Ranking the Top 20 NBA/ABA Ballers to Emerge from New York City
Basketball is the sport that captures the rhythms, pace, culture and desperation of life in the inner city. From playgrounds in Brooklyn, to Rucker Park, to Madison Square Garden, New York City has embraced Dr. Naismith's game with greater enthusiasm and produced more elite basketball talent than any other city.
This is not an exhaustive list of the greatest New York City ballers. Neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs are replete with tales of playground legends like "Pee Wee" Kirkland, Earl "The Goat" Manigault, Joe "The Destroyer" Hammond and Herman "Helicopter" Knowlings who never played in the NBA for a variety of reasons.
The following list is restricted to players who sculpted their games on the blacktops and gymnasiums of New York City. NBA stars such as Michael Jordan and Carmelo Anthony, both of whom were born in Brooklyn, but developed their skills elsewhere, are not included.
Athletes raised in other parts of the state, such as Bob Lanier of Buffalo, New York, were also not considered. Elton Brand was a tough call because he grew up just north of the city in Mt. Vernon and played AAU ball in Manhattan. Ultimately, he was left off the list because he is so closely associated with the town of Peekskill where he attended high school.
The rankings are based upon the players' success in the ABA and NBA, not simply talent alone. In a couple of cases in which athletes were unable to play in the NBA during some of their peak years, their entire bodies of work were examined.
As always, it is difficult to compare athletes from different generations. I tried to strike a balance between evaluating players relative to their contemporaries, while also taking into consideration the evolution of the game and those who play it.
Max Zaslofsky was one of the stars of the NBA's early years. The Brooklyn native made the All-NBA First Team in the league's first four seasons and was the leading scorer in 1947-48.
Tom "Satch" Sanders of Manhattan won eight NBA championships with the great Boston Celtics teams of the 1960s. He was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 2011 as a contributor for developing the NBA's Rookie Transition Program.
Vinnie "The Microwave" Johnson of Brooklyn was a key member of the back-to-back champion Detroit Pistons teams of the late 1980s. Kenny "the Jet" Smith also won consecutive titles with the Houston Rockets, after beginning his career at Archbishop Molloy High School in Jamaica, Queens.
Kenny Anderson, also a graduate of Archbishop Molly High School, was a smooth left-hander with a quick first step. "Special K", as former New Jersey Nets play-by-play man Spencer Ross called him, had some great seasons with the Nets, though his career began to fizzle out in his mid-to-late 20s.
Anthony Mason from Queens was named NBA Sixth Man of the Year in 1995 and an All-Star in 2001. Two-time champion Lamar Odom also made a name for himself as a kid in Queens, playing for Chris the King Regional High School.
20. Jamal Mashburn
Jamal Mashburn attended Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx before playing for Rick Pitino at the University of Kentucky. He left Kentucky for the NBA after being named a First Team All-American and SEC Player of the Year in his junior season.
At 6'8'' Mashburn's athleticism made him a tough cover for small forwards. He could take his man off the dribble or burn him with outside jumpers. He once scored 50 points in a game and averaged over 20 points per game seven times.
The forward was selected by the Dallas Mavericks with the fourth pick in the 1993 draft, though he never gelled with guards Jimmy Jackson and Jason Kidd in Dallas, and was traded to the Miami Heat during the 1996-97 season.
After three-and-a-half seasons with the Heat he was sent to Charlotte, where he became the leader for a young Hornets team. Mash made his lone All-Star team in 2003 and chronic knee problems forced him to retire after the 2003-04 season. He averaged 19.1 points per game over his 11-year career.
19. Metta World Peace
Born Ron Artest Jr., Metta World Peace grew up in the projects of Queensbridge and played his AAU ball on a Riverside Church team that included Lamar Odom, Elton Brand and Erick Barkley.
World peace stayed home for college, attending St. John's University, and was on the board for the New York Knicks with the 15th pick in the 1999 draft. But his hometown team passed him up in favor of French big man Frederic Weis.
The Chicago Bulls selected World Peace with the next pick. After two-and-a-half seasons with the Bulls, he was traded to the Indiana Pacers, where he developed into an outstanding two-way player. In 2003-04, he averaged 18.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.1 steals. He was selected to his lone All-Star game and earned Defensive Player of the Year honors.
World Peace's career took a troubling turn on November 19, 2004, when he attacked a fan in the stands at the Palace at Auburn Hills during a game between the Pacers and Detroit Pistons. The forward was suspended for the rest of the season and traded to the Sacramento Kings a year later.
World Peace resurrected his career with the Sacramento Kings and Houston Rockets. He won a championship with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2010, scoring 20 points, including the clinching the three-pointer, in Game 7 of the Finals.
18. Rod Strickland
Rod Strickland reached the pantheon of New York City point guards by honing his skills in the streets and gymnasiums of the Bronx. He played his AAU ball for the famous New York Gauchos and led Truman High School to a state championship his junior year.
Strickland was drafted by his hometown New York Knicks in 1988 and played for seven teams over a 17-year career. "Hot Rod" had a nasty handle and relied on deception and exceptional quickness to get into the lane and break down defenses.
The biggest hole in his game was a poor outside shot, though he was able to lure defenders out on him with a sneaky, high dribble, then switch gears and blow by them. He forced turnovers with his quick hands and was a fantastic rebounder for his size, twice averaging over five boards per game.
Strickland had his best seasons in the mid-to-late 1990s with the Portland Trail Blazers and Washington Wizards. He averaged over eight assists per game eight times, led the league with 10.5 per game in 1997-98 and ranks ninth all-time.
17. Stephon Marbury
Stephon Marbury grew up in a family of basketball players in the projects of Coney Island, Brooklyn. His three older brothers starred at Abraham Lincoln High School, but fell short of making the NBA.
"Starbury" was the most talented baller in the family and arguably the greatest talent to emerge from New York City in decades. He followed his brothers to Lincoln High, where he won a NYC championship in 1995. Darcy Frey's book The Last Shot chronicled Marbury's freshman year in high school and portrayed the young star as arrogant, irreverent and extremely selfish. It was a harbinger of things to come.
The self-proclaimed "King of Coney Island" played one season at Georgia Institute of Technology before joining the NBA, where he established himself as a future star. The point guard had a complete offensive game. He could blow by his man with either hand, had the strength and athleticism to finish at the rim and could light it up from the outside.
His downfall was his character. Marbury never the team concept and feuded with several coaches. He averaged 19.3 points and 7.6 assists per game for his career and was selected to two All-Star teams, but made it to the playoffs just five times in 13 seasons. He wore out his welcome in the league by the age of 31.
16. World B. Free
World B. Free was a legendary character. However, his playful personality and flamboyant wardrobe should not overshadow his remarkable athleticism and knack for putting the ball in the basket.
Born Lloyd Bernard Free in Atlanta, Georgia, he was raised in Brooklyn and played his high school ball at Canarsie High School. It was at that time that a friend gave Free the nickname "World" because of his incredible leaping ability and 360 dunks.
Midway through his NBA career, Free legally changed his name to World B. Free. Metta World Peace has cited Free as the inspiration behind his own name change.
Free averaged 20.3 points per game over a 13-year career (1975-1988) during which he played for the Philadelphia 76ers, San Diego Clippers, Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers and Houston Rockets. He finished second in the league in scoring behind George "The Iceman" Gervin during each of his two seasons with the Clippers, averaging 28.8 and 30.2 points per game, respectively.
15. Mark Jackson
Mark Jackson shined on every stage of the New York City basketball scene. He played his high school ball at Bishop Loughlin Memorial High in Brooklyn, and then teamed up with local products Chris Mullin and Walter Berry at St. John's University, before being drafted by the New York Knicks in 1987.
Jackson was slow-footed and had an awkward shot, but he possessed an exceptional understanding of the game. He liked to run the offense from the block, patiently backing down his defender until he had an easy look, or the opposing team was forced to double- team him. When doubled, he delivered one of his brilliant passes to an open teammate.
Action Jackson was the 1987-88 Rookie of the Year and made his lone All-Star appearance the following season. The savvy point guard became best known for his years with the rough Indiana Pacers teams of the 1990s.
Jackson led the league with 11.4 assists per game in 1996-97 and ranks third all-time in career assists, ahead of Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson and Isiah Thomas. He returned to the Knicks for the 2001-02 season before retiring in 2004.
14. Rolando Blackman
Rolando Blackman was a model of consistency for the Dallas Mavericks throughout the 1980s and early '90s. The sweet-shooting 2 guard averaged over 18 points per game for nine consecutive, earning four All-Star in the process.
Blackman played 11 of his 13 seasons with the Mavericks and is the team's second all-time leading scorer, trailing only Dirk Nowitzki. His No. 22 jersey hangs in the rafters at American Airlines Arena. He signed with the New York Knicks in the summer of 1992 and was on the Knicks team that advanced to the Finals in 1994.
Blackman was born in Panama City, Panama and raised in Brooklyn. He earned All-Big Eight honors three times at Kansas State University before the Mavericks selected him with the ninth pick in the 1981 draft.
13. Richie Guerin
Thirty-three years after his retirement, Richie Guerin is finally receiving the recognition he deserves. The long-time New York Knick was voted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame earlier this year and will be enshrined this summer, along with fellow Knick legend Bernard King.
Guerin grew up in the Bronx and attended Iona College, just outside of New York City. He served in the Marines for two years before joining the Knicks.
Guerin was a tremendous playmaker who created shots for himself and teammates and was an excellent rebounder for a guard. He led the Knicks in assists for five consecutive seasons and averaged over 20 points per game four times. In December, 1959, he scored 57 points against the Syracuse Nationals.
Guerin was selected to six consecutive All-Star teams from 1958-63. His best season was 1961-62, when he contributed 29.5 points, 6.4 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game. Two games into the 1963-64 season the Knicks traded him to the St. Louis Hawks, where he finished his career as player-coach.
12. Dick McGuire
Dick McGuire's career averages of 8.0 points and 5.7 assists would be mediocre in today's NBA, but they placed him in elite company during the era in which he played. The Queens product was one of the elite playmakers of the 1950s.
Known as "Tricky Dick" for his nifty passes, McGuire ranked in the top five in assists seven times during an eight-year span. He made seven All-Star teams and led the New York Knicks to the Finals three consecutive times (1950-1952).
McGuire played eight of his 11 NBA seasons with the Knicks and remained with the franchise as a coach, scout and eventually a consultant until he died in 2010. He and his younger brother Al, who coached Marquette University to an NCAA championship in 1977, are the only brothers in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
11. Roger Brown
Roger Brown may be the greatest basketball player that casual NBA fans have never heard of. A 6'5'' guard/forward, he starred at George W. Wingate High School in Brooklyn, and along with his rival Connie Hawkins, earned rave reviews for his play on the hallowed grounds of Rucker Park.
Brown accepted a scholarship to play for the University of Dayton, but never suited up for the team. A point-shaving scandal rocked the New York city basketball scene in the summer of 1961. Brown was not arrested or even implicated in the scandal, but was found guilty by association for his relationship with a bookie named Jack Molinas. Brown was banned by the NCAA and NBA.
The man known as "The Rajah" eventually received an opportunity to showcase his skills with the Indiana Pacers when the ABA opened for business in 1967. Brown was an exceptional one-on-one player who took full advantage of the invention of the three-point shot.
He and the Pacers went the ABA Finals five times and won three championships. He was selected to four All-Star teams during his eight years in the league and named ABA Playoffs MVP in 1970 after averaging 28.5 points per game.
Brown was reinstated to the NBA, but chose to remain loyal to the league that first signed him. He will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer.
10. Chris Mullin
Chris Mullin grew up in Brooklyn and stayed in New York City for college, playing for Lou Carnesecca at St. John's University. Mullin was named Big East Player of the Year three times and led St. John's to the Final Four in 1985. He also won a gold medal as an amateur in the 1984 Olympics.
Known as the ultimate gym rat, Mullin became one of the premier shooters in the NBA. The craft lefty averaged over 25 points per game for five consecutive seasons with the Golden State Warriors and shot 51 percent for his career, a remarkable number for a player who relied primarily on outside shots.
However, shooting was just one aspect of his game. Mullin was an excellent passer and played point forward at times in Don Nelson's system. He also had exceptionally quick hands and was often among the league leaders in steals.
Mullin won his second gold medal as a member of the historic Dream Team at the Barcelona Games in 1992. In 2007, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
9. Connie Hawkins
Connie Hawkins' game will forever be shrouded in mystique. His greatest performances were not caught on film, but rather shared by word of mouth, from the blacktops of Harlem to the near-empty arenas of the ABA.
The Hawk was part of the high-flying lineage that began with Elgin Baylor and continued on through Julius Erving, Michael Jordan and LeBron James. He could do things with a basketball that fans had never seen before, often palming it in one hand as he swooped to the hoop.
Like Roger Brown, Hawkins was punished for simply associated with gambler Jack Molinas. He was banned from the NCAA and NBA.
The Hawk became a basketball nomad, playing in the ABL and spending three seasons with the Harlem Globetrotters before joining the Pittsburgh Pipers of the ABA in the league's inaugural season.
Hawkins led the Pipers to the first ABA championship, averaging 26.8 points (a league high) and 13.5 rebounds, and took home the regular season and playoff MVP awards.
Hawkins sued the NBA for admittance and lost wages. The two sides reached a settlement in 1969, and he joined the expansion Phoenix Suns.
The Hawk averaged 24.6 points and 10.4 rebounds in his first season with the Suns and was named to the All-NBA First Team. He was selected to four NBA All-Star teams and retired after just seven seasons in the league.
8. Bernard King
Bernard King's younger brother Albert was the biggest prep star in the country as a student at Fort Hamilton High School in Brooklyn, but it was Bernard who went on to achieve stardom in the NBA.
King was virtually unguardable, both on the break and in half court. He had a deadly arsenal of post moves and a lightning-quick release on his jump shot.
Unfortunately, his prime was cut short by substance abuse issues on one end and a gruesome knee injury on the other. He had his best years with his hometown team, the New York Knicks.
King was selected to the All-NBA First Team in 1984 and 1985. He scored 26.3 points per game on 57 percent shooting in 1983-84 and led the league in scoring with 32.9 points per game on 53 percent shooting the following season.
The Brooklyn native scored 50 points in back-to-back games in February, 1984, and his 60 points on Christmas of that same year stood as a Madison Square Garden record until Kobe Bryant torched the Knicks for 61 points in 2009.
King averaged 42 points per game on 60 percent shooting, while playing with the flu in the Knicks' playoff series victory over the Detroit Pistons in 1984. No other player has ever averaged over 40 points per game on 60 percent shooting in a playoff series. In the next round, King carried an undermanned Knicks team to seven games against the eventual champion Boston Celtics.
7. Lenny Wilkens
Long before Lenny Wilkens was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame three times (as a player, coach and assistant coach on the 1992 Dream Team), he developed his game at Boys High School in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.
Wilkens entered the NBA in 1960 as steady ball-handler for an experienced St. Louis Hawks team and became more of a playmaker after joining the Seattle SuperSonics in 1968. He led the league in assists (9.1 per game) in 1969-70 and was selected to nine All-Star teams.
Wilkens served as player-coach for the Sonics for three seasons and became a full-time coach after his retirement. He won 1,332 games (second-most all-time behind Don Nelson) over a 35-year period and guided the Sonics to a championship in 1979.
6. Nate "Tiny" Archibald
Nate "Tiny" Archibald played his high school ball at DeWitt Clinton High School, though he became a legend on the playgrounds of the South Bronx and upper Manhattan. The NYC product enrolled at Arizona Western College for one year, then finished his college career at the University of Texas El Paso.
The Cincinnati Kings selected Archibald in the second round of the 1970 draft. In his third season, he became the first and only player to lead the NBA in points and assists in the same season, with 34 points and 11.4 assists per game.
Tiny was selected to the All-NBA First Team three times. He was the MVP of the 1981 All-Star Game and the starting point guard on the Boston Celtics team that won the championship that same year.
Archibald never forgot his New York roots. He continues to be involved with various outreach programs in the neighborhood where he grew up.
5. Dolph Schayes
Dolph Schayes was one of the early stars of the NBA. He played his entire career (1948-1964) with the Syracuse National and their successors, the Philadelphia 76ers. Best-known for his high-arcing set-shot, the forward led the Nationals to an NBA championship in 1955.
Schayes was a 12-time All-Star and made the All-NBA First Team six times. He was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1972 and was named to the NBA's 50th anniversary team in 1996.
Schayes was born in Manhattan, and like Nate Archibald, played for DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. His son Danny played in the NBA for 18 years.
4. Billy Cunningham
Billy Cunningham was a fierce competitor who excelled at every level of the game. He led Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn (the same school that former Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis attended) to a New York City championship in 1961, and was a two-time All-American at the University of North Carolina.
"Billy the Kid" was a member of one of the greatest NBA teams ever assembled, the 1966-67 champion Philadelphia 76ers, led by Wilt Chamberlain. After his playing days, he compiled a 69.8 winning percentage as the coach of the Sixers, and guided a team which included Julius Erving and Moses Malone to a title in 1983.
The Brooklyn-native earned the moniker "The Kangaroo Kid" because of his incredible leaping ability. Cunningham stood just 6'6'', but still managed to average over 10 rebounds and 20 points per game six different times. He was selected to the All-NBA First Team three times and named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History in 1996.
3. Bob Cousy
Bob Cousy was the NBA's first great point guard. His innovative ball-handling and flashy passes earned him the nickname "The Houdini of the Hardwood."
Cousy won six championships and was named an All-Star in each of his 13-year seasons with the Boston Celtics. He led the league in assists eight consecutive times and was named the MVP of the 1956-57 season.
The point guard spent his early years in the Yorkville neighborhood of Manhattan before starring at Andrew Jackson High School in St. Albans, Queens. From there, he attended The College of Holy Cross, where he won a championship in 1947 and was selected to the All-American First Team in 1950.
Cooz has cited the multicultural environment he played ball in as a kid as the impetus for his unwavering support of African-American teammates in the NBA. He also fought for the rights of his fellow players by establishing the National Basketball Players Association and serving as its first president.
2. Julius Erving
Julius Erving was born and raised on Long Island, but "Dr. J" came to life on the famed blacktop of Rucker Park in Harlem. The 6'7'' forward was not heavily recruited out of Roosevelt High School and enrolled at the University of Massachusetts. Within a few years, every basketball fan in America knew his name.
During the summers, Erving headed uptown to the best pickup games in the city. Free from the shackles of a structured collegiate offense, he incorporated the improvisational style of the streets into his game and turned the dunk into an art form. Neighborhood kids crowded onto rooftops and tree branches to see the Doctor soar through the air.
Doc took his flare to the ABA, where he won three MVP awards, three scoring titles and two championships playing miles from his childhood home for the New York Nets. He joined the Philadelphia 76ers after the ABA/NBA merger and was selected to the All-NBA First Team five times. Erving won a ring with the Sixers in 1983 and is still ranked sixth on the combined NBA/ABA scoring list.
1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, originally named Ferdinand Lewis "Lew" Alcindor Jr., was born and raised in Harlem, New York City. He led basketball powerhouse Power Memorial Academy to 71 consecutive wins and three New York City catholic high school championships.
After high school, Alcindor left New York for the west coast, where he won national championships in each of his three seasons of eligibility while playing for legendary coach John Wooden at U.C.L.A. In 2008, ESPN.com named him the greatest player in the history of college basketball. An argument can be made that he was the greatest professional basketball player as well.
Abdul-Jabbar rode the deadliest weapon the league has ever seen, his patented sky-hook, to the most points in NBA history. He won his first championship with the Milwaukee Bucks in 1971 and changed his name the next day.
Abdul-Jabbar expressed his desire to be traded to an East or West coast team to after the 1974-75 season. Bucks management accommodated him, sending the center to the Los Angeles Lakers, where he would team up with Magic Johnson to win five more championships.
Kareem retired in 1988 with six NBA championships, six regular-season MVP awards and 19 All-Star appearances to his credit.