Unreachable. Playing 48.5 minutes a game for an entire season. Yes, that’s longer than a regulation 48-minute game, so obviously that’s not being broken either.
But those are the individual numbers that feed into the superficial Russell vs. Chamberlain debate that always depended on simply seeing Wilt as selfish.
Well, Chamberlain had a penchant for shattering team records, too. In 1967, when his 76ers won the NBA title, they set a record at 68 wins in the process. In 1972, when his Lakers won the title, they set a new record of 69 wins total and a 33-game win streak that is the standard in all of professional sports.
But it was Chamberlain’s spectacular persona that mattered as much as his accomplishments. His mindblowing athletic talent — including overpowering strength, an outlandish wingspan, supreme speed, and uncanny leaping ability — and outgoing personality gave him a presence unlike any in sports. As an actor, singer, track star, nightclub owner, boxer, and volleyball enthusiast he elevated his own profile and the NBA’s. — Harris
4. Bill Russell
Boston Celtics (1956-69); Celtics, Seattle SuperSonics, Sacramento Kings (head coach, 1966-69, 1973-77, 1987-88)
The greatest winner in American team sports. That says it all, but not everything.
With 11 NBA titles — the last two as the first black coach in pro sports — plus back-to-back NCAA titles, and an Olympic gold medal, Russell has an untouchable track record of team success.
Individually he was a savant. Never a great scorer, he was nonetheless a great offensive player. Few centers have passed the ball as well as Russell and he was the first player to turn the dunk into a routine weapon. And of course his shot-blocking revolutionized how teams played defense. Obviously shots were blocked before Russell, but he turned the act into a psychologically and physically devastating art form.
So, that’s Russell the winner. Russell the activist is somehow more extraordinary. It was not lost on him that days after speaking in the Oval Office with President Eisenhower he was denied service at gas stations and restaurants because he was black. From the 1950s to the present, he gave interviews, wrote articles and books, and now is on Twitter addressing the flaws of American society. Racism, police brutality, poverty, bigotry, exploitation: He has made those topics a central focus for over 60 years and shows no sign of letting up. — Harris
3. Magic Johnson
Los Angeles Lakers (1979-91, 1996; head coach 1994)
Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird — first as hated rivals, then as friends — did more than any other pair of players to bring the NBA into the modern era we still enjoy today. It’s often said, glibly, that they saved the NBA.
And as the leader of the Showtime Lakers, Johnson won five championships and became the ebullient face of the league for many. His dazzling passing at 6-foot-9 thrilled NBA fans as nothing before had done. And now he’s trying to bring a whole new Laker generation to fruition as team president.
When Johnson turned 50, J. A. Adande captured the essence of his impact:
“He has celebrated almost 18 birthdays — the equivalent of a legal coming-of-age — since that Nov. 7, 1991, news conference in which he announced he was HIV-positive. In those early days of AIDS awareness we did not think he would make it to 40, let alone to 50. But the science was moving ahead of the society. It was the dawn of a new age of advances in treatment — drug “cocktails” followed by protease inhibitors and antiretroviral therapy — I recall a family friend who was HIV-positive who had to completely readjust his mindset, from bracing for death to figuring out what to do with the rest of his life. Johnson never needed an adjustment. From the beginning, he vowed he was “going to beat the disease,” and with the help of drugs, diet and exercise he has.
“In many ways his accomplishments after learning he had the virus are greater than the five NBA championships and one NCAA championship he won before then: winning an Olympic gold medal, opening movie theaters and restaurants in underserved urban areas across the country, watching his kids grow up, buying an ownership stake in the Los Angeles Lakers, even fulfilling his dream of hosting a talk show. (Some things went better than others.)
“We’re into the second generation of his influence now, the players who grew up watching the players who grew up watching Magic, something that didn’t dawn on me until I asked 24-year-old Trevor Ariza about Johnson and he said, “Baron looks up to him a lot, and I look up to Baron.” The notion that there are adults without a direct recollection of Johnson in his prime is jarring to those of us who were around to see it. To Johnson, it’s actually reassuring, a sign of lasting impact, the closest thing to immortality.” — Webb
2. LeBron James
Cleveland Cavaliers (2003-10), Miami Heat (2010-14), Cavaliers (2014-present)
James changed the paradigm for what a basketball prodigy was, and there still hasn’t been anyone quite like him since.
The list of James’ accomplishments since entering the league are well known, but he’s continuing to write his story and refine his legacy. In what portends to be a significant achievement, sometime next year James should become the first player in history to be in the top 10 all time in both points and assists. That’s a distinction that will carry a great honor for him as he has always wanted to be known as a playmaker and not just as a scorer. He has a chance to move into the top 50 all time in total rebounds next season as well. In the playoffs, he’s already the all-time leader in scoring, second in steals and third in assists.
Counting stats are a tribute to longevity, but his game-changing hasn’t been just about volume. James’ actions off the court have set new standards and created new goals for so many of his peers, a form of respect in any profession.
Yes, “The Decision” broadcast was panned for its poor taste, but the concept has aged well. Players now routinely take control of announcing their big career decisions and use crafted essays to explain themselves. James’ personal essay in Sports Illustrated when he returned to Cleveland in 2014 came four months before The Players’ Tribune launched.
He was far from the first high-profile athlete to speak out politically, but James’ willingness to put his voice behind social causes has encouraged numerous athletes to follow. In 2012, when James and Dwyane Wade organized their Miami Heat teammates to pose for a team photo in hoodies following the death of Trayvon Martin, it changed the way NBA players used social media.
1. Michael Jordan
Chicago Bulls (1984-93, 1995-98), Washington Wizards (2001-03)
Jordan transformed the style and substance of basketball, expanding the scope and meaning of athletic achievement. We still see his influence in ways big and small: kids wagging their tongues; the raging popularity of basketball in China; post-up players leaning backward into defenders before making their move.
But for all his huge dunks, fresh kicks and clutch shots, Jordan’s biggest impact came off the court as he empowered athletes — especially African-Americans — to obtain full economic participation in the billions generated by their labor. Starting with Air Jordan sneakers, which led to his own Jordan Brand, which led to him buying majority control of the Charlotte Hornets, Jordan blazed a trail for athletes to escape the plantation, buy the Big House, and sit on the porch with their feet up, smoking a cigar.
Today, it’s normal for Ronaldo to own hotels, gyms and shampoo. We expect Jay-Z to be “a business, man.” We don’t blink when Kobe and LeBron launch their own movie studios. Jordan created that template.
And yes, it must have been the shoes.