The 50 Most Inspirational Figures in NBA History

Jesse DorseyFeatured ColumnistNovember 1, 2011

The 50 Most Inspirational Figures in NBA History

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    All too often when we talk about the NBA, we talk about the players' personal lives in a negative light. I hear the terms "thug" and "gangster" thrown around regularly.

    It's partly because of the image that has now grown to be associated with NBA culture, with everything from long shorts that became popular in the '90s to basketball jerseys littering rap videos, and it's partly because the NBA has the most recognizable athletes in the country, because they don't wear football pads or hats.

    Still, I find that reputation to be unjustly placed on a league that has been full of (for the most part) good, honest and respectful people.

    Even the bad eggs in the basket have had their inspirational moments.

    We often look at sports and sensationalize what's going on, but the problem is that we tend to look at the negative side. Well I'd like to sensationalize the positive side for a moment here.

    I want to look at the most inspirational players of the past 60-plus years of basketball history and see what they have done for the world, their community or just for themselves.

    Now, you may not agree with some of the things that some of these players did (like refusing to stand up for the National Anthem or backing Muhammad Ali's decision to dodge the draft), but it's hard to deny that these players taking a stand for what they believe in is anything but inspirational.

50. Bob Cousy

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    Bob Cousy came into the league when it was as bland as a two dollar steak, and just as tough. However, Cousy came in and completely changed the way the game was played, at least by the little guys on the floor.

    Cousy was one of the earliest flashy, playmaking point guards, and anytime you have a person that revolutionary, it's inspirational.

49. Gilbert Arenas

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    It's hard to look at Gilbert Arenas as an inspirational player right now, especially after what has happened over the past few years. He went from one of the best guards in the league to one of the two most overpaid players in the NBA.

    However, back in the first half of his career, he was a very inspirational character.

    Arenas went from being a second-round pick and a seldom used guard in his rookie season to being a very good starter for the Warriors and finally becoming one of the top players in the league in 2006 and 2007.

48. Chris Andersen

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    Back in January of 2006, Chris Andersen's NBA career was in shambles. He had just been kicked out of the league for violating the league's substance abuse policy, which stemmed either from a fourth positive test for performance enhancing drugs or a first positive test for a "drug of abuse" (which could include anything from meth, cocaine, LSD, opiates and PCP).  

    Plus, he had embarrassed himself the year before in the dunk contest when he attempted the same dunk 15 times before finally nailing it.

    In 2008 he was granted re-entry to the league and since has been a very effective player for the Nuggets.

47. Allen Iverson

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    Allen Iverson has been one of the most polarizing players in the NBA since he came into the league, mostly because of the controversy that surrounded him when he was incarcerated before getting drafted.

    In 1993, when Iverson was just 17, he was convicted along with two other men of "maiming by mob" for the part he played in a fight in a bowling alley against a group of white kids his age.

    The trial was condemned for its racist undertones, and while Iverson was convicted and given a 15-year sentence, he was granted clemency less than a year in and was set free due to a lack of evidence.

    Iverson went on to become one of the best players of the next decade all because he overcame all of this, despite the outlook being very bleak for most of the trail.

46. Byron Scott

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    One of the most philanthropic figures in the NBA—he works with various NBA charities and community activities—Byron Scott founded the Byron Scott Children's Fund.

    The Fund has raised over $6 million over the past decade for various children's charities.

45. Jamal Mashburn

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    All too often in the NBA, the story you hear about players is of them going bankrupt within years of retiring.

    Jamal Mashburn, however, is pretty much the opposite of all those stories.

    Mashburn, since retiring, has gone on to own over 70 restaurants, most of which are Papa John's, Outback Steakhouses and car dealerships.

44. Patrick Ewing

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    One of the best things a person can do for another person is doing something to save their life, and Patrick Ewing was ready to do just that back in 2003.

    The NBA world was astounded to know that Alonzo Mourning had focal glomerulosclerosis, which eventually led to him needing a kidney transplant.

    Ewing came out as soon as Mourning made it public that he would be willing to donate his kidney if they were matches. It never came to that, however, as Mourning's cousin, Jason Cooper, ended up donating his instead.

    Still, just the fact that he offered is enough to show his compassion and braveness.

43. Kevin Johnson

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    Many athletes go into business or jobs with the media after they retire. Kevin Johnson, however, decided to use his public image to improve his community.

    Johnson, since his retirement, has run for and won the mayoral office of Sacramento, his hometown, defeating incumbent Heather Fargo in November of 2008.

    As with anything political, there are people who have been fans of what he's done and those who completely detest him, but he has led the push to keep the Kings in Sacramento, which as a basketball fan who lives across the country, is good enough for me.

42. Curly Neal

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    While Curly Neal never made it to the NBA, he was just about the next best thing as one of the most identifiable members of the Harlem Globetrotters (probably third after Wilt Chamberlain and Medowlark Lemon).

    Neal, since his retirement from the Globetrotters, has used his celebrity status to urge kids to stay in school and has toured USAFE bases along with becoming a motivational speaker.

41. LeBron James

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    LeBron James has become one of the most hated players in the league nowadays, and as much as I want to dislike him for what he did to the Cavaliers (and yes, I still like him for what he did for them as well, the dislike is just trumping the admiration at this point), he is still an inspirational person.

    He grew up with just his mother to raise him and became one of the preeminent rags-to-riches story that the NBA is littered with.

40. Charlie Villanueva

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    There are very few people out there who can say that they are the figurehead for an entire disease—but Charlie Villanueva can.

    Villanueva has alopecia, a disease that causes the person to lose hair in patches, or altogether, but is relatively harmless otherwise. In fact, the only other people that I've known to have it were John D. Rockefeller and Stan Stiwell from Arrested Development.

39. Dave Cowens

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    If there is one thing that I respect about a sports figure, it's when they give their all to the game they are playing. What I respect even more is when a guy can walk away from the game because he doesn't have the same desire for it.

    Well, back in 1977, Dave Cowens, one of the most intense players ever to don a basketball jersey, walked away from the game, and a paycheck, because he didn't feel the fire anymore.

    He came back after a short leave to play another few seasons with the team and retired on his own terms in 1980 (although he did come back for a year in 1983 to play with the Bucks for a season).

38. Kevin Garnett

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    Nowadays, Kevin Garnett seems to be more of a bully in the NBA, especially after he blew up at the NBA Lockout meetings a few weeks back.

    However, back when he was a part of the Timberwolves, he was seen as one of the most hard-working and loyal basketball players in the game.

    Despite the fact that the T-Wolves screwed themselves over with a scandal in which they re-signed Joe Smith and asked him to take less money with the promise of a bigger one later (which led to them losing four first-round picks), and despite the fact that his best teammate was Latrell Sprewell (or Sam Cassell), he was dedicated to the team for more than a decade.

37. Pat Croce

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    One of the coolest owners in sports, Pat Croce took his ownership of the Philadelphia 76ers to the next level with the opening of a handful of sports medicine clinics.

    Croce started as a physical therapist, founding a company in 1984 that eventually grew into 40 therapy centers. He sold his company in 1993 for $40 million.

    Three years later he became president of the Philadelphia 76ers as a part of a group led by Comcast. He was the first trainer to make it to an ownership position after starting as a trainer for a team.

36. George Gervin

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    George Gervin is one of many NBA players to come from humble beginnings. Having barely made his JV team in high school, though he practiced every day. He was so dedicated that he even swept the floor of the gymnasium before he practiced, as the custodian requested.

    Of course, Gervin went on to be one of the best players in Spurs history, and is a very active member of the San Antonio community to this day.

35. Manute Bol

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    Manute Bol, like many of the players to come from Africa in the past 20 years, was as much an activist as he was a basketball player.

    He never let his success go to his head and always remembered his roots up until his death a few years ago. Upon his death, Bol was returning to his native Sudan so he could check up on the construction of a school, to which he had donated money.  

34. AC Green

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    While his streak may not strike admiration into the hearts of people everywhere like Cal Ripken Jr.'s, AC Green's Iron Man streak is still very impressive.

    Between 1986 and 2001, AC Green played in 1,192 games in a row, beating the next best streak by nearly 300 games.

33. Charlie Ward

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    When you think of a guy winning a Heisman Trophy, you expect to see them go on to have a successful NFL career.

    Ward, however, knew his love was basketball, and after winning the Heisman Trophy as Florida State's quarterback in 1993 and a subsequent National Championship, he declared that he would only go to the NFL if he was drafted in the first round.  

    Instead, he went on to be drafted by the Knicks in the first round and had a relatively successful 12-year career.

32. Charles Barkley

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    I know what you're thinking. How in the world can brash talking, obnoxious, Charles Barkley be an inspirational person?

    Well, in the country we live in, in this day and age where everyone gets criticized for every move they make, it's nice to have a person like Charles Barkley come out and be exactly who he is.

    Chuck got into trouble from time-to-time, especially when he claimed not to be a role model, but really it became more of a call from Barkley for parents to guide their kids to more realistic, respectable role models, like teachers.

    Long live the free speakers in this free country.

31. Melvin Adams

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    Melvin Adams could have given up and turned to illegitimate means of getting by as a child, especially when times got tough. When he was just 13 years old and living in the Houston ghetto, Adams' father died.

    He overcame hard financial times and worked hard in high school, allowing him to become a part of the Globetrotters. After leaving the Globetrotters, Adams has since been an inspirational speaker, having spoken to more than eight million children.

30. Muggsy Bouges

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    There are some short players in the NBA today, but nobody compares to what Muggsy Bogues overcame to make it to the NBA.

    On the surface it's pretty obvious. Bogues is only 5'3", in a league where 6'3" is considered short. He started nearly two-thirds of the games he played in over the course of his 14-year career.

    On top of his height disadvantage, Bogues came out of an East side Baltimore neighborhood where his father went to jail when he was 12.

29. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf

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    It's hard enough to stand up for your beliefs, but it's even harder to do that in front of millions of people who are obviously going to disagree with your decision.

    In 1996, five years after he had converted to Islam, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the National Anthem, based on his beliefs at the time.

    Abdul-Rauf stood up for his beliefs even when they were completely unpopular, exercising his free speech that he is granted as a citizen in this country.

    On top of that, Abdul-Rauf overcame Tourette's Syndrome to have a long NBA career.

28. Bill Walton

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    Bill Walton overcame both injuries and questions about his beliefs. Curry Kirkpatrick would call Walton a "doped-up, whacked-out, weirdo, Commie-loving, acid-freak hippie with lice in his hair and Patty Hearst's phone number in his date book."

    Walton's image as a "hippie" never hurt him with legendary UCLA Coach John Wooden, even going as far as to ask Wooden if he could smoke pot. Wooden said he was fine with that, and it seemed to give Wooden more respect for the world's biggest "Dead-Head."

    Aside from that, Walton overcame a rash of injuries to be a two-time NBA Champion, an NBA MVP and an NBA Sixth Man of the Year.

27. Sean Elliott

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    In 1993, Sean Elliott was diagnosed with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, a disorder that could have eventually led to him needing a kidney transplant.

    In 1999, the disease worsened and Elliott would have to have that transplant, a surgery that could have derailed his career.

    After the transplant, Elliott got back into the NBA and played for another season-and-a-half, winning a title with the Spurs in 1999.

26. Alonzo Mourning

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    A few years later, Alonzo Mourning had to go through the same thing that Sean Elliott went through, focal segmental glomerulosclerosis.

    Diagnosed in 2000 and needing a transplant in 2003, Mourning got his kidney from his cousin Jason Cooper.

    He would go on to play in parts of the next five seasons, including 2006, when he won a title with the Miami Heat.

25. Zydrunas Ilgauskas

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    Zydrunas Ilgauskas came to this country from Lithuania in 1997 as a first-round pick for the Cleveland Cavaliers, not knowing a lick of English.

    Foot injuries over the next three years would sideline Big Z and nearly derail his career, leading to him playing in just 91 games over the next three seasons.

    On top of that, Z and his wife Jennifer lost their set of twins in 2007 after complications during pregnancy, with the babies being born four months premature.

24. Derek Fisher

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    Derek Fisher has been as big a part of the Los Angeles Lakers' dynasty over the past decade, as has Kobe Bryant. OK, maybe not as big a part, but he has been there through the best times the team has had.

    Fisher, however, had to make a decision for his family back in 2007, as his daughter was diagnosed with retinoblastoma.

    Fisher decided he had to leave the Jazz to go back to Los Angeles to be closer to a specialist for his daughter, forfeiting the rest of the $20 million on his contract.

23. David Robinson

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    Despite the fact that he was easily the best collegiate basketball player in the country back in 1987, David Robinson couldn't go to the NBA.

    He made a commitment to the US Navy, something he knew full well going into college, and he would have to fulfill his military obligations.

    Robinson could have been stuck in the Navy for five years, but to get a positive image of the Navy out in the world, the Navy let him join the Spurs after just two years.

22. Spencer Haywood

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    The Curt Flood of the NBA, Spencer Haywood sued the league in 1970 along with Supersonics owner Sam Schulman.

    The anti-trust lawsuit challenged the rule that the league had that a player had to be out of high school for four years before he could join the NBA.

    This case allowed for high school graduates to become eligible for the NBA as soon as they were out of high school.

21. Ronny Turiaf

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    Just a month after being drafted by the Lakers, doctors found that Ronny Turiaf had an enlarged aorta, which was serious enough to warrant a surgery.

    After surgery, Turiaf signed with the Yakama Sun Kings in Washington before he went back to the Lakers in 2006.

    Turiaf has enjoyed a solid career as a tough big man for the Lakers, Warriors and Knicks since coming back from surgery.

20. Grant Hill

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    Once a superstar struck down in his prime, I find Grant Hill to be one of the most interesting characters in the NBA today.

    Very few players can reinvent their careers after debilitating injuries, but Grant Hill did it as well as or better than anyone before him.

    Realizing his limitations after multiple surgeries, he reconfigured his game to focus on defense and determination rather than athleticism, and he has potentially put together a Hall of Fame career because of it.

19. Willis Reed

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    Willis Reed's one inspiring moment is enough to put him in the top 20 for me.

    Coming into Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, the New York Knicks were thought to be without Willis Reed, their star big man for the game due to a thigh injury.

    Reed, however, made his iconic entrance from the crowd just before the game, started and scored the first four points of the game. The Knicks were inspired enough that they didn't need him to do any more scoring and ended up winning the game and the title.

18. Paul Pierce

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    Now one of the iconic Celtics, and the first since Larry Bird, Paul Pierce was once a hotheaded young player who many in Boston were unsure of.

    In 2000, going into just his third year in the league, Pierce was stabbed in a Boston club, including a seven-inch cut to his sternum, which required surgery.

    Interestingly enough, although the incident occurred just over a month before the season started, Pierce didn't miss a single game that season.

17. Larry Bird

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    Unfortunately for Larry Bird, Boston fans and the entire NBA, really, Larry Bird's career was cut short due to chronic back problems. However, he retired only after playing through them for years.

    The most iconic instance of Bird playing through the pain was in 1991, when he missed seven games before he returned to the team to play the final game of the regular season. He notched a triple-double with 21 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists in the first game of the playoffs.

    Later that night, Bird checked himself back into the hospital and spent the night in traction. Bird would be in and out of the hospital for the rest of the series against the Pacers, which they ended up winning 3-2.

16. Vlade Divac

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    The story that comes to America with Vlade Divac, Drazen Petrovic and the rest of the Yugoslavian players to come to the league in the late 1980s, is definitely an interesting one.

    Yugoslavia was breaking up, and Divac, a Serb, was being ostracized by players he once played with, as the likes of Petrovic and Toni Kukoc were Croats. Divac's most damning action was after a game with his Yugoslavian teammates, as he took a Croatian flag out of a man's hands (who had run onto the court) and threw it to the ground. Not meant as an anti-Croatian statement, but as a pro-unity statement.

    I don't pretend to be an expert on Eastern European relations, and I'm sure there are many more damning things against Divac (including his three-finger salute, a pro-Serbian salute), but what Divac went through was very inspirational. And after watching Once Brothers, the documentary about the whole ordeal, I think many of you will feel the same way.

15. Drazen Petrovic

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    The other side of the Yugoslavian story comes from the late Drazen Petrovic.

    His inspiration comes two-fold, as he was both a supporter of his home region and overcame a lot to become a basketball superstar.

    Coming to the NBA with the Trail Blazers, Petrovic was buried on the depth chart, but once he was traded to the Nets, he took off and became a borderline superstar before he died.

    He stood behind Croatia and condemned the violence against his people by the (mostly Serbian) Yugoslavian government. He even went as far as to correct the Chicago announcer who announced him as "Yugoslavian." He asked for a correction, telling him, "I'm not Yugoslavian, I'm Croatian," a small, but telling action of his love of his people.

14. Nene

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    Early in 2008, Nene announced that he was taking a leave of absence to deal with a medical problem, but he didn't say what it was.

    It came out a few days later that he had a malignant, but isolated, testicular tumor removed.

    He returned near the end of March to a standing ovation.

13. Trevor Ariza

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    What Trevor Ariza went through as a young man helped him become the disciplined player that he is today.

    Back in 1996, he got news that his brother Tajh fell out of a window in a hotel room in Venezuela while he and his mother were watching his stepfather play basketball. Tajh fell 30 floors to his death.

    Ariza used basketball to keep his mind off the incident over the next several years and eventually became a top prospect while at UCLA.

12. Leon Powe

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    Leon Powe has quite a few troubles these days with injuries and recovering enough to get playing time, but those are tiny problems compared to his youth.

    When he was just two, Powe's father left his mother to look after their two kids on her own. Five years later his baby brother accidentally burned down their house while playing with matches. His mother was arrested a number of times for stealing necessities for her family, leaving Powe as the only one to watch his brother for stretches at a time.

    During his junior year in high school, Powe's mother died of hear disease, and he nearly quit basketball.

    He kept going, however, and got his grades up so he could get into college, and eventually the NBA.

11. Lamar Odom

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    Lamar Odom had a similar youth, with his father absent because of a heroine addiction and his mom dead when he was just 12 from colon cancer, leaving him to be raised by his grandmother.

    Later in his life, Odom's infant son, Jayden, died in his crib, leaving Odom distraught and understandably upset.

10. Bob Love

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    It may sound like a simple problem to overcome, but Bob Love was a stutterer for most of his life.

    The former Chicago Bulls superstar played in the NBA for 11 years before a back injury derailed his career. Doctors told him he would never walk again, and his wife left him and took all of their belongings.

    He eventually was able to walk again, but he was still a mostly silent person, and he looked for years for a steady job.  

    It wasn't until he got a job bussing tables at Nordstrom's in Seattle that he began to overcome his stutter. The owners offered to help him, and he found a speech therapist who eventually taught him how to speak.

    In 1992, the Bulls called him and offered him a job with the organization as their Community Relations Director, and they retired his jersey two years later.

9. George Karl

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    George Karl is far more familiar with cancer than anyone would ever like to be.

    Karl battled and beat prostate cancer back in 2005, then five years later he had yet another scare, as he came down with a "treatable" form of neck and throat cancer, which he also beat.

    On top of that, Karl's son Coby was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2006 as a junior at Boise State, which he is now free of.

8. Michael Jordan

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    Michael Jordan's story is well known at this point. He didn't have the troubled upbringing that many of the players in the NBA have had, but he did have to overcome his share of adversity.

    He was cut from his high school basketball team as a sophomore, something he has seemingly used for motivation ever since.

    The thing that I really find inspiring about Jordan is the fact that he always seems to play better in times when you would expect him to play worse—the Flu Game being the perfect example. 

7. Oscar Robertson

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    Oscar Robertson, like many black players in the early days of the NBA, had to deal with racism on a fairly regular basis.

    It's said that this hardened Robertson as a person, but toughened him up as a player.

    On top of that, Robertson was the person to challenge the reserve clause in 1970, a case which was finally settled by granting the players free agency in 1976.

6. Nancy Lieberman

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    She's not in the NBA yet, but I have a feeling she will be at some point.

    Currently, Nancy Lieberman is the head coach of the Texas Legends, the Dallas Mavericks NBDL affiliate.

    This made Lieberman the first woman to coach a professional men's basketball team.

5. Earl Lloyd, Nat Clifton, Chuck Cooper

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    As a trio, Earl Lloyd, Nat Clifton and Chuck Cooper broke the color barrier in the NBA (although the first non-white guy to play in the NBA was Wat Misaka).

    All drafted in 1950, Chuck Cooper was the first black player to be drafted (second round in 1950 by the Boston Celtics), Nat Clifton was the first to sign a contract, but Earl Lloyd was the first to actually play in a game.

    Either way, they were all trailblazers for those to come after them.

4. Red Auerbach

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    Regardless of the era in which he coached, Red Auerbach saw winning as the most important thing.

    He could have folded and let the league control the status quo, but that would have been far too un-Auerbach-ish.

    Red drafted Chuck Cooper in 1950, making him the first black man to be drafted to the NBA, and he constantly added more people of color to his team.

    When he decided to let go of the reigns of the team, Auerbach named Bill Russell as his successor as the Celtics head coach, making him the first African-American head coach in any professional sport.

3. Dikembe Mutombo

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    Dikembe Mutombo is perhaps the most well-known humanitarian in the history of the NBA.

    He built the first new hospital in the Congo in 40 years, an act which George Bush praised in his 2007 State of the Union Address. He donated $15 million of the $29 million it took to build the hospital.

    Among other things, Mutombo one of the most recognizable people involved with the NBA's Basketball Without Borders, he supports the International Polio Victims Response Committee in the Democratic Republic of the Congo along with the United for Children, Unite against AIDS campaign and CARE.

2. Magic Johnson

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    The two most impressive things Magic Johnson has done over his lifetime have actually occurred off the court.

    The lesser known of the two is the fact that Magic battled dyslexia and ADD as a child, something which he overcame, eventually learning how to read.

    More well-known is that he has become the de facto face of HIV after contracting it back in 1991. He has since been involved with numerous AIDS awareness programs.

1. Bill Russell

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    The mere fact that Bill Russell has enough rings to fill a small fishbowl is inspiring enough, but he's done so much more over the course of his lifetime.

    As a player he continually ratcheted up his play when it mattered, late in games, late in the season, and in the playoffs, especially in the NBA Finals, which is a big reason why the current NBA FInals MVP trophy now bears his name.

    Russell was also a victim of racism from an early age up through his time with the Celtics and beyond. He supported the Black Power movement and even backed Muhammad Ali when he refused to fight in the Vietnam War. He also became the first black head coach in NBA history.

    If you are one of those twitterers, you can follow me @JDorsey33.