Big-Time NBA Stars with Even Bigger PersonalitiesMay 26, 2020
Big-Time NBA Stars with Even Bigger Personalities
In a league populated with larger-than-life athletes, it's no surprise the NBA has witnessed its share of larger-than-life personalities.
That goes right to the top of superstar rankings, too.
So many of the game's greats have proved just as magnetic on the floor as off it.
The following names are synonymous with basketball brilliance, yet that's not always the first place our mind goes when hearing them mentioned.
He's a legitimately funny stand-up comedian. He's had a roast battle with career-roaster Jeff Ross. Blake Griffin's IMDb page is robust with acting, producing, writing and directing credits.
Griffin is so active off the court, it perhaps warped perceptions about his ability on it. Between saturating the advertising industry and dating Kendall Jenner, his spotlight almost shined too brightly for some.
But inside the lines, there's no denying his ability.
His time as an elite wasn't long—due in large part to ongoing struggles with injuries—but the level he reached was sky-high. In 2013-14, only Kevin Durant and LeBron James collected more MVP votes.
Griffin has five All-NBA selections and six All-Star honors. If his career ended today, he'd walk away as just the fifth player to average 21 points, eight rebounds and four assists. A natural showman, he assembled most of those numbers in an aesthetically pleasing fashion, either crushing dunks or creating like few 6'9", 250-pound players have ever been capable.
Hearing Dennis Rodman's name might bring a million thoughts to mind that have nothing to do with basketball.
He had an epic Vegas vacation in the middle of a season. He starred in multiple action movies. He skipped an NBA Finals practice to appear at a World Championship Wrestling event. He served as an unofficial ambassador to North Korea.
And through all this, he formed a Hall of Fame basketball career that saw him win seven rebounding titles, secure back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards, earn eight All-Defensive selections (seven on the first team) and collect five championship rings.
A double-digit scorer just once in 14 NBA seasons, he still averaged 31.7 career minutes with hounding, versatile defense and glass-cleaning that Windex couldn't even match.
If his story weren't already unbelievable enough, he's the only NBA player to come out of Southeastern Oklahoma State University and perhaps the only one to precede his playing career by working as an overnight janitor at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
There is no filter on Charles Barkley, for better or worse. While he might put his foot in his mouth every now and then, his transparency and authenticity have a gravitational pull on his audience.
"He has starred on TNT's "Inside the NBA" for years and is outspoken on racial issues and every other topic that comes to mind," ESPN's Marc J. Spears wrote. "As perhaps the most popular sports broadcaster of today, Barkley is entertaining whether he's saying something provocative, hurling an insult or dropping a hilarious or self-deprecating line."
Barkley won't shy away from the controversial or worry about the occasional public relations hit. He polarized the sports world with his "I am not a role model" Nike commercial, but he's always been willing to live by the beat of his own drum.
If he was bound by conventional wisdom, he never could have engineered his Hall of Fame playing career. Generously listed at 6'6", he dominated the supersized paints of the '80s and '90s with an overpowering blend of speed, strength and skill. He could clean the glass, run a fast break, bully defenders in the post or slip past them off the dribble.
His game should not have made sense. Who wins a rebounding title at his size? How many power forwards in history were making similar plays off the bounce? Who gets constantly scrutinized for their weight and conditioning and still puts together a 16-year NBA career, almost entirely played at an elite level?
But much like the broadcaster he'd come, Barkley the player was authentically awesome. The Hall of Famer is one of only three players to tally at least 23,000 points, 12,000 rebounds, 4,000 assists and 1,500 steals.
Wilt Chamberlain's stat sheets look like they were imported from an alternate universe. The numbers are too enormous to be real, giving him an almost superhuman feel—as if Wilt the Stilt was brought to us by the creators of Black Panther and The Incredible Hulk.
He scored 100 points in a single game. He grabbed 55 rebounds (against Bill Russell) in another. He averaged 48.5 minutes over an entire season. For his career, his per-game contributions included 30.1 points and 22.9 rebounds.
If it's possible, his off-court exploits—we're a family-friendly site here, so we aren't talking about those exploits—were just as incredible.
He booked a boxing match with Muhammad Ali, but it was called off during a press conference. He acted alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Destroyer. He authored multiple books. He recorded music. He took up volleyball in his mid-30s and made the sport's Hall of Fame.
As Chamberlain's former teammate, Billy Cunningham, told ESPN's Gary Miller in 1999, Chamberlain was one of the first athletes to speak his mind on the mic, too:
"Wilt was so far ahead of his time in dealing with the media; when you asked a question, Wilt would give you a very blunt, honest answer. In those days when a player had a good day, he would just say 'I got lucky and the (other) guy had a bad game.' Wilt would come out and say, 'The guy can't stop me, I just can dominate him anytime I feel like it.'"
Even with Chamberlain's heavy presence in the record books, it's hard to remember he was an actual person who dominated and dazzled in this league and away from it.
Without a rare combination of flash and function, Magic Johnson might still be known as Earvin Johnson Jr. Instead, he proved such a prodigious talent that a sportswriter felt the need to nickname him "Magic" after watching him triple-double as a 15-year-old high-schooler.
There hasn't been a more appropriate nickname since.
Players his size (6'9", 215 lbs) were confined to the frontcourt. He lined up at point guard—unless needed elsewhere—climbed atop the position's all-time rankings and still resides there. While other great passers manipulate opposing defenses, Johnson challenged the laws of physics.
"There have been times when he has thrown passes and I wasn't sure where he was going," former teammate Michael Cooper said, per NBA.com. "Then one of our guys catches the ball and scores, and I run back up the floor convinced that he must've thrown it through somebody."
Johnson was always two steps ahead. He knew what defenders were thinking and continually beat them to the punch. If he needed to score, he was a career 19.5-points-per-game provider who made 52 percent of his shots. If he had to set the table, he dropped 11.2 dimes a night—most of the jaw-dropping variety.
Away from the hardwood, he's just as magnetic and gregarious.
He has built a business empire of everything from fitness centers and movie theaters to a Starbucks partnership and food service companies. His golden touch in that realm is no different from the one that once wowed the Purple and Gold faithful at the Forum. He really is Magic.
For as much as ESPN's The Last Dance documentary scratched our itch for sports, the reason it rocketed to an instant cultural phenomenon was the up-close look at its primary subject: Michael Jordan.
He's either the co-owner or the sole proprietor of the Association's GOAT discussion. Explosive athleticism, years of dedication to his craft and a two-way skill set arguably unseen in basketball history all factored into that, but so too did his almost mythological competitiveness.
Cutthroat doesn't even begin to describe it.
He broke out victory cigars before the game. He'd put six-figure wagers on otherwise friendly golf outings. He trash-talked a former president on the golf course. He told his opponents exactly how he was going to beat them, and they were helpless to stop him. He briefly left the game of basketball to take up baseball, played in Double-A for a year and tallied 51 RBI, 46 runs and 30 stolen bases over 127 games.
He even got up for indoor tackle football games with his children.
"Jeff was going for a touchdown and, I'll never forget it, my dad tackled Jeff into a glass table and Jeff hit his head," Marcus Jordan said on The Breakfast Club. "That's the competitiveness. Obviously, it was an accident."
Without that competitive edge, Jordan never ascends to such seemingly impossible heights. With it, he engineered two three-peat championship runs, secured five MVP awards, won six NBA Finals MVPs and took home a Defensive Player of the Year trophy.
He remains the league's career leader in player efficiency rating (27.91), win shares per 48 minutes (.2505) and box plus-minus (9.22).
The man of a million monikers—Diesel is an all-timer—Shaquille O'Neal is always the center of attention no matter who else is in the room.
Maybe that's the case for anyone who stands 7'1" and tips the scales at 325 pounds, but his personality is even bigger than his frame. His conversations often feel like they always build toward a punch line that never disappoints. His resume seems like it couldn't have possibly all been put together by the same person. He's a former hooper, an NBA analyst, a movie star, a rapper, a sheriff deputy, a DJ, a stay-at-home DJ and a pitcher of seemingly endless products.
"Shaq is qualified to appear on both TNT and CNBC," NBA.com's Shaun Powell wrote. "In fact, the business TV talking heads haven't been this worked up over an NBA personality since mid-1990s Michael Jordan at Space Jam heights."
None of this happens without O'Neal filling the same center-of-attention role on the hardwood.
The hyperbolic personality only fit because he functioned like a real-life Superman. No matter what opponents put in his path, he steamrolled over it. A young O'Neal might run around it in the open court while an older version opted to muscle through it, but the results were always the same.
He was a 15-time All-Star, a 14-time All-NBA selection and a four-time champion. He has the eighth-most points, eighth-most blocks and 15th-most rebounds in league history.
We will never see another Shaq—on or off the court.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.