Ranking NBA Legends by the Impact They Had on Today's Game
The game of basketball is constantly changing in accordance with the talents, preferences, values and finances of those who play, watch, supervise and profit from it. Since the NBA's inception over 65 years ago, a select number of players have left their imprint on the way the game is played, followed and valued.
Ballplayers such as Elgin Baylor, Pete Maravich and Magic Johnson influenced the game through their style of play. Big men like George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar altered the game with their combination of talent and size.
Many players opened the doors of the NBA to those of different races and nationalities. Michael Jordan and Bill Russell impacted professional basketball by demonstrating what it takes to win at the highest level.
There were athletes whose greatest contribution to the game was on an economic level. In the NBA's infancy, players fought to establish a union and secure greater financial rights and freedom from the owners. More recently, a handful of athletes have been responsible for expanding the league's global market share.
Let's take a look at those who have had the most profound impact on the game over the years.
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The NBA was integrated by four trailblazers in 1950.
Chuck Cooper was the first African-American player drafted when the Boston Celtics selected him in the second round of the 1950 draft.
Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton, formerly of the Harlem Globetrotters, was the first African-American to sign with an NBA team when he inked a deal with the New York Knicks in the summer of 1950.
Earl Lloyd of the Washington Capitols was the first African-American to play in an NBA game. Hank DeZonie also played five games that season for the Tri-Cities Blackhawks.
Drazen Petrovic, Sarunas Marciulionis, Vlade Divac and Arvydas Sabonis were among those who paved the way for international players by thriving in the NBA. Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki shed the label that Europeans are soft when he became the first European franchise player on a championship team.
Marques Haynes and Reece "Goose" Tatum played for the Harlem Globetrotters in the 1940s and '50s before Abe Saperstein's team was reduced to a novelty act. The two stars spiced up the game with their own personal flair.
Many consider Haynes to be the greatest ball-handler ever and to have influenced guards such as Bob Cousy and Pete Maravich.
Tatum flustered opponents and entertained fans with an assortment of unorthodox shots. The original "clown prince of basketball" is generally credited with inventing the hook shot.
Elgin Baylor was one of the first African-American superstars in the NBA. The Laker forward was the first leaper to play above the rim, beginning a lineage of high-flyers, which came to include Julius Erving, Dominique Wilkins, Michael Jordan, Vince Carter and LeBron James.
10. Julius Erving
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Long Island native Julius "Dr. J" Erving honed his skills at Harlem's famed Rucker Park. Then he took the improvisation of the street game to the professional ranks in the American Basketball Association (ABA).
Doc made the slam dunk an art form. Children imitated his mid-air acrobatics at schoolyards across the country. Yet, there was plenty of substance behind Erving's flash. The forward led the ABA in scoring three times and carried the New York Nets to ABA championships in 1974 and 1976.
Dr. J's stature as the most exciting player in the game fueled the NBA owners' desire to reach a settlement with the players association and merge with the ABA, which they did in 1976.
Erving continued his success in the NBA. He was named an All-Star in each of his 11 seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers, won the MVP award in 1981 and, along with Moses Malone, led the 76ers to a championship in 1983.
9. Yao Ming
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The NBA is a business, and with the possible exception of Michael Jordan, no athlete has exposed its product to more people than Yao Ming. Thanks to Yao, China is now the NBA's biggest market outside of the United States.
Yao was selected by the Houston Rockets with the first pick in the 2002 draft and was voted onto eight All-Star teams before injuries forced him to retire. Throughout his career, Rockets games were aired on Chinese television.
Courts sprung up around the country as basketball challenged soccer as China's most popular sport. Hu Jiashi, vice president of the Chinese Basketball Association, said in 2006 that between 300 and 400 million people in China either watched or played the game regularly (via Calum MacLeod of USA Today).
Yao's popularity has already encouraged the NBA to increase its presence in the world's most populated country. It set up training programs for Chinese Basketball Association coaches and recently opened a youth development league. According to J. Michael Falgoust of USA Today, NBA merchandise is sold at 25,000 retail locations in China.
8. Spencer Haywood
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Prior to 1969, basketball players could not play in the NBA or the rival ABA until they were four years removed from high school. That year, Spencer Haywood left the University of Detroit after his sophomore season and signed with the Denver Rockets of the ABA.
The ABA justified the new policy by referring to Haywood as a "hardship case," claiming that he needed to work in order to support himself and his family. The big man had a monster rookie season, averaging 30 points and 19.5 rebounds. He was named ABA Rookie of the Year and league MVP.
After one season in the ABA, Haywood signed with the Seattle SuperSonics of the NBA. However, the NBA stuck to its four-year draft-eligibility rule and would not allow the Detroit native to suit up.
Haywood sued the league. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and he won the case. He eventually reached a settlement with the league.
Haywood's victory cleared the path a few years later for players like Moses Malone and Darryl Dawkins to skip college and enter the NBA draft and for future superstars like Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James to leave college early and declare for the draft or make the leap from high school to the pros.
7. Oscar Robertson
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Oscar Robertson is best known for being the only player in NBA history to average a triple-double for an entire season. The "Big O" could do everything on a basketball court and, at 6'5", 220 pounds, was the first great "big guard" in the league, a precursor to Magic Johnson and LeBron James.
Robertson's influence on the game went well beyond his style of play. He was outspoken against the racism he faced on and off the court and was one of a handful of prominent players who organized a near-boycott of the 1964 All-Star Game. The players relented once the owners guaranteed them pension plans.
Robertson's biggest contribution to the NBA was the lawsuit bearing his name, Robertson v. National Basketball Association. After the NBA owners agreed in 1970 to merge with the ABA, Robertson, as head of the players association, filed an antitrust lawsuit to block the merger.
There was no free agency at the time, and the existence of an alternate league led to higher salaries for the players. The two sides reached a settlement in 1976, granting the players restricted free agency, which gave teams the right to match any offer their players received.
The agreement represented a tremendous shift in the economic balance of power between players and owners.
6. George Mikan
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George Mikan was the original dominant center in what has almost always been a big man's league. Standing 6'10'', he towered over the competition and used his size to punish teams with an unstoppable hook shot. He led the Minneapolis Lakers to five BAA/NBA championships in the late 1940s and early '50s.
Mikan was so overpowering, the NBA changed its rules in order to reduce his influence. The league widened the lane from six to 12 feet (known as the "Mikan Rule") and introduced the 24-second shot clock in 1954 in order to speed up games.
Mikan's influence on the game continued long after his playing days. In 1967, he became the first commissioner of the ABA, at which point he introduced the three-point line. In the late 1980s, he was a member of a task force designed to bring professional basketball back to Minnesota, resulting in the creation of the Minnesota Timberwolves.
5. Bob Cousy
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Bob Cousy brought flair to the NBA with nifty passing and ball-handling skills that earned him the nickname "Houdini of the Hardwood" and introduced fast-break basketball to a slow and methodical league.
"Cooz" was the young league's first superstar, a hard-nosed kid from the streets of New York City who won the hearts of Boston fans. He was selected to the All-Star Game in each of his 13 seasons with Boston, named the 1956-57 MVP and won six championships as a member of the Boston Celtics.
In 1954, Cousy organized the National Basketball Players Association to combat low salaries and lack of health benefits, among other issues. He served as the organization's first president until 1958.
4. Wilt Chamberlain
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Wilt Chamberlain was the most unstoppable offensive force the game of basketball has ever seen. His size and strength were unparalleled, and he complemented them with remarkable skill and a feel for the game that went unappreciated by most casual fans.
"The Big Dipper" scored 100 points in one game and grabbed 55 rebounds in another. He averaged 50.4 points for the 1961-62 season.
Chamberlain was so dominant, the NBA felt compelled to make the following rule changes in order to level the playing field:
- The lane was widened from 12 to 16 feet.
- Offensive goaltending was introduced.
- Throwing an inbounds pass over the backboard was prohibited.
- A new rule stated that free-throw shooters could not cross the free-throw line until the ball hit the rim, in response to Chamberlain experimenting with dunking his free throws.
3. Bill Russell
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Bill Russell was the consummate winner. He led the Boston Celtics to 11 NBA titles, more than any other player, and altered the course of the NBA by demonstrating that championships could be won with defense.
He perfected the blocked shot, using it as an offensive weapon to spark the fast break, and controlled the defensive backboards. His desire to win was relentless, and he sacrificed personal glory—averaging 15.1 points per game for his career—for the betterment of the team.
Russell became the NBA's first African-American superstar upon entering the league in 1956. Ten years later, he was named the first African-American head coach of a professional sports franchise in the United States when he was named player-coach of his beloved Celtics.
The Celtics' center was a proud man who fought for his rights. When a hotel in Lexington, Ky., refused to serve his teammate, Sam Jones, because of the color of his skin, Russell informed Red Auerbach that the Celtics would not play in their scheduled exhibition there.
In 1964, he galvanized the biggest stars in the game to inform the owners that they would not play in the All-Star Game until the players had a pension plan in place. Desperate to secure a television contract with ABC, the owners relented at the last minute.
In 2009, David Stern announced that the NBA Finals MVP award would bear Russell's name. As seen in the picture above, the legendary ballplayer was rewarded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2010.
2. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird
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In order to understand Larry Bird and Earvin "Magic" Johnson's impact on the NBA, it is essential to consider the state of the league upon their arrival in 1979.
Young players had received too much money too soon in the 1970s as the NBA and ABA competed for talent, and it corrupted the game. Cocaine use was rampant, sponsors were pulling out, and the league's popularity was so low that the NBA Finals were aired on tape delay.
Enter Bird and Magic, two of the most uniquely skilled players the game had ever seen who had both mastered the art of playing within a team concept. They donned the uniforms of the league's two most historic franchises and, with contrasting personalities, backgrounds and styles, created a rivalry for the ages.
Magic and Bird's unbridled enthusiasm for the game and unparalleled drive to make themselves and their teammates better breathed new life into the dormant league. They ushered in the NBA's golden era and expanded its popularity around the globe. Their story has become one, and they will forever be inextricably linked by their contributions to the game they love.
1. Michael Jordan
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Literally and figuratively, Michael Jordan took the NBA and the game of basketball to new heights. He is the greatest basketball player of all time, and there was a majestic air to his game, the way he defied gravity as he soared to the hoop.
Jordan's prowess on the court was matched by his charisma. He joined the league at a time when cable television was entering millions of homes, and the concept of using individual athletes to market brands was taking off. It was the perfect storm for "Air Jordan" to become a marketing phenomenon and the most recognizable athlete in the world.
MJ gained so much exposure through brands like Nike and Gatorade that he became a brand unto himself, forming the Jordan Brand, a subsidiary of Nike, complete with his own Jumpman logo.
Every commercial he appeared in and pair of sneakers he sold were free publicity for the NBA and helped grow the game.
His participation on the 1992 Dream Team that won gold in the Barcelona Olympics fueled his star power and increased the visibility of the league the world over, prompting countless children to pick up a basketball and buy NBA merchandise.
MJ never let his status as a marketing icon interfere with his dedication to winning championships, something he did six times as a member of the Chicago Bulls. He set an example for future superstars that winning is the No. 1 priority, and earning power will follow.