Ever since mankind has existed, there has always been one goal or one purpose that everyone has. To leave an indelible mark in history. To have an impact so great, it will be spoken about for generations. In sports, only a few can achieve this feat. This feat separates the truly great from the ‘almost great’. These players are universally accepted as ‘legends’. Even if you support another team, you simply cannot hate them. Today, I am going to give my take on the 10 players who changed the game of basketball. This does not imply that these are the top 10 greatest players to play basketball. This list strictly talks about those players who have changed basketball. This is not a countdown; I will talk about players according to the era they played in. I will talk only about players who have played in the shot clock era post 1954.
Any list which talks about great players, cannot start without Bill Russell. Why? The winner of the coveted Most Valuable Player of the NBA finals is presented with the Bill Russell trophy. Yes, the finals MVP trophy is named after him. He has won the championship 11 times – including his first year in the league and his last year in the league and 9 in between. And we won all these rings in just 13 seasons – which means that he won the NBA 85% of the time he played. He was an excellent rebounder, and a shot blocker. Blocks were not recorded during his time, but if they were, he would certainly be right up there. He was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame and in 2011, was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by the then President Barack Obama. Many Hall of Famers have subsequently, chosen Bill to be on the stage with them when being inducted in the Hall of Fame, including a passionate vote of thanks by Shaquille O’Neal during his induction. The man who played basketball, while battling racism and who took the Celtics from an average team to multiple NBA champions, is right up there at the top of any list. Bill’s mentality can be seen by his quote – “The idea isn’t to block every shot, it is to make the opponent believe that you can block every shot.” Bill makes this list as he single-handedly turned around the Celtics franchise.
After talking about Bill, another name which automatically pops up is Bill’s rival-turned-friend Wilt Chamberlain. Wilt is the only man in NBA history to score 100 points in a single game. Nowadays, a team scoring 100 points is a pretty decent performance. Even the 2016-17 Warriors averaged 118 points per game. The most fascinating thing about that record is not the sheer number that he put up, but that he did that without scoring a single 3pt shot. He also holds the record for the most rebounds in a single game with 55. Wilt Chamberlain was the most dominant player to ever play this game. Not Shaq, but Wilt. Not Bill, but Wilt. Not Kareem Abdul Jabbar, but Wilt. You get the idea. He was such an unstoppable force that opposition players would hesitate before taking a shot when he would defend them. Wilt is the only player, because of whom the NBA had to change three rules. Wilt was such a bad free throw shooter (Yes, big men being bad at free throws is not a modern thing!), that during a free throw, he would throw the ball off the blackboard and jump to catch it himself and dunk it. This was unfair to all the other players, so the NBA made a new rule stating that the FT shooter cannot cross the foul line immediately after releasing the ball. Due to his physical dominance, the Philadelphia Warriors would often during a baseline out-of-bounds play would fling the ball over the blackboard and Wilt could catch the alley-oop and dunk it. This was subsequently banned by the NBA. The lane was widened from 12ft to 16ft, primarily to counter Wilt’s dominance. When the NBA makes three new rules to counter your dominance, you know you are the most dominant player. His later demise and predicaments, allegations and rumors aside, Wilt was a force to be reckoned with. Wilt changed the NBA and had three new rules made because of him.
Now is the time to talk about the all time leading scorer in the NBA. Kareem Abdul Jabbar. 38,387 points scored, 1560 games played, 57,446 minutes played, 15,837 field goals made, 28,307 field goal attempts, 3189 blocks, 9394 defensive rebounds, 1074 career wins and 4657 personal fouls. There have been so many legends that have played this game, including Michael Jordan, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar has outscored everyone. When playing college basketball, he would dunk the ball so often that NCAA forbid dunking in college basketball. He then developed the skyhook shot, and used this in the NBA so effectively to score. Never had anyone used the hook shot to such effect. After him, the hook shot is the most used shot by centers till date. If this is not changing the NBA, I don’t know what is! And yes, he has also received the President’s Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor.
Onto the next one. Magic Johnson. His real name was Earvin Johnson II but is known as Magic Johnson. Yes, his nickname is Magic. He is an integral part of the NBA. He was nicknamed Magic after a game in which he scored 36 points, 16 rebounds and 16 assists. All this in a single game. And the crowd was so stunned by the man’s game, that they didn’t know how to react. They were just speechless. It was as if they had seen Magic. Hence the name. 3 months after he announced that he would be retiring after the season because he had contracted AIDS, he played in an All-Star game which changed the NBA. It went down in history as the only basketball game to be called because of hugs. At the 1992 NBA All-Star Game, with 14 seconds remaining and the shot clock winding down, Earvin “Magic” Johnson hit a three-pointer to give the West a 153-113 lead over the East. Never was a basket more meaningless — and meaningful. Magic, playing in the home of the Magic (Orlando Magic), lit up the arena with his smile, both teams rushed to embrace him at half-court, and no one argued when the game ended with time left on the clock. “Ladies and gentlemen, you just can’t orchestrate it better than that,” announcer Dick Enberg said as his voice swelled, “but when you’re great, you deliver on cue.” 1992 was the year the USA had their ‘Dream Team’. And all those stars were playing in the same game. Drexler, Bird, Tim Hardaway, Chris Mullin, Michael Jordan, Isiah Thomas, Charles Barkley amongst others were the players on court. When you have a lineup like that, and when you see these guys racing to hug Johnson, you know that he has earned the nickname Magic. He used his ‘Magic’ and changed the Lakers franchise and the NBA as a whole.
Nobody that is mentioned above had a flair for shooting. They weren’t labelled as great shooters. This label was attached to Larry Bird. He brought shooting to the next level. A sharpshooter, by all standards. He was a member of the coveted 50-40-90 club which indicates 50% Field goal conversion, 40% 3pt conversion and 90% free throw conversion. He didn’t have his unique shot, didn’t have any other dominant aspect but could shoot the ball better than anyone. This really changed the dynamic of the teams that he played in and the NBA.
Now is the time to talk about the Greatest Ever to play this game. Michael Jordan. He was not just a player, he was a revolution. The only reason the NBA is so popular right now is Michael Jordan. He changed not just the NBA, but the basketball game as a whole. He did things that were deemed impossible. Before Mike, dunking was just a way to score points and assert dominance. But he made dunking an art form. A thing of seamless beauty. He could do everything. His technique was flawless, his game did not lack anything in any aspect. You name it – and Jordan is right up at the top of that list. Jordan was the human manifestation of winning. From winning two separate three-peats (winning the NBA championship for a consecutive three years), finishing with all the moves that existed, creating unique moves for himself, to flying in the air to dunk, to playing with a flu and outscoring opponents and just winning at whatever he did. He is the reason you watch basketball, he is the reason I watch basketball. Some people claim he is not human – and I support that claim. If I keep talking about him, I could easily fill 10 separate blogs. His mindset can be understood when, after the Bulls were missing shots, NJ took over and single handedly won the game. After the game, his coach told him “There is no I in teamwork”. Jordan replied with “There is an I in win”. This says everything about mike – Not that he wasn’t a team player, in fact one of the best passers, but his winning mentality is to be focused on here. As Allen Iverson so eloquently put during his Hall of Fame induction speech – “There would be no Hall of Famer Allen Iverson without this man. I wanted to be fast like Isiah, to be able to shoot like Bird, rebound like Barkley, pass like Magic, be dominant like Shaq, but man, I wanted to be like Mike.” Here, see for yourself.
And the huge ovation to that statement including Shaq’s grin told that everybody in the room had that feeling. And the crowd comprised of all the legends of basketball. When everyone that plays the game wants to be like you, you realize that you have changed not just the NBA, but the entire game of basketball. I just kept on writing. Bow down to His Airness!!
After quoting Iverson, it is time to talk about him. Allen ‘The Crossover’ Iverson. The crossover which is the move used the most in basketball, was made popular. He came from a neighborhood where most of the kids were addicted to drugs. He was saved from that life by his mentor. Iverson was originally a great American football player, but once he stepped onto the basketball court, there was no turning back. He would stay glued to his TV as a kid watching Michael Jordan dismantle entire teams. He worked hard, overcame his temptation to hang out with the wrong kids, and grinded his way to the NBA. He is the only player in NBA history to cross Michael Jordan over and drop a jumpshot on him. So, from watching MJ on TV to Crossing him over, Iverson’s journey has been amazing. He made all the kids in bad conditions, neighborhoods and circumstances believe in themselves. His greatest gift to the game was the crossover. That move changed the NBA and now, the crossover is used in almost every play by everyone.
Until this point, all the centers had the same physique as Wilt Chamberlain – Thin, Wiry and Tall. Shaquille O’Neal came and destroyed this traditional image. Here was a guy who was more than 7ft tall, not thin, but huge weighing 320pounds and was as successful as the other legendary centers, if not more. He is the second most dominant player to play the game, after Wilt. He built the entire Lakers dynasty with Kobe and took them to new heights. Years after the showtime Lakers, the franchise was winning NBA titles again. After he was traded to Miami, he won another championship there. He changed the perception of being a center. His dunks in college and NBA were so ferocious, that the glass backboard broke multiple times. They had to change the glass material so that it didn’t break when Shaq dunked. He is the only player who has ‘Broken Backboards’ as a part of his stat line.
The ninth player to change the league is The King. LeBron James. LeBron is in my opinion easily in the top 5 of the greatest ever players to play the game. He excels in every category. He has been consistently the greatest player on the planet for the last decade. At the rate he is going, he will break many records including the highest scorer of all time. His style of play is so hard to defend. When teams play against him, they have to make alternate plans to defend LeBron. He can dunk emphatically, lay it up, score mid-rangers and also shoot threes and has a long range and he does the chase down block so often and effectively that players are afraid to lay it up when LeBron is chasing them. He truly has changed the way people play the NBA and also how people plan to defend him. He is a beast in all categories. The nickname of being The King is as fitting as it could be.
Last but not the least is a player who has an amazing rivalry with the King. He has had the most effect on the NBA. Yes, I am talking about Wardell ‘Steph’ Stephen Curry II or most popularly known as Steph Curry. He is nowhere near the traditional NBA player physically. He was a 6’3’’ scrawny kid in college but had a unique style of play. After he exploded onto the NBA stage, he has changed the way everyone plays basketball. His ability to splash the net from anywhere on the court is something beautiful to witness. Nowadays, layups and threes are the only way people score. Midrange jumpshots look weird nowadays. Even kids in high schools practice only their three point shooting. Its like a wave has swept over the entire game. All the other NBA teams are taking nearly four times the 3pt attempts that they previously took. Steph is the poster boy of this revolution. I won’t go into how great he is in this article. I have already written another blog about him. But he has had the most change in the NBA. What an amazing player!
So, this closes my list of the top 10 people who changed the NBA. Again, this is not a chronological list (I don’t mean that the first is better than the second and so on), but a list of players who changed the game placed according to the era they played in from the oldest to the most recent.
Here are a few honorable mentions to the players who did change the NBA but didn’t make this top 10 list. Julius ‘Dr. J’ Irving, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Dennis Rodman, Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Dwayne Wade, John Stockton, Karl Malone and Kevin Durant. Most of you would be wondering why Kobe Bryant is not in this list and is not even in the mentions. This is because he did not CHANGE the league. Kobe is the second greatest player of all time to play this game after Michael Jordan. He is better than LeBron in my opinion (In the words of MJ himself, “There is something about five rings that beats three rings”). But he didn’t change the league. He was an re-incarnation of Jordan. Seeing him play rendered people speechless. But he did not have any original tricks up his sleeve. He did what MJ did. If you electronically alter the uniforms on MJ’s and Kobe’s tapes, you would not know who is who. Kobe was great, no doubt. But we had seen it before. We had seen a better version of it – It was called Michael Jordan. But it has been an honour and a privilege to have seen Kobe play for so many years. Here is a video which shows the similarity between Kobe and Jordan:
As a bonus, here is the video of the Hall of Fame enshrinement of the 1992 USA Dream team. Enjoy!