Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

Great Basketball Players


Ask Joe Hoopsfan to name a great basketball legend and he'd probably answer Magic Johnson. Or Larry Bird. Or, if he goes way, way back, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

James Worthy
©UNC Athletics
James Worthy is one of
only five Lakers with more
than 15,000 total points.
See more pictures of basketball.

Indeed, when it comes to basketball history, our memories tend to fuzz out when it comes to anything pre-Charles Barkley. Basketball's history is sketchy because, frankly, the sport wasn't very popular prior to the Magic/Bird era.

James Naismith may have nailed up the first peach basket in 1891, but no legitimate professional league was formed until the Basketball Association of America (later the National Basketball Association) set up shop in 1946. Moreover, the NBA limped along for years -- always a poor second cousin to Major League Baseball and the National Football League. NBA franchises came and went, and teams were still struggling to fill their arenas as late as the early 1980s.

Yet to think there wasn't any great basketball being played in these "dark ages" would be a grave injustice. Of the 75 legends featured in these articles, three enjoyed their glory years in the 1940s, seven in the '50s, 16 in the '60s, and 21 in the '70s.

Up Next
The first basketball superstar of all was George Mikan. Once a gangly 6'10" goof, Mikan undertook a training regimen of rope-skipping, shadow-boxing, and ballet dancing to become a sensational inside scorer, rebounder, and shot-blocker. Mikan was one of the most important basketball players of all time because he put fannies in the seats when NBA clubs were struggling to stay afloat.

Other early legends were as fascinating as the greats of today. Bill Russell was the ultimate defensive presence, rejecting an estimated 8 to 10 shots a game and pulling down as many rebounds as Patrick Ewing scored points. Russell owns an NBA championship ring for every finger, plus one for display.

Everyone knows Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a game, but did you know that in the three months leading up to that fateful night, Wilt had games of 60, 78, 61, 60, 73, 62, 62, 62, 65, 67, 61, 67, 65 and 61 points? The "Stilt" averaged 50.4 points per game during that 1961-62 season while playing an average of 48.5 minutes a game (yes, a regulation game was 48 minutes).

Many of basketball's great little men also toiled in previous generations. Long before Magic, there was the "Mobile Magician," Bob Cousy. Also known as the "Houdini of the Hardwood," Cousy bedazzled fans with his backward pass, twice-around pass, and behind-the-back dribble. For those who admire long-range bombers, there was none better than Jerry West, who filled it up from the corner, the top of the key, and Section 3, Row 8. Had today's 3-point line been in effect, West's career average of 27.0 would have swelled to near 30.

Not all of these legends were NBA superstars. Some players made it mostly on their college resumes, namely Pete Maravich, Bill Walton, Bill Bradley, Austin Carr, Ralph Sampson, and Tom Gola. At Louisiana State in the late 1960s, fans flocked to the Cow Palace to watch Maravich burn up the bayou. Living every kid's fantasy, Maravich shot and scored from every spot in the halfcourt. His collegiate scoring of 44.2 points per game has never been approached.

Bill Sharman
©University of Southern
California Athletics
Bill Sharman was
described as a near-
perfect guard.

Three of the players featured in these articles never played in the NBA. Meadowlark Lemon headlined for the Harlem Globetrotters for a quarter-century, leading the league in laughs and burying halfcourt shots as if they were free throws. Cheryl Miller was basketball's only eight-time All-American (four high school, four college), once scoring 105 points in a prep game. And Nancy Lieberman broke new ground when she went one-on-one with men in the United States Basketball League.

We certainly couldn't exclude certain coaches from these pages. Adolph Rupp, Red Auerbach, John Wooden, Dean Smith, Bob Knight, and Pat Riley are all larger-than-life figures. Interestingly, each of these men coached at least one player featured in the following pages.

There's also plenty of room for more recent superstars. The Mailman, The Admiral, The Dream, The Glide, Air, Shaq, The Pip -- they're all here. The players in the following articles played in thousands of NBA/ABA games, scored more than one million points, were selected more than 500 times to All-Star Games, and own more than 100 NBA/ABA championship rings. They are basketball's all-time Dream Team.

Take a look at these articles for a glimpse at the masters of the court, where America's high-flying athletes trade fast breaks and slam dunks. And for an even more in-depth listing of these basketball legends, continue to the next page to see a list of the greatest basketball guards ever to hit the hardwood.