Ranking the Best Basketball Players from New York City
There are hotbeds for basketball talent, and then there's New York City.
Nearly one-tenth of all players inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame played high school ball in the greater NYC area, plus about a dozen others who each spent at least a dozen years in the NBA.
We only ranked the top eight, but even a guy like Kenny Anderson—one of just 58 players in NBA history with at least 10,000 points and 5,000 assists in his career—probably doesn't crack the top 25. That's how loaded New York City has been over the years.
Apologies in advance if we include someone you think shouldn't be or vice versa. Interpretations of both "from" and "New York City" can vary from one person to another. But as a general rule of thumb, we're searching for guys who played multiple years of high school basketball in one of the five NYC boroughs.
Two noteworthy exceptions/omissions: Michael Jordan was born in Brooklyn, but the family moved to North Carolina when he was a toddler. Similarly, Carmelo Anthony was born in Brooklyn, but his family moved to Maryland when he was eight. Neither one counts for this list, as neither one attended high school in NYC.
Beyond that, players were ranked in ascending order of dominance in the NBA. It's not necessarily a ranking of career win shares, but that Basketball Reference statistic was the one primarily considered.
Despite battling numerous injuries, Brand had an impressively long career, lasting 17 seasons in the NBA. The 2000 Rookie of the Year ended up with more than 9,000 rebounds, nearly 17,000 points and 109.6 win shares. Based on that latter metric, he's a top 100 all-time player.
A point-shaving scandal derailed The Hawk's career before he ever got a chance to play a varsity game in college, but he spent several years with the Harlem Globetrotters, dominated in the ABA for two years and was an All-Star in each of his first four seasons in the NBA with the Phoenix Suns. Between the late start and the early finish (Hawkins retired at 33), he was left out in favor of guys who had longer careers. But as far as raw talent goes, this was a tough guy to omit.
Other Streetball Legends
Hawkins and a few other players in our top five "graduated" from Rucker Park and had a fine career in the NBA, but there are also dozens of sensational talents who never made that transition. Joe Hammond, Earl Manigault, "Pee Wee" Kirkland, James Williams and several other streetball phenoms would have been fine candidates for this list if we weren't primarily focused on value added in the NBA/ABA.
Mama, there goes that man. Action Jackson was Rookie of the Year in 1987-88 and was selected to the All-Star Game the following season. He wasn't much of a scorer, but he is one of just five players in NBA history with at least 10,000 assists.
Stephon Marbury and Anthony Mason
Both Starbury and Mase get a little bonus consideration in NYC lore because they each had a few good years with the Knicks. Neither one had anything close to a Hall of Fame career, though.
Hot Rod was never selected to an All-Star Game, but he compiled 85.8 win shares in his 17-year career. That's more than Kevin Love (82.0) has in 12 seasons, so Strickland certainly at least warrants mentioning.
Cardiac Kemba is still young enough that he probably has at least five quality years left in the tank. By the time he retires, he may well belong on this list. It would be irresponsible to put him ahead of someone like Chris Mullin or Bernard King, though, let alone the guys in our top five.
8. Lenny Wilkens
Lenny Wilkens played more than 1,000 games in the NBA and coached nearly 2,500, but no one could have guessed that from the way things started out in high school. At Boys High School in Brooklyn, he barely made the team as a freshman and didn't even try out as a sophomore or junior. He only played for half of his senior season, too.
But he began to thrive at Providence, earning consensus second-team All-America honors during a senior season in which he led the Friars to the 1960 NIT championship game.
The St. Louis Hawks took Wilkens with the sixth pick in the 1960 draft, and he gradually developed into one of the best point guards in the Association. In his age-30 through age-35 seasons, Wilkens averaged 19.8 points and 8.8 assists per game and was the assists champ in 1969-70. He was selected to nine All-Star teams on his journey to a spot in the Hall of Fame.
A lot of NBA fans probably only know Wilkens as a coach, though. He spent 32 seasons on the sideline, racking up 1,332 wins in his career. When he retired in 2005, he was No. 1 on that list (Don Nelson stuck around just long enough to finish his career three ahead of Wilkens).
7. Chris Mullin
Chris Mullin was from Brooklyn and began his high school career at Power Memorial Academy—a little over a decade after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar dominated there. He eventually transferred to Xaverian High School, leading that team to the New York Class A state championship as a senior in 1981.
While many of NYC's top talents went to college far from home, Mullin merely relocated to a different borough to play for Lou Carnesecca at St. John's. He was named Big East Player of the Year three times and won the Wooden Award as a senior, guiding the Johnnies to a 31-4 record and a trip to the Final Four.
Mullin was selected by the Golden State Warriors with the seventh pick of the 1985 draft, where he became an ebullient force by his fourth year in the league. Along with Tim Hardaway and Mitch Richmond, Mullin was one-third of "Run TMC", averaging at least 25 points per game in five consecutive seasons before his body began to break down.
Despite battling seemingly constant injury over the latter half of his career, Mullin racked up nearly 18,000 career points and was great enough at his five-year peak to earn a spot in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame.
6. Bernard King
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Bernard King dominated at Fort Hamilton High School in the early 1970s. He was first-team All-City the year before joining Ernie Grunfeld at the University of Tennessee, forming the "Ernie and Bernie Show."
In three seasons with the Volunteers, King averaged 25.8 points and 13.2 rebounds per game. He was named SEC Player of the Year in all three years and was a two-time consensus All-American before embarking on a tumultuous career in the NBA.
King averaged 24.2 points and 9.5 rebounds per game as a rookie with the New Jersey Nets and seemed like a guy destined to dominate for many years. However, he battled alcohol abuse early in his career and later missed more than two full years while rehabbing a torn ACL suffered during a season in which he led the NBA at 32.9 points per game.
He was All-NBA four times in his Hall of Fame career, but similar to Grant Hill, King was an impeccable natural talent who might have been one of the 25 greatest players of all time if he had been able to stay on the court. One could easily argue he belongs in the top three on this list despite a career win shares tally (75.2) nowhere near the top three.
5. Nate 'Tiny' Archibald
Nate Archibald's journey to NBA stardom darn near ended in high school before it ever had a chance to begin.
"Tiny"—whose NBA measurements were just 6'1" and 150 lbs—attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. He was cut from the varsity team during his sophomore year. He subsequently nearly dropped out of school and had poor grades. But with the help of some mentors, he got back into the classroom and fine-tuned his game on the court, earning All-City honors his senior year.
After spending a year at Arizona Western Community College, Archibald transferred to Texas Western (later renamed UTEP) to play for Don Haskins. Assists weren't recorded at the collegiate level at that time (1968-70), but Archibald averaged 20.0 points per game in his three seasons.
In his third season in the NBA (1972-73), Archibald led the league in both points (34.0) and assists (11.4) per game. To this day, he's still the only player to ever claim both of those titles in the same season. He only finished third in the MVP vote, though, largely because his Kansas City Kings went 36-46 while three other teams won at least 60 games each.
Archibald would eventually get to play for a winner. Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Cedric Maxwell were the bigger stars, but Archibald was the veteran leader of the 1980-81 NBA champion Boston Celtics.
4. Bob Cousy
Bob Cousy attended Andrew Jackson High School in Cambria Heights, but it took a few years and what turned out to be a fortuitous injury before he began to thrive.
Cousy was cut from the JV team in each of his first two years of trying out before falling out of a tree and breaking his dominant right arm. This forced him to learn to dribble and pass left-handed, which in turn made him an ambidextrous (and dominant) point guard.
He only played one-and-a-half years of high school basketball, but he quickly became one of the biggest stars in NYC during that time. From there, Cousy was a three-time All-American at Holy Cross, where he played for the 1947 national champion Crusaders.
After refusing to report to the Tri-Cities Blackhawks when they selected him No. 3 overall in the 1950 NBA draft, Cousy landed with the near-to-Holy Cross Boston Celtics. He began his NBA career with 13 consecutive All-Star Game selections, led the league in assists eight consecutive years (1953-60), ran the offense for six NBA champions and was named the NBA MVP for the 1956-57 season.
3. Dolph Schayes
Dolph Schayes was born and raised in the Bronx, playing his early days of basketball at Creston Junior High School and DeWitt Clinton High School. And he didn't venture far from home for college, attending New York University just about 15 miles down the road.
After four seasons at NYU, Schayes was taken with the fourth overall pick in the BAA Draft and was also selected in the NBL Draft. He chose the NBL and played for the Syracuse Nationals, where he was named Rookie of the Year for the 1948-49 season.
The following summer, the BAA absorbed the NBL to become the NBA, and Schayes served as a pioneer of that new league.
The two-handed set shooter received All-NBA honors (six first-team, six second-team) in each of his first 12 seasons in Syracuse. Had there been NBA MVP awards prior to the 1955-56 season, Schayes perhaps would have won at least one in his career. Instead, he finished top eight in the vote in each of its first six years of existence.
2. Julius Erving
Long before famously dunking from the free-throw line during the 1976 ABA Slam Dunk Contest, Julius Erving got his start at Roosevelt High School in Long Island.
Dr. J was one of the most influential players in the storied history of this sport. It probably wouldn't be fair to say Erving invented the art of playing above the rim, but with his lethal combination of dunks and finger rolls, he was one of the first to truly master it.
In two seasons at the University of Massachusetts, Erving averaged 26.3 points and 20.2 rebounds. At the time (1971), the NBA didn't allow teams to draft players unless they were at least four years removed from high school. Instead, Erving became one of the first players to leave school early for the American Basketball Association—which quickly became his own personal playground.
Erving averaged 27.3 points and 15.7 rebounds as a rookie with the Virginia Squires and won three ABA MVP awards within his first five seasons. When the ABA folded in 1976, Erving was one of the few players who made a seamless transition to the NBA, thriving with the Philadelphia 76ers for over a decade. Dr. J played 16 professional seasons and was an All-Star in each of them.
1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Between dominating for the UCLA Bruins and the Los Angeles Lakers, the vast majority of basketball fans probably think Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was born and raised in Los Angeles. However, before he changed his name, Lew Alcindor's sensational career actually began 3,000 miles away from the bright lights of Hollywood.
He led Power Memorial Academy to a 71-game winning streak and to three consecutive New York City Catholic championships. No matter where he went to college, he would have thrived. Spending a few years with the legendary John Wooden at UCLA only made him that much greater.
There's a good chance LeBron James is going to pass him in the next couple of years, but Abdul-Jabbar is currently still No. 1 in the NBA record books with 38,387 points scored. He's also top five in career rebounds (17,440) and was selected to a record 19 NBA All-Star Games.
Even on a stacked list of all-time greats, there's no question that Abdul-Jabbar was the best player to ever come out of New York City. And his patented sky hook is still the prettiest, most unguardable shot of all time.