Part 2 – The Ten Greatest Players to Influence the Game

Pete Maravich

While all eyes are focused on the opening weekend of the NCAA Men’s basketball tournament Hoopsdujour presents in two parts “The Ten Greatest Players to have Influenced the Game” as we know it today.

The players have not been listed in any particular order. Each has left their own unique imprint on the game today. Who is on your list?

6. Meadowlark Lemon; The “Clown Prince of Basketball”, Meadow performed before Kings, Queens, Presidents, Popes, and for millions of fans all over the World and yet felt the sting of a racial America at the same time!  Meadowlark was without a doubt the driving force while performing with the Globetrotters in more than 100 countries around the Globe! Meadow was an international star before basketball “American style” was international and himself recognized worldwide known as an “Ambassador of Goodwill in Short Pants.”  Lemon became a household name after playing in more than 16,000 career games (in NBA terms, playing at a 100 games per season pace inclusive of playoffs games one would need a 160 year career to match that total). His career for the Globetrotters began in 1954 and lasted until 1979. Meadow was both a gifted athlete and a wonderful comedian. Is anyone humming Sweet Georgia Brown yet? He is as famous for the Trotter’s confetti-in-the-water-bucket routine as he is for hitting hook shots from half court. His play in the pivot of the Globetrotters famous weave ending with the “no-look, wrap-around pass” to teammates for a slam-dunk and his smile throughout every performance unsurpassed. His love of the game transcended all barriers and introduced the game to new generations of fans in over 100 countries. As to those who might think the Trotters were not “real players” the Trotters lineups included NBA greats Wilt Chamberlain, Connie Hawkins and players Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, Marques Haynes, Fred “Curly” Neal, Jerome James, Reece “Goose” Tatum, and Hubert “Geese” Ausbie. Why is Meadow one of the “greats” on this list? Even though Meadow never played in the NBA he was without question a great player and without a doubt America’s first true International Basketball star.

7. Larry Bird & Magic Johnson; Their time as rivals during the decade or so of the 80’s accounted for, 22 Selections as All-Stars, 6 League MVP awards, 8 Championships, 5 NBA Finals MVP’s and arguably the two most recognizable stars of the 92 Olympic Dream team. Their rivalry started with the NCAA championship game in 1979. The NCAA game that matched Bird’s mid-major undefeated Indiana State versus Magic’s power conference Michigan State achieved the highest ever rating for a college basketball game. All through the 1980’s, any match-up between the Celtics and the Lakers whether it was the regular season or the playoffs drew enormous television audiences. Perhaps the popularity was simply a contrast in perceived style of the two stars on all levels which seemed to play out as a real life reality show. The “Hick from French Lick” the introverted small-town hero with the blue-collar work ethic, and the blue-collar overall style of the Celtics, versus the ever effervescent style of “Magic” leading the LA-LA land Showtime party amid the Tinsel-town and celebrity atmosphere of Los Angeles. Despite the intensity of their rivalry, Bird and Johnson became friends off the court. Johnson appeared at Bird’s retirement ceremony on February 4, 1993 and emotionally described Bird as a “friend forever”. In the case of Larry, when then Celtics GM Red Auerbach choose Bird without consulting him first he did not sign with the Celtics immediately; choosing instead to play his final season at Indiana State and afterwards signed a five-year, $3.25 million contract with the team. Doing so made Bird the NBA’s highest paid rookie in history. The result was the Bird Collegiate Rule of the NBA designed to prevent teams from drafting players before they were ready to sign. As for Ervin, his signed a 25-year, $25-million contract with the Lakers in 1982 which was the highest-paying contract in sports history at the time. Magic began the era of players with the unique combination of one-on-one skills of swing players with the ball handling and court awareness of point guards and the power to attack the rim of power forwards. All of it in one package made him the most feared triple-double threat of all time. Life after basketball has also continued for both. Magic’s bravery and involvement after “the announcement” of contracting the AIDS virus helped millions of Americans to understand the disease. He has been honored as one of America’s most influential black businessmen, become part of a group of investors that purchased the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Los Angeles Sparks. Meantime Larry became the only person in NBA history to be named League MVP as a player, Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year.  Why are both Larry Bird and Magic Johnson on our list of greatest? Simply put, Larry and Ervin will be forever joined at the hip as the two stars, equally together, that were most responsible for ushering in the modern-day, extremely lucrative TV era, of big time basketball.

8. Pete Maravich; “Pistol Pete” is still the all-time leading NCAA Division 1 scorer with 3,667 points scored. His collegiate average of 44.2 points per game was achieved before the three-point line was introduced and accomplished despite being unable to play varsity as a freshman under then NCAA eligibility rules. Pete was selected twice as college national POY and a 3 time 1st team All American at LSU. Pete had the misfortune as many great players do of having to spend the majority of his NBA years playing for bad teams. None the less his on court performances were magical. He was a 5 time NBA All-star, 4 time All NBA selection, NBA scoring champion in 1977 and had his number retired by both the Utah and New Orleans franchises. Whether it was his ball handling skills on display or the feathery jumper he was pure entertainment and showmanship. Pete was one of the youngest players ever inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and cited by the Hall as “perhaps the greatest creative offensive talent in history”.  Hall of Fame player John Havlicek said “the best ball-handler of all time was (Pete) Maravich”. “Pistol” makes the list because no one prior to him played with such a flamboyant style and that very style at the guard position changed forever the basic rudimentary skill levels of players of the position.

9. Julius Erving; Dr. J is often spoken in terms of how he helped legitimize the American Basketball Association (ABA). He most certainly was its best-known player. However it was his grace, power and ability that was a drastic contrast to the style of play seen in the NBA that truly caused the NBA and ABA leagues to merge in 1975-76. His collegiate career, played at UMass, lasted only two years but he became only one of six players in NCAA history to attain a career average of more than 20 points and 20 rebounds per game. 3 Championships, 4 Most Valuable Player Awards, 16 All-Star performances, 12 All NBA/ABA team selections and 3 scoring titles. He is the fifth-highest scorer in ABA/NBA history with 30,026 points. Julius was not the first spectacular dunk artist the game had ever seen, however, he was without question the one who brought it into the sports mainstream. Prior to the Dr., the dunk was seen as a style over substance move of raw power by big men, even unsportsmanlike, by many purists of the game.  Julius made the dunk an artistic move driving from the wing or off a fast break as a high-percentage shot and not necessarily a “show of force”.  His use of the dunk at the end of a play became acceptable strategy. Dr. J made the game look easy to everyone watching that there can be great artistry through the use of the dunk. No list is complete without the good Doctor. He is the one player that without question launched a modern style of play that emphasizes what is commonly referred today as “the ability to play above the rim” and is the player that changed forever in the process how everyone playing small forward and power forward operates. 

10. Oscar Robertson; “The Big O”, The University of Cincinnati college combo guard averaged 33.8 points per game, third highest in college history. All three of his college years he was the nation’s leading scorer, named to the All-American team, and College Player of the Year, setting 14 NCAA and 19 school records. Robertson’s led the UofC to a 79–9 overall record during his three varsity seasons, including two Final Four appearances. This again was done even though plagued by racism as road trips to segregated cities found Robertson often accommodated with sleeping in college dorms instead of hotels. Robertson co-captained the 1960 U.S. Olympic basketball team with Jerry West. The team has been described as the greatest assemblage of amateur basketball talent ever. Outscoring their opposition by 42.4 points per game and undefeated in the 9 games played winning the gold medal. Perhaps this team was the real “Dream Team” only 30 years earlier?  As an NBA player the “Big O” became a 12-time All-Star, 11-time All-NBA selection, NBA MVP and Rookie of the Year. Oscar is the only player in NBA history to average a triple-double (points, rebounds & assists) for a season. He and Kareem were the backbone of the Bucks only NBA title in 1970–71.   He has been honored as a two-time Naismith Memorial Basketball HOF inductee, individually in 1980 and in 2010 as a member of the 1960 Olympic team. The USBWA renamed their College Player of the Year Award the Oscar Robertson Trophy in his honor in 1998 and he was one of five people chosen to represent the inaugural National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame class in 2006.  The landmark NBA antitrust suit, named after him due to his being the NBAPA President led to an extensive reform of the league’s strict free agency and draft rules and, subsequently, to higher salaries for all players. Oscar is on this list because simply he was the prototype combo guard to which all others have been fashioned and the antitrust suit bearing his name established free agency and higher salaries for every NBA player going forward.