500 Greatest: On Sale Now!

by Ben Osborne / @bosborne17

It’s well documented that my man Rick Telander is a better writer than me, so I let him handle the proper intro for this absolute beast of an issue that will be hitting newsstands in New York this weekend and should be nationwide in the next 10 days. You can read his words below now and start scouring your local bookstore/newsstand next week.

First, a few pertinent details:

Ranking the 500 greatest players in NBA history? And listing all of them with their years played, teams they played for, career averages, a photo and a sharply written mini-bio? Who would take on such a project? Your friends from SLAM, of course. Credit for the idea, and the rough list we built off of, goes to a gentleman named Al Stark and his cousin, Rick. Al is a SLAM subscriber and hoop fanatic while Rick works for our parent company. Together, they approached me about doing a list of the top 1000 (!) players of all time. That was too much, so we compromised on 500.

For the top 50 players, we stuck pretty closely to the rankings we did in SLAM 130 (August, 2009), which also lives on the site (and still generates comments!), since a group of us had worked hard on that list and not much has changed since then. For the rest of the list we took Al’s rankings and eventually considered about 650 players, moving guys around where people saw fit. How did Al get his list in the first place? “I perused the Basketball Encyclopedia and Total Basketball and filled out index cards [see some above] for more than 1,000 players,” he says. “I checked obvious stats, awards, honors, number of championships and All-Star appearances. Then, head spinning, I bounced my ideas off some basketball expert friends of mine—and then numbered the cards from 1 to 500. An exhausting exercise!”

To be included on this list, players had to have spent five seasons in the NBA. If a guy got hurt in his fifth season, that was OK, but current players who haven’t completed their fifth year were not eligible (there are sidebars in the back of the issue that cover the best players who couldn’t qualify). If guys excelled in leagues such as the BAA, NBL or ABA, that may have influenced our view of them as players, but years in those leagues did not count toward the five, nor did we include any of those stats.

SLAM Magazine and SLAMonline.com have an incredible team of freelance writers all around the globe, and each and every one of them would have offered valid and valuable opinions on this list. In the interest of time and convenience, however, the only people who got to see this list, cast an opinion on it and influence how the final project looked besides me are: Russ Bengtson, Michael Bradley, Franklyn Calle, David Cassilo, Adam Figman, Ryne Nelson, Alan Paul, Khalid Salaam, Al Stark, Tzvi Twersky and Lang Whitaker. Sorry for the NY-area bias and hope our extended SLAM Fam understands!

At some point we’ll figure out a cool way to unveil the list online, but even in the web-obsessed times we live in, this issue isn’t about the internet. This issue—boasting 128 pages, a heavy paper stock for the cover and with only three advertisements (shout out to Mitchell & Ness, the NBA and Reebok for getting down) is something you need to buy, hold and absorb.

As Tzvi just said, “This is some coffee-table shit.” Hope you all have coffee tables.

by Rick Telander

Talk about an argument? I’m trying to cruise through this list of the greatest basketball players of all time, and I can’t get past No. 2! Wilt Chamberlain was better than No. 7, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? I mean, giant Kareem scored more points than anybody in NBA history, won six NBA titles, a record six regular season MVP awards, three NCAA championships at UCLA, and… OK, so giant Wilt scored 100 points in an NBA game, averaged over 50 points in a season, led the League in rebounding 11 times, shooting percentage nine times, and once led the League in…assists. Hmm…

Strap yourself in, boys and girls—this is an all-day sucker. Debate 101. Basketball History for Maniacs.

Can we all at least agree that MJ was the greatest ever? Yes? No? I hear the Kobe (No. 10) people grousing. I hear (No. 6) Magic’s choir yodeling. Even the Bill Russell (No. 3) brigade is shouting out.

Lord, how do you compare a panther to a giraffe, a cheetah to a grizzly, a marlin to a whale? You can’t, but we try to. We must, if for no other reason than that we humans love lists, rankings, comparisons, champions, the best—and the worst. We make declarations of certitude, even when we haven’t a clue. Which makes for FUN!

Not that this list is wrong, stupid or lacking in deep introspection, even calculus, and philosophy. Every man on the list was, or is, a terrific player. By my reckoning, I have seen the vast majority play live on TV or in person at least once. I watched MJ play maybe 300 college and NBA games from within a few feet of the court. Once, he sat so close to me while on the Bulls’ bench that I had to crane my neck to see around him. And while watching MJ go for his six NBA titles, I saw everybody from Kareem to Dominique Wilkins (No. 43) to Quinn Buckner (No. 245) to Scott Skiles (No. 364) to barely-on-the-list David Wesley (No. 499) do their things. You might ask, Who’s No. 500? I’ll let you surf to the end at your own speed, but here’s a hint: His nickname was “Never Nervous.” And, other than Carmelo Anthony (No. 105), he’s the only college player ever to win an NCAA title and be named MOP as a freshman. And one time he broke his toe moving furniture and missed almost two NBA seasons because of it.

But, dang. This list messes with my mind. Every time I find one of my favorite players and say to myself, Now, why on God’s green earth isn’t Paul Silas (No. 138), the rebounding fool, ranked higher? I then have to admit: And move Michael Cooper (No. 137), the guy who played defense like a tree snake in your jock, down a notch?

It’s wild to think of a fivesome as spectacular as Patrick Ewing, Jerry Lucas, Gary Payton, Allen Iverson and Billy Cunningham, and then ponder the notion that they comprise not quite the eighth-best quintet on the list. And that could be correct. I mean, it probably is. Or not.

Which leads me to thinking: What if all these guys could come back for one day, in their prime, with fashion and styles of their era—crewcuts, Afros, ponytails, tube socks, tighty-whities, silky bloomers, Under Armour sleeves, headbands, buckle belts, black canvas hightops, Nike signatures, tats, sculpted biceps, and all of them jacked and ferocious and ready to make their mark for history—and they just go at it in a massive gymnasium for hours and hours until the cream has risen and the chaff has fallen and the numbers are pinned appropriately to the sweat-soaked jerseys.

Oh, it’s a dream and could never be done, not even with a time machine, because how do you fairly gauge an individual in a team game? A superstar who might be as tall as Yao Ming, as short as Spud Webb, as muscular as Karl Malone, as skinny as Tayshaun Prince, as athletic as Dave DeBusschere, as mechanical as Dikembe Mutombo, as lead-footed as Mark Eaton, as fleet as Mo Cheeks, as massive as Shaq, as Bambi-esque as Tiny Archibald? And with all the rules changes, the three-point shot, the palming, the hacking, the zone, the refs, the…

As I said before, you don’t. But you can try. And what a journey it is—more fun than a boatful of Dennis Rodmans. Which reminds me, why is the Worm only No. 48? Is somebody crazy here?

NOTE: We should also probably acknowledge that there are going to be errors in this issue. Hey, even as perfect as we are, we make mistakes sometimes, and sorting an avalanche of information, like we had to do in the making of this issue, means that somehow, someway, things can get screwed up. So as we find errors, we’ll add our mea culpas here on this post.

• Leading off, it was brought to our attention that we inexplicably left former Lakers (and Suns and Jazz) guard Gail Goodrich off the list. Goodrich, a two-time All-American and one of the greatest players in UCLA history, was a five-time NBA All-Star and scored over 19,000 points. His number, 25, was eventually retired by the Lakers. Goodrich deserves to not only be on our list, but to be way up high on the list. And he will be, either when we post the full list online, or in the next printing or any reissue we do of this magazine. But for now, there’s nothing we can say except Goodrich somehow slipped through. We screwed up. We apologize for the error.