NBA's Top 50 Players

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The National Basketball Association turns 73 today.

Founded in New York City on this date in 1946, the NBA is the premier professional basketball league in the world.  Composed of 30 teams [29 in the U.S. and one in Canada], it features the world’s highest-paid athletes.  In honor of its 50th anniversary in 1996, the league named its list of Top 50 all-time players.

NBA commissioner David Stern announced the 50 Greatest Players at a press luncheon on October 29, 1996.  Joining Stern were four prominent members on the list – Wilt ChamberlainJulius Erving, George Mikan and Bill Russell.  The announcement was made at the Grand Hyatt Hotel to tip off the league’s season-long NBA at 50 celebration.  The Grand Hyatt occupies the site of the former Commodore Hotel, where the original NBA charter was signed June 6, 1946.

The top scorer in history with 38,387 points, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar handed out more career assists than five of the guards on the Top 50 list, including Dave Bing, Clyde Drexler, Hal Greer, Michael Jordan and Earl Monroe.

The NBA’s Top 50 was selected by a blue ribbon panel of media, former players and coaches, and current and former general managers and team executives.  Panelists were asked to choose the 50 greatest players in NBA history, without regard to position.  Voters did not rank their selections and former players were not allowed to vote for themselves.  To be eligible, players had to have spent at least a portion of their careers in the NBA.

Of the 50 men that comprised the voting panel, 16 were former players.  Thirteen were media representatives and 21 were GMs, coaches or executives.  Only three of the voting veterans – Bill Bradley, Johnny Kerr and Bob Lanier – were not selected to the team.

The collective resume of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA history is mind-boggling.  One hundred and twenty league championship rings.  More than 475 NBA All-Star Game selections.  The group scored more than one million points and grabbed over 425,000 rebounds.  The Top 50 amassed 53 league MVP awards, earned 17 Rookie of the Year honors and won 42 scoring titles.

Only three of the Top 50 players had more rebounds than points during their Hall of Fame careers – Bill Russell, Nate Thurmond and Wes Unseld.  

Eighteen of the Top 50 players were guards, the most of any position on the list.  The roster was evenly divided between centers and forwards, with 16 each.

At the time of Stern’s announcement, 11 of the players on the Top 50 list were active.  All are now retired, and all have landed in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.  When the 50 Greatest Players roster was revealed in October 1996, only Pete Maravich, who died in 1988 at 40, was deceased.  Since the announcement, nine have died, including Chamberlain and Mikan.

The highlight of the season-long NBA at 50 celebration took place at the 1997 All-Star Game in Cleveland.  During a ceremony at halftime, 47 of the Top 50 players were assembled.  Absent were Maravich, Shaquille O’Neal, who was then 24 and recovering from a knee injury, and the great Jerry West, who was suffering from an ear infection and could not fly.

The first head coach of the Minneapolis [later Los Angeles] Lakers, John Kundla won six league championships in his dozen seasons at the helm.

In addition to announcing the 50 Greatest Players, a panel of media representatives compiled two more lists: the Top 10 Coaches and Top 10 Teams in NBA History.  Lenny Wilkins, who coached six teams between 1969 and 2005, is the only Top 50 player to have also been selected as a member of the coaches list.  Pat Riley, Jack Ramsey, Don Nelson, John Kundla, Phil Jackson, Red Holzman, Bill Fitch, Chuck Daly and Red Auerbach round out the top coaches.  Nine of the Top 10 Coaches are members of the Naismith Hall of Fame [only Bill Fitch is not].

Of the 29 NBA franchises in existence at the time of the voting, six had a squad named to the Top 10 Teams list.  The Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers each had two teams selected.  The 1969-70 New York Knicks and 1988-89 Detroit Pistons completed the ten.  Three of the players on the NBA’s Top 50 played on two of the Top 10 Teams:  Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen led the Chicago Bulls in both 1991-92 and 1995-96, while Chamberlain starred for the 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers as well as the 1971-72 Lakers.

It has been nearly a quarter-century since the NBA announced its 50th Anniversary All-Time Team.  How has the list changed since then?  Surely LeBron, Kobe and Tim Duncan belong?  Who else would you add, and which players would you delete from the original list to make room for the new ones?

50 Greatest Players in NBA History

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Nate Archibald
Paul Arizin
Charles Barkley
Rick Barry
Elgin Baylor
Dave Bing
Larry Bird
Wilt Chamberlain
Bob Cousy

Dave Cowens
Billy Cunningham
Dave DeBusschere
Clyde Drexler
Julius Erving
Patrick Ewing
Walt Frazier
George Gervin
Hal Greer
John Havlicek

Elvin Hayes
Magic Johnson
Sam Jones
Michael Jordan
Jerry Lucas
Karl Malone
Moses Malone
Pete Maravich
Kevin McHale
George Mikan

Earl Monroe
Hakeem Olajuwon
Shaquille O’Neal
Robert Parish
Bob Pettit
Scottie Pippen
Willis Reed
Oscar Robertson
David Robinson
Bill Russell

Dolph Schayes
Bill Sharman
John Stockton
Isiah Thomas
Nate Thurmond
Wes Unseld
Bill Walton
Jerry West
Lenny Wilkens
James Worthy