With the NBA playoffs fast approaching and the NCAA tournament well into Final Four-mania, it is a great time to think about those players both gifted and lucky enough to have played on both an NBA and an NCAA champion.
The NBA has been crowning champions since 1947 and the NCAA has been doing it even longer—since 1939. Certainly, there must have been lots of players who have become Double Champions, if you will.
In researching this piece, the list of Double Champions is not a vast one but it does include some of the greatest players (including Mr. Jordan, who is pictured) to ever grace the hardwood.
What follows is a ranking of the top 10 who have achieved this tremendous feat.
But this show does not end there.
I also wanted to recognize five other Double Champions who did not quite make my (subjective, but based on stats, and my "eye test" if they played during my fandom) Top 10. They would form a pretty impressive starting five in their own right.
The next step was to recognize some all-time greats who either won an NBA title and were runner-ups in the NCAA, or vice versa. Believe me, there are some amazing names on this list as well. Let's call them the Just Missed Team.
The requirements were so stringent that double runner-ups (such as Elgin Baylor, who was a perennial runner-up with the Lakers and an NCAA runner-up with Seattle University) didn't even qualify.
At the end of the show, I have added a mythical best-of-seven NBA-style series between the Double Champions and the Just Missed Team.
So, please enjoy this journey through NBA and NCAA finals history and pay homage to some of the all-time greatest basketball stars at both levels.
It must be a pretty good Top 10 when there was no room for the following players who won NCAA and NBA titles.
Alphabetically, let's recognize the following: Quinn Buckner, Tom Gola, Gail Goodrich, Richard "Rip" Hamilton, Glen Rice and Corliss 'Big Nasty' Williamson.
Quinn Buckner was among the greatest defensive guards in NCAA and NBA history. He was smart, unselfish and tough. He co-captained the Indiana Hoosiers' undefeated 1976 team, and earned a World Championship with the Boston Celtics in 1984. Buckner, also a great high school football player, is one of only three players to have won basketball titles at the high school (state), NCAA, Olympics and NBA levels. Stay tuned for a little more about the other two (Magic Johnson and Jerry Lucas) shortly.
Tom Gola, a Naismith Memorial Hall of Famer, led tiny LaSalle University to an NCAA title in 1954. He was a first team All-American three consecutive years, and as a rookie won an NBA title with the Philadelphia Warriors. A guard/forward who could do everything, he made five consecutive NBA All-Star games. Gola also led LaSalle to an NIT title at a time when it was not simply a tourney for also-rans.
Gail Goodrich, another Hall of Famer, was a crafty, left-handed guard who led UCLA to back-to-back titles (1964, 1965) and also co-starred on the Los Angeles Lakers' 1971-72 title team that compiled a 69-13 regular season record. Goodrich was a five-time NBA All-Star and was NCAA Co-Player of the Year in 1965.
Rip Hamilton, in his 12th NBA season, was a two-time AP All-American who led UConn to the title in 1999. The three-time NBA All-Star completed the double in 2004 with the Detroit Pistons.
Glen Rice was the Most Outstanding Player of the 1989 NCAA tourney when he led his Michigan Wolverines to the title. A world champion with the 2000 Lakers, the three-time NBA All-Star is one of the deadliest three-point shooters the league has ever seen.
Also deserving of mention is Corliss Williamson, a two-time All-American at Arkansas who led the Razorbacks to a title in 1994 and a runner-up finish the following year. He was a key sixth man on those 2004 Pistons.
Pictured is Wilt Chamberlain, as a member of the Kansas Jayhawks; his collegiate career ran from 1955-58. Do you think that the sight of a massive 7'1" player with the wingspan of a 747 who could also run and jump like a track star was a little bit intimidating to his opposition?
Statistically, Chamberlain dominated the NBA like nobody before or since, and despite his teams often playing second fiddle to Bill Russell's great Celtics, he did lead the 1967 Philadelphia 76ers and the 1972 Los Angeles Lakers to championships. He just missed an NCAA title as a sophomore with the Jayhawks, his only appearance in the Big Dance. Although easily the most dominant player in the land, Wilt faced triple-teams and stall ball tactics in a crushing, 52-51 triple overtime loss to North Carolina.
Oscar Robertson, considered by most roundball aficionados to be one of the two greatest floor generals to ever play the game, was a three-time NCAA Player of the Year at the University of Cincinnati, and left college with a remarkable scoring average of 33.8. The Big O led the Bearcats to the finals but could not come away with the title. He did win Olympic Gold (1960) and a World Championship (with Milwaukee in 1971) and you may have heard about his second season in the NBA (1961-62) where he averaged a triple double for the entire season: 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists. No other player has come very close to matching that iconic season.
The great Jerry West also deserves his own page, but in brief, this all-time great guard played for the 1971 world champion Lakers and, seemingly, a million other teams that finished runner-up to the Celtics. West willed his West Virginia Mountaineers to the title game in 1959, where they lost to California by one point. West will have to console himself with his 1960 Olympic Gold, his NBA championship, 14 All-Star appearances and innumerable other achievements.
Larry Bird strapped the 1979 Indiana State Sycamores to his back in 1979, where ultimately they lost to Magic Johnson's Michigan State Spartans. This may have been the most famous NCAA game ever played, and certainly the most pivotal to the popularity of March Madness. Among Bird's myriad accomplishments with the Celtics were three NBA titles (1981, 1984 and 1986) and three consecutive league MVP awards (1984-86).
Hakeem "the Dream" Olajuwon, one of the most graceful centers to play the game, led his University of Houston Cougars to three consecutive Final Fours and two runner-up finishes. Olajuwon led his Houston Rockets to back-to-back world championships in 1994-95, also winning league MVP for the first title run.
Patrick Ewing's Georgetown Hoyas beat Olajuwon's Cougars in the 1984 NCAA Finals, and also finished runner-ups to North Carolina (1982) and Villanova (1985). Interestingly, Olajuwon's Houston Rockets turned the table on Ewing's Knicks, taking the 1994 title in seven grueling games.
Cyde "the Glide" Drexler is another Hall of Famer and NBA Top 50 selection who won an NBA title with Hakeem in 1995, and lost (with his Nigerian buddy) to Jim Valvano's NC State Cinderella team in 1983. The charter member of Phi Slamma Jamma, Drexler was a breathtaking player in both the NBA and NCAA.
How James is Worthy
NCAA Championship: 1982 - University of North Carolina (Worthy was named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four)
NBA Titles: 1985, 1987 and 1998 - LA Lakers (MVP of 1998 Finals)
Hall of Fame: Class of 2003
Nicknames: King James and Big Game James
Worthy is one of only seven Lakers to have his uniform number retired by the team. Considering all the greats that have played for this franchise, this is quite an honor.
No. 42 was a versatile, efficient player who was devastating on the fast break, and very solid in the half-court offense.
The seven-time all-star forward had career averages of 17.6 ppg, 5.1 rebounds and 3.0 assists. His field goal percentage was an impressive 52.1 percent.
Why was he called Big Game James?
In the playoffs, he averaged 21.1 ppg, 5.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists, and his already high field-goal percentage rose to 54.4 percent.
How K.C. Jones Qualifies
NCAA Championships: 1955 and 1956 - University of San Francisco
NBA Titles (as player): 8; every year from 1959-1966 as a member of the Boston Celtics
Hall of Fame: Class of 1989
K.C.'s individual stats don't wow you, but you must consider that he did a lot of the little things for the Celtics dynasty.
Yes, he was surrounded by great teammates, including legendary center Bill Russell, who was also his college teammate, but Jones was one of the top defensive guards of his era. He also finished in the top eight in assists four times.
Clearly, K.C. was all about winning. He won back-to-back NCAA championships, and an Olympic Gold Medal in 1956.
He won NBA titles with the Celtics in each of his first eight years; he only played nine years. Perhaps, the shock of not winning it all was too much for him.
In the 1980s, he became the Celtics head coach and added two more championships to his resume.
How Jerry Lucas Qualifies
NCAA Championship: 1960 - Ohio State
NBA Title: 1973 with the New York Knicks
Hall of Fame: Class of 1980
Jerry Lucas was the true Renaissance Man of the NCAA and NBA.
A Phi Betta Kappa, 4.0 student, Luke is one of the greatest players in NCAA history. He earned first team All-American status every year from 1960-62, winning AP Player of the Year honors twice.
At Ohio State, Lucas was the unquestioned centerpiece of a dominant team that included Bobby Knight as well as John Havlicek, a roommate who became an all-time great in the NBA.
Inch for inch, John Lucas may have been the greatest rebounder in NBA history. Indeed, the seven-time All-Star studied and understood rebounding every bit as much as Ted Williams mastered the art of hitting a baseball.
Standing only 6'8", Luke retired with an average of 15.6 rebounds per game, trailing only Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Bob Pettit in that department. Lucas was also a long-distance marksman who averaged 17 points per game in his 11-year career.
This legend from a small town in Ohio is also an acclaimed magician and a best-selling author of memory books. Lucas used his remarkable intellect and mnemonic devices to memorize everything from the playbooks of opposing teams to the first 500 pages of the Manhattan phone directory.
How Bill Walton Qualifies
NCAA Championships: 1972, 1973 - UCLA
NBA Titles: 1977 (Portland) and 1986 (Boston)
Hall of Fame: Class of 1993
The NBA only saw a glimpse of Bill Walton's brilliance as the big redhead struggled with a perplexing array of injuries during his 10-year career. He came into the league after one of the most successful runs of any NCAA player.
Big Bill won Player of the Year honors in all three of his varsity seasons with UCLA, leading his Bruins to three Final Fours and two championships. He was a huge part of Coach John Wooden's amazing 88-game winning streak. In 1973, he authored what was arguably the greatest game in the history of the NCAA Finals, scoring 44 points on 21-22 shooting to defeat Memphis State.
Unfortunately, Walton played in 60 or more games only three times in his 10-year NBA career. One of those seasons was 1976-77, when he led the Portland Trail Blazers to a surprising NBA title. The consummate team player, Walton averaged 18.6 points, 14.4 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 3.2 blocks. He was awarded NBA Playoffs MVP that year.
The following season, Walton captured the regular season MVP, boosting his assists to five per game.
As terrific as he was, one can only project what more he would have accomplished had his body been more cooperative.
How John Havlicek Qualifies
NCAA Championship: 1960 - Ohio State
NBA Titles: 8; 1963-66, 1968-69, 1974, 1976
Hall of Fame: Class of 1984
Hondo was one of the great swingmen in NBA history, excelling at both the two and the three.
Havlicek won championships in exactly half of his 16 seasons with the Celtics, and made the NBA All-Star team 13 times. A great defensive player, he was voted to the All-Defensive First Team five times and the second team an additional five seasons.
No. 17 had no weaknesses as a player and retired with the following per game averages: 20.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.2 steals. The last number would, undoubtedly, have been higher if that stat were kept earlier in his career.
A great clutch player, Hondo sank 81.5 percent of his career free throw attempts.
Havlicek was also drafted by the Cleveland Browns in 1962 and competed as a receiver in their training camp. To the undying gratitude of the Celtics and their fans, he left camp to concentrate on his NBA career.
How Isiah Thomas Qualifies
NCAA Championship: 1981- Indiana University
NBA Titles (as player): 1989-1990 - Detroit Pistons
Hall of Fame: Class of 2000
As a collegian, Thomas only played two seasons for Bobby Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers, which was enough time for him to walk away with an NCAA title and Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four in 1981.
The lightning quick point guard played each of his 13 NBA seasons with the Pistons and was voted to the All-Star team 12 times. Thomas was the floor general for the notorious "Bad Boys" who were world champions in 1989 and 1990.
Isiah's career averages were: 19.2 points, 3.6 rebounds, 9.3 assists and 1.9 steals. As terrific as those numbers are, Thomas actually bettered them (20.4 / 8.9 / 4.7 / 2.2) in the playoffs.
One may debate Thomas' merits as a coach or general manager, but clearly he was an all-time great as a point guard.
How (Earvin) Magic Johnson Qualifies
NCAA Championship: 1979 - Michigan State
NBA Titles (as player): 5; 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987-88 - Lakers
Hall of Fame: Class of 2000
You may be thinking that this collection of players must be amazing if Magic Johnson, as splendid an all-around player as ever graced the hardwood, is ranked No. 4. Well, this list is impressive, and I would not quibble with anyone who placed Magic a spot or two higher. He was that spectacular.
The man most synonymous with Showtime burst onto the national stage with Michigan State as a sophomore, leading the Spartans to the 1979 title over an Indiana State squad led by Larry Bird.
Magic and Bird would continue to battle each other during their Hall of Fame careers, clashing in three NBA Finals. Magic would get the better of his rival and future Olympic Dream Team friend in two of them.
Magic's most iconic NBA game may have taken place in the 1980 NBA Finals. The Lakers were leading the 76ers 3-2, but their great center, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, had sprained an ankle in Game 5 and was sidelined for Game 6, played in Philly.
When Game 6 started, Magic, a freakish 6'9" point guard, took Kareem's place at center. Playing every position on the court that night (and seemingly simultaneously) the rookie phenom tallied 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and three steals in the 123-107 victory.
Magic's Lakers advanced to nine NBA finals in his 13-year career, winning five of them.
His NBA success was consistent with this flamboyant player's reputation as a winner. Johnson won championships in high school, college, the NBA and the Olympics.
How Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Qualifies
NCAA Championships: 1967-1969 - UCLA
NBA Titles (as player): 6; 1971 (Bucks); 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987-88 (Lakers)
Hall of Fame: Class of 1995
What is there to add to the legend of Lew Alcindor / Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one of the three or four most dominant athletes the sport has produced?
Kareem led his high school, Power Memorial Academy, to three straight New York City Catholic League championships and 71 straight victories before heading to Westwood where he led the UCLA Bruins to NCAA titles (and a combined 88-2 mark) in each of his three seasons. He was far and away the dominant force in the game as a collegian, becoming a First Team All-American in each of his three years and Player of the Year twice.
Jabbar's game, obviously, did not skip a beat when he entered the pro ranks. The 19-time All-Star (which doesn't seem possible) won a record six MVP awards to go with his six world championships.
Kareem retired with per game averages of: 24.6 points, 11.2 boards, 2.7 blocks and 3.6 assists.
He also mastered the most singular, unstoppable shot in the history of the NBA: the sky hook.
How Bill Russell Qualifies
NCAA Championships: 1955 and 1956 - University of San Francisco
NBA Titles (as player and player/coach): 11; 1957, 1959-1966, 1968-1969 as a member of the Boston Celtics
Hall of Fame: Class of 1975
Bill Russell's teams won an unbelievable 11 NBA titles in his storied 13-year career. No other NBA player has equaled that mark.
When one thinks of Russell, they think of defense, rebounding and winning. He had offensive skills (if not on a par with Chamberlain or Jabbar) but he mostly subjugated them to help his teammates shine. Russell, one of the most cerebral men to ever play the game, understood winning on a level that few men (Charlie Sheen included) could ever hope to.
Outside of his unparalleled team success, Russell had many individual accolades, including five MVP awards and 12 All-Star appearances.
He averaged 15.1 points, 22,5 rebounds and 4.3 assists in the regular season, and elevated those numbers to 16.2 / 24.5 / 4.7 in the playoffs.
It would have been fun to have seen his blocked shot numbers (and those of his rival, Wilt Chamberlain, for that matter) but that stat was not kept back in Russ' day.
How Michael Jordan Qualifies
NCAA Championships: 1982 - University of North Carolina
NBA Titles (as player): 6; 1991-1993, 1996-1998 - Chicago Bulls
Hall of Fame: Class of 2009
In sports, there is no such thing as a perfect player, but if there were, Jordan would probably be the leading candidate.
How else do you sum up the career of a player who was the best offensive and defensive player of his era, and also its most notoriously vicious competitor?
About the only holes in his sports resume are: getting cut as a sophomore from the Laney High School (Wilmington, NC) basketball team, barely breaking the Mendoza line as a Minor League baseball player and being unable to carry his Washington Wizards in his two years there. Okay, he was coming off a three-year layoff and he was 38 years old, but we have higher standards for Superman.
Ever since MJ hit the winning shot in the 1982 NCAA Finals to beat Georgetown, sports fans expected him to hit every crucial shot. As Craig Ehlo, Bryon Russell and others can attest, it seems like he did.
For his regular season career, Jordan averaged 30.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 2.3 steals. In the playoffs, he bettered those marks to 33.4 / 6.4 / 5.7 / 2.1. His steals fell off a hair, but nobody's perfect, right?
Among many other accolades, Jordan was a 14-time All-Star, a five-time regular season MVP (and six-time Finals MVP) and a nine-time First Team All-Defensive player.
He also provided 1,345,675 highlight film plays that are indelibly printed on the minds of hoops fans everywhere.
What if a game were played between the Double Champions featured on this slide show versus the Just Missed Team (mentioned earlier, these are the players who won at least one NBA or NCAA Title and were runner-ups in the other)?
Per each mythical team, I have selected a starting five and two or three bench players.
The National Anthem has just been heard ( I'm thinking Marvin Gaye, not Carl Lewis), and here is the Double Champion Team approaching half court:
PG - Magic Johnson
SG - Michael Jordan
C - Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
SF - John Havlicek
PF - Bill Russell (I know he's a center, but this is a huge team)
Off the bench
John Lucas can come in and do anything you need in the frontcourt.
James Worthy can also come in and play the three or the four with equal proficiency.
Isiah Thomas can give Magic a blow...and don't even go there.
The Double Champions are incredibly formidable but our Just Missed squad is looking very tough as well.
Here they are:
PG - Oscar Robertson
SG - Jerry West
C - Wilt Chamberlain
SF - Larry Bird
PF - Hakeem Olajuwon (I know he's a center, but this is also a huge frontline.)
Off the bench
We're just going with two bench players.
Clyde Drexler can excel at either shooting guard or small forward.
Patrick Ewing can sub for either Olajuwon or Chamberlain, although I don't know if I have the heart or nerve to pull Wilt off the court.
What do you think would happen if these two juggernauts squared off in an NBA-style, best-of-seven series?
I love the matchup at guards. You can make an easy case that Michael, Magic, Oscar and Jerry are the four greatest guards to ever play the game. (I know there's that Kobe fellow, but even so.)
I revere Robertson and West, but have to give a slight edge to Jordan and Johnson—just a little bigger and better.
It also doesn't get much better than Wilt vs. Kareem in the pivot. In my mind, Wilt was the most dominant force to ever play the game, and Kareem was not far behind. I'm going to award Chamberlain the ever-so-slight edge here based on his stronger rebounding and athleticism.
At forwards, Havlicek and Russell (asking him to adapt to the power forward, and I think he could) is a very close match with Larry Bird and Hakeem Olajuwon (also being asked to play power forward. This is close to a push, although I may opt for the Celtics duo who teamed up with so much success over the years.
I prefer the Double Champions bench. Clyde the Glide and Ewing were wonderful players, but I like the versatility that Lucas and Worthy bring to the court. Isiah gives the DCs excellent energy and tempo as well.
Although the Just Missed squad features a dazzling array of all-time greats, the Double Champions—led by Russell, MJ and Magic, three of the greatest winners the sport has ever seen—are just two powerful.
In my final analysis, the Just Missed stars just miss again as Jordan scores over the great Jerry West to win Game 7 by a bucket.