I love making lists. I always make a grocery list before I shop. I probably spend more time adding things to watch on my Netflix queue than actually watching things there. The only thing I love more than making lists is watching sports. So to quell two of my loves, I will share a top ten on this blog every week. And my very first one is about my favorite subject.
10. Jerry West - Los Angeles Lakers
Mr. Clutch. The Logo. He's gone by some iconic nicknames, but there was nothing contrived about Jerry West. He was the original self-made superstar. He was technically sound in every aspect of the game. He had a great understanding of the team game, but could dominate offensively when needed. He could shut down an opponent defensive if that's what it took. It didn't matter how or when, he just wanted to win. In his book, For The Love Of The Game, Michael Jordan said that it was West that he would've loved to complete against because of how competitive they both were. Sadly, what knocks him down to the bottom of this list is his 1-9 record in the NBA Finals. He remains the only player to win the Finals MVP in a losing effort. And one could argue that his post playing career might be even more impressive than his playing career. He hired color analyst Pat Riley as his head coach. He orchestrated trades and contracts for Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. He turned the Memphis Grizzlies into contenders. And even as just a consultant, he convinced Golden State not to trade Klay Thompson for Kevin Love. Whatever luck he didn't have as a player, he made up for it as the gold standard of front offices.
9. Tim Duncan - San Antonio Spurs
When you see Tim Duncan in the highlights of your mind, what do you see? There aren't any rim-shaking dunks or game ending buzzer beaters or a blocked shot that ends with his man in a crumpled heap. No, his highlight reel is full of crisp bank shots, great low post moves, and smart defense. Stats and accolades didn't matter to him, but his career had plenty of both: 5 NBA Championships. 3x NBA Finals MVP. 2x League MVP. 10x 1st team All-NBA. And he did it all with a quiet demeanor that a player of his caliber isn't supposed to have. He's the consummate team player that would flourish in any era.
8. LeBron James - Cleveland Cavaliers, Miami Heat
There is no doubt that LeBron James is one of the most unique players in NBA history. He's built like a tank, but can fly like a jet. He's a pass-first facilitator and the youngest player to 30,000 career points. He can defend any player of any size, but it'll take at least two to guard him. He's won four League MVP awards, taken his teams to the finals seven straight times for a total of eight trips, and won three titles. Yet, James might be the most criticized athlete in sports. Most of it unfair, some of it justified. Discussions about James seem to have a "yeah, but" with it. As in, "Yeah he's won, but he had to be on a super team to do it." Or, "Yeah he's a great player, but he gets into so much drama." Or, perhaps the most unfair thing I've heard, "Yeah, but he's no Jordan." Probably so, but it'll be a long while until we see another LeBron.
7. Kobe Bryant - Los Angeles Lakers
If there was anyone who understands the kind of scrutiny that LeBron James faces, it's Kobe Bryant. But unlike James, who wants to be liked, Bryant relished his role as The Villain. His career is full of moments that left teams baffled and opposing arenas silent as tombs. He didn't want to just win, he wanted to cut your heart out and show it to you. He'd study contemporaries like Reggie Miller and Hakeem Olajuwon in the offseason and use what he learned against them. And while that single-minded drive for perfection made him a brilliant player, it also made him tough to deal with. He didn't always trust his teammates on the floor. He feuded with players he didn't think were as serious about basketball as he was (O'Neal, Dwight Howard.) He defied game-plans and tried to win games his way. But at the end, with the game on the line, there may have been no better finisher. On a prominent olympic team full of big names against other international NBA stars, team USA wanted Bryant to take the last shot. In the best terms possible, Kobe Bryant was a killer.
6. Bill Russell - Boston Celtics
Every discussion about Bill Russell always begins with his 11 titles. But I think it sometimes undercuts his impact on NBA history. For the Celtics to win as they did, they needed a leader with manic need to remain on top. Russell's competitive drive was ingrained within the team concept. His greatest value couldn't be measured on a stat line. Everything he did started and ended with finding a way to win. He didn't care about the fans or the media (understandable because of stories like this of his time in Boston.) He only cared about uplifting the men in that locker room. We can only speculate on what kind of player Russell who be in today's game. Could he effectively guard the LeBrons and Kevin Durants of the world? I'm not sure, but I'll bet that he would've found a way.
5. Hakeem Olajuwon - Houston Rockets, Toronto Raptors
There have been many players described as a "once in a generation" throughout the years, but few have actually lived up to that title. Hakeem Olajuwon was a transformative player that ushered in a new era for the center position. Before him, centers made their living solely because of their size. Olajuwon changed the thinking of what a big man was supposed to be. He didn't lumber down the floor, he took the ball in his hands and led the fast break. He didn't plant himself under the basket and wait for the ball to get to him, he got the ball and forced his man to guard him from twenty feet out. Then he would drive past said player with dazzling footwork that would make a dancer proud. He was an athlete, something basketball hadn't seen from the center position before and only a few times since. Not bad for someone didn't even pick up a basketball until he was sixteen.
4. Larry Bird - Boston Celtics
Break down any game tape of any Larry Bird and you'll see that he's never the fastest player on the court. Nor is he the strongest and he's definitely not the most athletic. So then why did Jerry West once say about him, "He is as nearly perfect as you can get in almost every phase of basketball." And then you watch. Slow? Then how does he keep getting past the defense? Not strong? Then how is he getting those rebounds? Not athletic? Then how is he dominating the game? It was because he was five steps ahead of everyone on the court, whether it was teammates or opponents. It was because he was the great shooter in history. Pat Riley once said, "If could choose a player to save my life, it would be Larry Bird." But above all else, it was because of his legendary bravado. Only Bird could walk into a locker room full of the best shooters in the NBA before the 3-point shoot contest and ask, "Which one of you is gonna finish second?" He'd enter an arena and ask what the scoring record was in the building before breaking it that night. He got the nickname, "Larry Legend" and I always wondered why. Legends are non historical and unverifiable. We saw Larry Bird. He was real.
3. Magic Johnson - Los Angeles Lakers
In a career full of accolades, here is the one that I find to be the most incredible. Between 1977 and 1980, Magic Johnson lead his teams to a high school state championship, an NCAA championship, and an NBA title. He went from dancing at his Senior prom to hoisting the NBA Finals MVP trophy in just four years. It's just one of the many reasons why Magic Johnson is the most fascinating player in basketball history. He played the game with an unadulterated joy and dazzled fans with jaw-dropping passes. And because of him, Laker games became appointment television and star-studded events. But underneath the glitz and glamour burned a raging competitive fire that turned the Lakers into NBA royalty. His unselfish game wasn't just the right way, but the cool way too. His signature games were epics. His signature moments were unforgettable. And together, he and Larry Bird showed us how beautiful team basketball truly could be.
2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers
After six MVP awards, six NBA championships, two Finals MVP awards, and the most career points in history (38,387,) is it possible to say Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is underrated? I say yes. Despite his lengthy resume, he's hardly ever mentioned in the "greatest of all time" discussions. He played twenty years at a position that doesn't have that kind of longevity. He won his first title in 1971 with Milwaukee and and his third with L.A. in 1985, but was Finals MVP both those years. He was still dominate at an age when most athletes have already retired. And throughout his storied career, he had with him the most unstoppable weapon in sports history, The Sky Hook. There was no defense for it. The only thing defenders could do was hope for a miss.
1. Michael Jordan - Chicago Bulls, Washington Wizards
There was no other choice. You want the greatest basketball player ever to be athletic? Look up the plethora of gravity-defying highlights. Do you need someone who is a competitor? The stories of his ruthless and maniacal need to win are countless. Does he have to have a cool nickname? "Air Jordan" isn't just a nickname, it's a worldwide commodity. Need an impressive resume? How does six NBA titles, six Finals MVP trophies, five league MVP awards, 11 time All-NBA selections, two olympic gold medals, and one NCAA title work for you? Jordan's accomplishments also came at a time when the NBA was at it's best. His peers were a who's who Hall of Famers: Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, John Stockton. And he bested them all along the way to the most celebrated career in sports. Even now, Jordan's long shadow hangs as over the league as players like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook strive to meet his near impossible standards.