Basketball has come a long way from hanging up peach baskets with the bottom cut out. The sport has seen integration, the proliferation of television, a merger, copious rule changes and the lengthening of players' shorts.
But with such small rosters, the NBA has always been a personality-driven league. And certain players were larger than life, to say the least.
Over the last 50 years, there has always been at least one iconic player that defined the league at any given time. And I have selected the greatest poster boys for the league across each era.
My apologies to Oscar Robertson, Moses Malone, "Pistol" Pete Maravich, George "Iceman" Gervin, Walt "Clyde" Frazier and any other icons I had to omit.
But this is a top 10 list. And these 10 defined the NBA when they played.
That's right, the President puts on Bill Russell's bling.
Bill Russell is a winner. He's got more championship rings than he has fingers.
Russell played from 1956 to 1969. He was a 12-time All-Star, 11-time champion and five-time MVP. He even served as a player-coach for three seasons after Red Auerbach retired.
He was the first African American head coach in the NBA and he did a great job of taking the reins from the legendary Auerbach, winning two championships.
Russell was one of the first African American sports icons, and he's still a role model to this day. He personified team play and guided the Boston Celtics to unprecedented success.
No, this is not a Black Panther press conference.
Wilt Chamberlain was know as "Wilt the Stilt" for a reason. He was 7'1", which is not as tall as Manute Bol or George Muresan, but it was really big back in the '60s. He also tipped the scales at nearly 300 pounds. He was so big and so dominating that he transformed the rules of the game.
Because of Wilt, they widened the lane, banned offensive goaltending and made it illegal to inbound the ball over the backboard. He was a notoriously poor foul shooter, but he could also dunk from the free-throw line without a running start.
Wilt was also a bitter rival of Bill Russell's, as shown and discussed here.
Chamberlain played from 1959 to 1973. He was a 13-time All-Star, four-time MVP and two-time champ. His 100-point game against the New York Knicks in 1962 is still the record. Oh, and he also claimed to have had sex with over 20,000 women. Now that's prolific!
Even the opposition's cheerleaders cheered for him.
Julius Erving was one of the first people to be called "Doctor" without actually earning an advanced degree first. There would be no Dr. Dre without Dr. J.
Erving wowed fans in the ABA until the league merged with the NBA in 1976. And then he wowed the entire basketball world. Dr. J created some of the most notable highlights in the history of the sport.
There was his full-court sprint culminating in a flying dunk from the foul line in the '76 All-Star game. He threw down a nasty dunk over Bill Walton in the '77 NBA Finals, in one of the first "posterizations" known to man.
He converted a sick layup from behind the basket in the '80 NBA Finals, and he also patented the "Rock the Baby" dunk over Michael Cooper.
Each of those highlights is shown here. Soak it in. He's amazing.
Dr. J played from 1971 to 1987, winning championships and MVPs in both the ABA and NBA. He was so good, his jersey is retired by both the Nets and 76ers. Not too shabby.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (who changed his name from Lew Alcindor following his first NBA title) is often referred to simply as "Kareem." After all, there's not much likelihood of confusing him with Karim Garcia.
Kareem joined the league just as Bill Russell retired and Wilt Chamberlain was entering the twilight of his career. He victimized his opponents with an unstoppable skyhook. And he even made goggles look fashionable.
He played from 1969 to 1989, winning six titles and six MVPs and earning an astounding 19 All-Star nods.
But one of his finest performances has to be his turn as "Roger Murdock" the co-pilot in Airplane, snapping at an annoyingly inquisitive kid: "I'm out there busting my buns every night. Tell your old man to drag Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes!"
Earvin Johnson was indeed quite magical. Probably only Michael Wilbon calls him "Earvin," as he's known to almost everyone else as "Magic."
Magic redefined the term "Rookie of the Year." Facing Julius Erving and the 76ers in the 1980 NBA Finals, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sprained his ankle and was unable to play in Game 6. The 6'9" Magic started at center for the Lakers and dropped 42 points in the game to go with 15 rebounds, leading the Lakers to a title and earning the MVP award for the finals.
And it just got better from there. Magic Johnson was a stellar point guard and could handle all five positions. He played from 1979 to 1991 before retiring abruptly due to having contracted the HIV virus. He returned briefly in 1996 and played 32 games.
He was a three-time MVP, five-time champion and 12-time All-Star. He's an icon to this day as a motivational speaker, entrepreneur and part owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
White guys aren't really supposed to be good at basketball. That prejudice served Woody Harrelson well in White Men Can't Jump. But not too many people were fooled by Larry Bird's skills.
Coming out of French Lick, Indiana, Bird played from 1979 to 1992. He was a 12-time All-Star with three MVPs and three NBA titles to his credit. He personified hard work, shooting hundreds of free throws every day beginning when he was a teenager.
As you can see, there wasn't much that Bird couldn't do. He was a lethal shooter and a pesky defender, and he also gave basketball fans one of the greatest rivalries in NBA history.
After losing to Magic Johnson's Michigan State Spartans in the 1979 NCAA tournament, Bird and Magic met in the NBA Finals three times, with the Lakers winning two of the meetings thanks in no small part to Magic's baby skyhook.
Magic once said, "When the new schedule would come out each year, I'd grab it and circle the Boston games. To me, it was The Two and the other 80." Larry felt the same, saying, "The first thing I would do every morning was look at the box scores to see what Magic did. I didn't care about anything else" (per NBA.com).
As Cavaliers announcer Howie Chizek put it, "Larry Bird just throws the ball in the air and God moves the basket underneath it."
This is the reasons that "Sam Bowie" is the answer to a trivia question.
In the 1984 draft, Houston selected Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon with the first pick. Then Portland took Bowie. And Chicago drafted a player named Michael Jordan.
Jordan was so good, he won three championships and three MVPs, then got bored and left the NBA to play minor league baseball. Then he came back and won three more titles and two MVPs.
He retired again and bought part of the Washington Wizards. When the team and attendance were slumping, he came out of retirement again and played two more seasons, selling out virtually every road and home game he played in.
As a New York Knicks fan, it pains me to write this slide, but MJ was just so freaking good. I don't think I need to expand much on this. He has his own top 10 highlight reel of clutch shots and buzzer beaters (although that's obviously a push off on Bryon Russell at No. 1).
It's hard to argue that any player in the post-merger NBA was better than Jordan.
Shaquille O'Neal was known simply as Shaq.
And he was larger than life. After the Bird-Magic rivalry and the thrilling play of Jordan, Shaq was the prefect superstar for the NBA. He was charismatic and Chamberlain-esque in size and quality.
Sure, he couldn't shoot foul shots very well, but he racked up four NBA titles and 15 All-Star appearances from 1992 to 2011.
He endangered his own life and that of anyone near the hoop by completely destroying the rim, backboard and support mechanism with his monster jams. Not once, but twice (watch how quickly he runs away the second time, knowing the destruction he can cause). The NBA should have known this would happen after he shattered the backboard at the draft combine.
He had a video game call "Shaq Fu." He starred in the movie Kazaam and was great in Blue Chips. He even had a signature silhouette on his products, not to be outdone by Jordan. And, as pictured, he had his own candy bar too.
As the first NBA superstar to retire in the age of Twitter, he has over 6 million followers. He has also has shoes bigger than most hybrid cars. And more stylish.
Kobe Bryant entered the NBA in 1996 right out of high school and he hasn't disappointed.
Kobe is such a star, his ego caused a rift in the Lakers organization in 2004. Coach Phil Jackson and star center Shaquille O'Neal felt Kobe was exerting too much influence over the team.
The team chose Kobe. Jackson retired and Shaq took his talents to South Beach.
Kobe has been an All-Star 14 times. He has five championships and he's gunning for a sixth, which would tie Michael Jordan (whom he'll always be compared to, like it or not). Mike D'Antoni will have to help him equal that mark.
If you've forgotten how incredible Kobe was before age began to catch up with him (slightly), you can indulge in this dizzying 10-minute highlight reel. It's stunning.
He stared down retirement, but underwent something called Orthokine therapy in Germany (it has something to do with removing your blood, spinning it around and sticking it back in you), returning as good as new.
Bryant has extolled the benefits of the procedure to others, like Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod revealed that Bryant contemplated retirement before having the procedure.
How did Rodriguez learn this? As he stated, it was from "just a simple dinner with Kobe—Kobe Bryant from the Lakers" (per Andrew Marchand of ESPN New York).
Ohhhh, that Kobe. Got it.
LeBron James can't perform in crunch time. He disappears and shrinks in the clutch. Oh, wait...that was before he silenced all doubters last season. Now his Miami Heat are the reigning NBA champions.
Like Kobe, LeBron came right out of high school and was selected first overall in the 2003 draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers. He's already won three MVPs and made eight All-Star games.
LeBron is often compared to Jordan in a perpetual quest to crown the of the greatest of all time, but his style is more similar to Magic Johnson. LeBron can defend all five positions and is a superb passer, not to mention being a prolific scorer and possessing the ability to drive the lane like an NFL running back.
James guided the Cavs to the 2007 NBA Finals practically single-handedly. After leaving Cleveland for South Beach (causing Cleveland fans to burn him in effigy), he has made the finals in each of the last two seasons, finally seizing the Larry O'Brien Trophy this year with a victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
LeBron is only 27 years old and he may have his best years ahead of him still. Every game is a highlight reel of his ability. He will continue to be the face of the NBA for many years to come, but there's already a crop of youngsters clamoring to be the league's new poster boy.