The Freaky Three: Three Athletes Who Revolutionized Basketball

Josh LinkContributor IFebruary 8, 2010

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 16:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Caveliers dunks the ball against the Los Angeles Clippers during the first quarter of the NBA basketball game at Staples Center on January 16, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Every once in a great while, a basketball player shows up with such extraordinary athletic ability that the game changes.  Fans, players, coaches, and casual observers all begin to take notice and rave about the physical prowess of this new specimen.

Throughout the history of basketball, only two players have ever shown up and altered the landscape forever.

And we may now be seeing a third.

The first such player came into the league during the 1958-59 season.  His name is Elgin Baylor.

Before Baylor laced them up for the Lakers, the phrase "playing above the rim" did not exist.  Standing at 6'5" and weighing in at 225 pounds, Baylor was big for a small forward.

But that isn't what made him stand out.  What made him stand out was his ability to blow by smaller opponents and then float effortlessly through the air as he finished with dunks and finger rolls.

These are the types of plays we are accustomed to seeing players at all positions make today, but in 1958, it was unheard of.  Dunks were rare, and the few players who dunked routinely were centers.

Elgin Baylor stood a good five inches shorter than most centers in the league at the time (13 inches shorter than Wilt once he entered the league), yet he was able to get to the rim with even more regularity.

Fans, coaches, and players alike thought they would never see another player like him.  Instead, players with Baylor's athletic gifts became more and more frequent.

It wouldn't be until 1971 that a player would invoke such admiration for his physical abilities.  Julius "Dr. J" Erving was the heir to Baylor's athletic throne.

Sadly, he spent his prime playing in the ABA, where his gifts could not be seen by national audiences with any kind of frequency.  When Doc went to the New York Nets in 1973, he used the media market of New York City to gain some recognition.

Dunks were not uncommon before Dr. J, but they weren't an art form either.  Dr. J's ability to take off on a fast break and finish with a powerful one-handed tomahawk dunk over an opponent was something that had never been seen before.  Nobody had used the dunk as a way to swing momentum in a game until the Doctor began throwing them down.

How amazing were Dr. J's athletic abilities?  He is single-handedly responsible for the Slam Dunk Contest and won the inaugural event with the first recorded dunk from the foul line.

Eventually players like Jordan, Drexler, Wilkins, and others would begin playing in a similar fashion, but never forget that Dr. J was first.

That brings us to the present.  We may be seeing the next installment of revolutionary athletes in LeBron James.

Never has there been a player who can handle the ball like a shooting guard, pass like a point guard, jump like a high-jumper, and cover ground like a sprinter while inhabiting the body of a power forward.

I've already heard people marvel at his physical attributes and say that we might never see an athletic specimen like him again.  That could be true, but we heard the same things about Elgin Baylor and Dr. J.

The truly scary thought is that LeBron James may be the first in a next wave of athletes to populate the NBA.  Only time will tell.