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50 Most Influential NBA-Related Sports Illustrated Covers

Joshua SextonSenior Analyst IISeptember 15, 2011

50 Most Influential NBA-Related Sports Illustrated Covers

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    This article will look at the 50 most influential NBA-related Sports Illustrated covers since the magazine first started publishing in the early 1950s.

    This is not a ranking of the most influential covers, but rather a historical look at all of the influential covers throughout the years.

    I have started at the beginning and worked up my way to the present day.

    Sit back and enjoy a look at NBA history through the covers of Sports Illustrated.

    All photos courtesy of

January 9, 1956: Bob Cousy

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    The first NBA star to be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated was the Boston Celtics’ Bob Cousy.

    Cousy helped lead the Celtics to six championships in his time in Boston.

October 30, 1961: Wilt Chamberlain and Frank McGuire

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    Wilt Chamberlain and his new coach Frank McGuire were featured on the NBA preview issue prior to the 1961-62 season. Chamberlain would end the season averaging 50 points and 25 rebounds.

February 8, 1965: Jerry West

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    Los Angeles Lakers star Jerry West was featured on the cover in the middle of the 1965 season. The Lakers would eventually lose to the Celtics in the NBA Finals later that season.

    West would eventually lead the Lakers to a championship in 1972. In addition, West is the first and only player in league history from the losing team to win NBA Finals MVP.

May 9, 1966: John Havlicek

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    After the Boston Celtics defeated the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1966 NBA Finals, Sports Illustrated featured John Havlicek on the cover.

    The Celtics legend averaged 23 points, nine rebounds and four assists per game during the 1966 postseason.

April 24, 1967: Rick Barry

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    Rick Barry of the San Francisco Warriors was on the cover leading up to the NBA Finals against Wilt Chamberlain and the Philadelphia 76ers in 1967.

    San Francisco eventually fell to the 76ers in six games.

April 29, 1968: Elgin Baylor and Jerry West

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    Prior to the 1968 NBA Finals, Los Angeles Lakers stars Elgin Baylor and Jerry West were featured on the cover. The Lakers would go on to lose to the Celtics in six games.

    The Lakers' loss to the Celtics marked the fifth time in seven years the Lakers lost to the Celtics in the finals.

December 23, 1968: Bill Russell

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    Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell was featured on this issue’s cover after being named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year.

    Russell won his 10th championship with the Celtics in 1968.

January 27, 1969: Wilt Chamberlain

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    In the middle of his first season with the Los Angeles Lakers, Wilt Chamberlain was the focus of Sports Illustrated’s cover story.

    Chamberlain would eventually lead the Lakers to the team’s first championship since moving to Los Angeles in 1972.

October 27, 1969: Lew Alcindor

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    As a rookie fresh out of UCLA, Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) graced the cover of Sports Illustrated’s NBA preview issue prior to the 1969-70 season.

    As a rookie, Alcindor was named to the All-NBA Second Team.

May 18, 1970: Dave DeBusschere

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    In 1970 the New York Knicks won the franchise’s first championship, defeating the Los Angeles Lakers in seven games.

    Willis Reed was named MVP of the series after he made a heroic appearance in Game 7 despite being injured. Reed hit the first two shots of the game (his only points of the contest), leading the Knicks to victory in the series’ deciding game.

May 10, 1971: Oscar Robertson

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    Oscar Robertson helped lead the Milwaukee Bucks to the 1971 championship, defeating the Baltimore Bullets in four games.

May 15, 1972: Wilt Chamberlain

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    Led by Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West, the Los Angeles Lakers captured the franchise's first championship since moving to Los Angeles in 1972.

    Leading up to their championship, the Lakers went on a 33-game winning streak and won 69 regular season games. The Lakers defeated the New York Knicks in the NBA Finals in five games.

May 7, 1973: Walt Frazier and Jerry West

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    The New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers squared off in the 1973 NBA Finals. SI featured Walt Frazier and Jerry West on the NBA Finals preview issue.

    The Knicks would go on to defeat the Lakers in five games.

October 14, 1974: Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

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    UCLA fans will certainly appreciate this selection, featuring arguably the two best players in school history battling each other in the NBA.

    I am sure when John Wooden saw Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the cover, he was beaming.

May 17, 1976: Julius Erving

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    Am I the only one who thinks this cover featuring Julius Erving dribbling the old red, white and blue ABA ball is sweet as heck?

    Erving led the New York Nets to the 1976 ABA championship over the Denver Nuggets.

October 25, 1976: Dave Cowens and Julius Erving

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    The 1976-77 season marked the NBA-ABA merger. Sports Illustrated marked the occasion by featuring Dave Cowens of the NBA’s Boston Celtics and Julius Erving of the ABA’s New York Nets on its NBA preview issue.

June 13, 1977: Bill Walton and the Portland Trail Blazers

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    The Portland Trail Blazers beat the Philadelphia 76ers for the franchise’s first and only world championship in June of 1977.

    Bill Walton was named MVP of the series.

October 15, 1979: Bill Walton

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    Bill Walton was featured on the NBA preview issue prior to the 1979-80 season. In his first season with the San Diego Clippers, Walton averaged 13 points and nine rebounds.

November 19, 1979: Magic Johnson

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    Only a month into his rookie season, Magic Johnson was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

    Johnson helped the Lakers win the championship at the end of the season.

May 26, 1980: Magic Johnson

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    Magic Johnson led the Los Angeles Lakers to the NBA title in 1980 as a rookie out of Michigan State. In Game 6, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sidelined with an ankle injury, Magic recorded 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists, leading the Lakers to the series victory over the Philadelphia 76ers.

May 11, 1981: Kevin McHale and Maurice Cheeks

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    This issue appeared on newsstands in the middle of the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers' classic battle in the 1981 Eastern Conference finals.

    Boston beat Philly in seven games en route to defeating the Houston Rockets in the NBA Finals.

June 6, 1983: Moses Malone

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    Moses Malone, Julius Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers swept the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1983 NBA Finals.

    Malone was named finals MVP after averaging 26 points and 15 rebounds in the postseason.

October 29, 1984: Larry Bird and Bill Russell

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    After the Boston Celtics won the 1984 championship, Bill Russell appeared on the cover of the NBA preview issue for the following season, telling Larry Bird a thing or two about repeating as champions.

December 10, 1984: Michael Jordan

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    That's right—Michael Jordan's first Sports Illustrated cover as an NBA player.

May 13, 1985: Magic Johnson

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    The "Magic Man" was featured on the cover during the 1985 NBA Playoffs. A month after this issue was released, Magic and the Lakers defeated the Boston Celtics for the first time in the NBA Finals.

    Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was named Finals MVP.

June 16, 1986: Kevin McHale

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    Led by Kevin McHale and Larry Bird, the Boston Celtics defeated the Houston Rockets in the NBA Finals for their second championship in three years.

June 8, 1987: Larry Bird

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    In my opinion, one of the greatest Sports Illustrated covers of all time. This cover shot captured Larry Bird expressing his emotions en route to leading the Boston Celtics to the NBA Finals.

June 22, 1987: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

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    The Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Boston Celtics in the 1987 NBA Finals, seizing control in the two teams' 1980s rivalry. SI captured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar putting the finishing touches on Boston in the Game 6 clincher.

November 7, 1988: Karl Malone

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    Karl Malone, aka "The Mailman," was featured on Sports Illustrated's NBA preview issue prior to the 1988-1989 season.

    Malone retired second on the NBA's all-time scoring list.

March 13, 1989: Michael Jordan

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    Just one of the many Sports Illustrated covers Michael Jordan appeared on throughout his illustrious career. This one captures MJ going to the hoop for two points against the competition.

November 6, 1989: Michael Jordan and Joe Dumars

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    This cover epitomizes the Detroit Pistons' dominance over the Chicago Bulls in the late 1980s. The Pistons not only beat the Bulls, but they also beat them. The Pistons' physical play against Jordan and the Bulls became known as the “Jordan Rules.”

    Jordan and the Bulls finally broke through and beat the Pistons in the 1991 Eastern Conference finals, sparking a run to three straight championships for Chicago.

February 18, 1991: The Original Dream Team

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    In February of 1991, members of the original Dream Team were featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The 1992 Dream Team marked the first time professional players were allowed to compete in the Olympics.

    The team won the gold medal in convincing fashion.

June 17, 1991: Michael Jordan

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    On the cusp of winning his first career championship, Sports Illustrated featured Michael Jordan on its cover in 1991 doing damage against the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals.

June 22, 1992: Michael Jordan

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    After the Chicago Bulls defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, Sports Illustrated captured Michael Jordan enjoying a victory stogie.

    Jordan averaged 34 points, six rebounds and five assists during the 1992 postseason.

June 28, 1993: Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen

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    After defeating the Phoenix Suns for their third straight championship, SI featured Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen celebrating on their cover.

    The Bulls’ three championships in a row marked the first time a team won at least three championships in a row since the Boston Celtics in the 1960s.

March 27, 1995: Michael Jordan

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    In March of 1995, Michael Jordan returned from his temporary hiatus from the game of basketball. Jordan temporarily wore No. 45 upon his return.

June 26, 1995: Kevin Garnett

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    This cover featuring a baby-faced Kevin Garnett warrants a double take.

    The boy on the cover barely resembles the scowling man we now see intimidating opponents on the hardwood.

    This cover is a reminder of how fast time goes by.

June 17, 1996: Michael Jordan

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    Michael Jordan appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in June of 1996 after the Chicago Bulls defeated the Seattle Sonics in the NBA Finals.

    The championship was the fourth for Jordan and the Bulls and the first since Jordan returned to the game of basketball in March of 1995 after he tried his luck on the baseball diamond.

November 11, 1996: Shaquille O'Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and George Mikan

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    In the summer of 1996, the Los Angeles Lakers signed free agent Shaquille O’Neal.

    O’Neal appeared on the NBA preview issue that fall, along with former Laker centers George Mikan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Shaq didn’t disappoint following in Mikan and Jabbar’s footsteps, leading the team to three consecutive championships.

June 9, 1997: Michael Jordan

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    Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls defeated the Utah Jazz for their second straight title in 1997. Jordan won his fifth career NBA Finals MVP award in the process.

June 22, 1998: Michael Jordan

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    The Chicago Bulls defeated the Utah Jazz for the second year in a row to claim their third straight championship. Michael Jordan retired after the season ended before returning in 2001-02 with the Washington Wizards.

June 4, 2001: Shaquille O'Neal

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    This Sports Illustrated cover featured a snarling Shaquille O’Neal in the midst of the Los Angeles Lakers going on a historic 15-1 playoff run en route to their second consecutive championship.

    The Lakers’ 15-1 playoff record in 2001 is the best playoff winning percentage in league history.

October 28, 2002: Yao Ming

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    Houston Rockets rookie Yao Ming was featured on the NBA preview issue for the 2002-2003 NBA season. The debut of the 7'6" Yao from China in 2002 was one of the most anticipated in league history.

    Yao’s arrival further established the NBA as a global game.

June 9, 2003: Tim Duncan

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    This cover featured Tim Duncan showing a rare flash of extreme emotion. Days later, Duncan led the San Antonio Spurs to a victory over the New Jersey Nets in the NBA Finals.

July 28, 2003: Kobe Bryant

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    In July 2003, Kobe Bryant was arrested for sexually assaulting a 19-year-old hotel employee in Eagle, Colorado. Bryant admitted to having consensual sex with the woman, and the charges were eventually dropped.

    Kobe split time during the 2003-04 season between the legal court and basketball court.

October 27, 2003: LeBron James

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    Then-rookie LeBron James was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s annual NBA preview issue.

    This was James’ first Sports Illustrated cover as an NBA player. James was named Rookie of the Year that season, averaging 20 points, five rebounds and five assists per game.

November 29, 2004: Ron Artest

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    In light of the melee at the Palace of Auburn Hills, in which members of the Indiana Pacers fought Detroit Pistons fans, Sports Illustrated featured the image of Ron Artest, who was the main culprit in the gut-wrenching incident, charging into the stands after an awestruck Pistons fan.

    Nine players were suspended for a total of 146 games, including 86 for Artest, the longest suspension for an on-court incident in NBA history.

June 22, 2009: Kobe Bryant

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    Kobe Bryant led the Los Angeles Lakers to their first NBA championship since 2002, proving he could indeed lead the team as the franchise’s alpha dog. The team’s five-game defeat of the Orlando Magic earned Kobe his fourth career championship.

    Kobe Bryant was named NBA Finals MVP for the first time in his career.

July 19, 2010: Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh

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    After LeBron James made the decision to take his talents to South Beach, he was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated with his two new teammates, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.

    The “Big Three” came up short in their first season together, losing to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals, but the team figures to be a dominating presence in the NBA for years to come.

    They’d better be. After all, didn’t they predict seven championships?

June 20, 2011: Dirk Nowitzki

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    After years of playoff shortcomings, including a stunning first-round loss to the Golden State Warriors in 2007, and accusations of being too “soft,” Dirk Nowitzki led the Dallas Mavericks to the franchise’s first championship, being named finals MVP in the process.

    The Mavericks beat LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the rest of the Miami Heat in six games.

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