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Steve Aschburner

One man's list of the NBA's greatest athletes ever

Posted Jan 15 2010 11:24AM

Maurice Evans was gliding up and down the sideline, all 6-foot-5, 220 pounds of him, moving as effortlessly as if he were on casters -- very slick, turbo-charged casters -- as a Minnesota strength and conditioning coach put him through a rehab workout prior to a game one night. This was back in 2001-02, in Evans' difficult NBA rookie season, when the T-Wolves staffer marveled at both his strength and his conditioning.

"Mo is an incredible athlete," the coach said as Evans whooshed off on another baseline-to-baseline run. "Man, this guy would make a terrific tight end."

Yeah, fine, except that Evans had been trying to crack the Wolves' rotation as a swingman. A bruising pass catcher in the NFL? Right size and skills maybe, but wrong sport. Evans was one year removed from the University of Texas, and still three years away from getting a serious toehold in the NBA, a career break that required two years in Italy (Benetton Treviso) and Greece (Olympiacos) during which he essentially studied abroad how to become a pro basketball player.

Up until then, he was a marvelous athlete but a borderline NBA player.

"I've learned a ton," Evans said the other day, five NBA teams, five playoff appearances and more than 400 games removed from that frustrating, 10-appearance rookie experience. "There's a big difference between athletic ability and basketball IQ. A lot of great players are the ones who respond later in their careers after their athletic ability is reduced. We tease [Atlanta guard] Joe Johnson about being one of those players who relies upon his mental more than his physical ability in the way he plays. He's a skillful player more than just running and jumping over people."

Great NBA players. Great NBA athletes. They're not mutually exclusive groups. But the intersection of the two is probably smaller than you think. After all, by couch-potato standards, every pro basketball player is a great athlete. Among the major sports leagues, the NBA's claim to the most highly tuned, finely conditioned performers is generally conceded. But within that rarefied world, some players are Ferraris, others are Corvettes.

Then you see another video clip of Charles Barkley's golf swing and think: Cash 4 Clunkers.

Can a guy be a great NBA player without being a great athlete? Again, it's relative. Some of the best basketball players in history haven't been overtly, purely, classically athletic (notice the qualifiers) -- up to and including the aforementioned Barkley, Pete Maravich, Bill Walton, Bob Lanier, even Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Obviously, the opposite is possible; the waiver wires have been clogged with runners and jumpers who never quite grasped the subtleties of help defense or weak-side screens.

The purpose of this exercise -- and let's be honest, it was inspired by the magnificent presence and play of LeBron James, the Hummer Testarossa hybrid of NBA athletes -- is to look at some of the greatest athletes in NBA history who, er, just maybe, ranked among its great players, too.

Just so you know, these were my ground rules: This is my list of 10 (with a second 10 for near-misses). I'm ranking them and listing them countdown style only because editors like that sort of stuff. You will quibble with the order. You might quibble with the names. Fine. Send your alternatives here, make your cases and we can revisit this later.

10. Gerald Wallace

Huh? Here's the deal: Wallace is our stand-in -- or rather, our soar-in, given his vertical ability -- for all the tremendous athletes who either just missed, or maybe never came close to, great-player status. Like Evans. Like Tony Harris, a 6-foot-3 guard from the University of New Orleans who had stints with Philadelphia and Boston but was a dynamo in the CBA and scored 105 points one night in the Philippines. Or like Kris Bruton, a second-round pick by Chicago in 1994 whose skills -- and ability to dunk on a 12-foot, 1-inch rim in one contest -- qualified him for a career with the Harlem Globetrotters.

Wallace, a veteran of nine NBA seasons with Sacramento and Charlotte, was "shockingly athletic" when he got here, said Rick Adelman, his first pro coach. Earned himself a nickname too: "Crash."

"I never saw a guy who could run and jump like that," Adelman said. "He played one year at Alabama and played in the AAU, where his whole life he just stood around on defense and knew nothing about how to play. But you let him run and jump, he was almost dangerous to himself. The stuff he would try was just crazy. I never saw anybody cover ground like him, and I saw him do dunks that were incredible. He's developed into a nice player where he uses his athletic ability to his advantage. But when he came in as a rookie, he was so raw ... but he made practices fun to watch."

9. Calvin Murphy

You don't have to be a physical specimen to be a great athlete, even in this Land of the Giants. Murphy was the best little man in NBA history, at least until Allen Iverson came along, playing his way at 5-foot-9 to the Hall of Fame with the Rockets. But he also has the distinction of being the NBA's only national champion in baton twirling (Murphy became obsessed with the, uh, sport as a teenager). He had an alleged 235 basketball scholarship offers before choosing Niagara University and averaged 38.2 points in his first varsity season. A second-round pick in 1970, Murphy still holds the Rockets' record for assists and his intensity helped boost his No. 23 into the franchise's rafters.

8. Dwight Howard

As a sheer physical specimen, it's hard to beat Orlando's 24-year-old young center. He's a generous specimen, too, sharing his chiseled physique with early arriving fans and opponents via the clingy muscle shirt he wears during warm-ups. "I think Bum Phillips once had a line on [running back] Earl Campbell in Houston," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy told me last week. "He said, 'He might not be in a class by himself. But it doesn't take very long to call the roll.' I think that's where Dwight would be. There haven't been many better athletes in this league. I mean, his size, his ability to run and jump, his quickness. Yeah.

"A young Shaq would be right there with him. Wilt certainly. There aren't a lot of them. LeBron's a great athlete, but you're looking at a guy 6-foot-11. Jordan's in there. But it would be hard to take any of those guys and say they were better athletes than Dwight."

7. David Robinson

All it took was one day in the gym with Robinson for San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich to glimpse the Spurs' sparkling future. "The first thing you see with David is his athleticism," Popovich told reporters this summer prior to Robinson's Class of 2009 Hall of Fame induction. "Just imagine him as a young man, walking in and doing a handstand from one end to the other. At 7-foot-1 or whatever he is. He did a handstand! From one end line to the other! Then he runs the floor and beats everybody in the sprints. Then they're throwing balls up to him and he's dunking over everybody -- after a full-speed run, he plants his feet and has the balance and the coordination to go up and dunk it over people. It took one practice and everybody knew that this was a different deal."

6. Dominique Wilkins

Wilkins didn't run, he bounded. Or maybe loped. His legs seemed to be coiled, perhaps packed with Super Balls given his rare ability to jump, then immediately jump again higher. The Human Highlight Film gets overlooked as an all-around player because of his posterizing dunks, and most people forget that he came back from tearing an Achilles tendon in 1992 to make two more All-Star teams.

Wilkins makes it sound as if being a great athlete was almost a prerequisite for playing in the NBA back in his day. "We had a lot of them. A lot!" he told me prior to a recent Hawks game. "Dr. J [Julius Erving]. Shawn Kemp. [James] Worthy. [Larry] Nance. Excluding myself, of course. ... [Clyde] Drexler. Jerome Kersey, Derrick McKey. Billy Ray Bates. David Thompson. I mean, I could go on and on for days. Aw man, there's too many. Too many."

5. Bill Russell

A search of the archives uncovered this Associated Press story from February 1956 about the eventual Boston Celtics' legend when he was playing at the University of San Francisco. "My heart is set on the Olympics," Russell said. "I think I have a good chance of making the basketball squad, and I'd like to make the track and field team as well. ... I think I might be able to make it in the 400-meter hurdles. I've run the 440 in 49.6. That's not fast, but with some practice I could cut two seconds off that time -- easily. I've run the hurdles once or twice. I've got a good stride and good stamina."

Years later, when he was named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year in 1968 for his work as the Celtics' player/coach, Russell told writer George Plimpton he only fiddled with track at USF because the team's button-down sweater was sharper than what basketball offered.

"He's a fantastic athlete," teammate John Havlicek said then. "He could have been the decathlon champion. He could broad-jump 24 feet. He did the hurdles in 13.4. I've seen him in plays on a basketball court when he not only blocks a shot but controls the ball and feeds it to his forwards, and then he's up at the other end of the court trailing the fast break and if there's a rebound there he is, ready for it. He just might be the fastest man on the Celtics."

Later in that 1956 wire story, Russell -- unaware that he had 11 NBA championship rings in his future -- pondered a career crossroads that could have taken him into either pro basketball or a high school classroom as an economics teacher. "I might coach if I had a teaching job in some small town where the staff was small," the young fella said. "But I'd be pretty big out there on the floor with high school players, wouldn't I?"

4. Clyde Drexler

Legend has it that the man nicknamed "Glide" bumped into Olympian Carl Lewis at the University of Houston one day, back when Drexler was a "Phi Slamma Jamma" college star. "Clyde claimed that he barely lost to Carl Lewis in a track race," longtime NBA player and coach Jerry Sichting said. "He said that he had his Converse [basketball] shoes on ... Carl Lewis was working out, and Clyde gave him a run for his money. And he probably was dribbling as he ran too, right?" That and an infamous college dunk when he jumped over Memphis State's Andre Turner earns Drexler this spot ... where, unfortunately, he is in the shadow again of a longtime rival.

3. Michael Jordan

Greatest player in NBA history? Probably. Greatest athlete? One of them, undeniably. Jordan's physicality was surpassed as a competitor only by his mentality, and there's little need to go into his NBA exploits here to support it. Frankly, even his unsuccessful dalliance with baseball is a testament to his superior athleticism. How many NBA players would even have dared to chase curveballs -- and succeed at the plate, in the field and especially on the basepaths more than some remember -- the way Jordan did? Even Danny Ainge and Dave DeBusschere -- who actually played in both the major leagues and in the NBA -- wouldn't rank ahead of Jordan as a two-sport star, given how much his hoops grades boost his overall marks.

2. LeBron James

Premature? Nah. James has been around long enough and done enough -- again, we're talking athletically, not total career arc -- to rate this spot. He is a tank of a player, one of the few in the NBA who seems bigger than his vital statistics (6-foot-8, 250) as listed in the program (he's at least 20 brawny pounds heavier). He has the court vision and speed of a point guard, the swift, sleek skills of a wing player and the strength to post up and handle power forwards and centers. And he isn't just basketball-specific; in high school, he reputedly could throw a football 60 yards. Ask any 10 NBA folks to name the game's greatest active athlete and James will get mentioned nine times.

1. Wilt Chamberlain

Where to start? At Overbrook High in Philadelphia, the Dipper ran the 100-yard dash in 10.9 seconds and threw a shotput 56 feet. He triple-jumped more than 50 feet and, at Kansas, he won the high jump at the Big Eight track and field championships three straight years. He's the man who scored 100 points in an NBA game, who averaged more than 50 points in 1961-62 and never, ever fouled out of a game. How strong was he? He once dunked so hard that, according to legend, he broke defender Johnny (Red) Kerr's toe when the ball rocketed down.

He dominated NBA foes and the league's record book in his mythic career and was courted by several teams well into his 40s -- the Nets allegedly made inquiries when Chamberlain was 50 -- to consider a comeback. Then there's the tale coach Larry Brown told about bumping into Chamberlain in the early 1980s on the UCLA campus, where some top-notch pickup games were in session, with Wilt on the floor.

"Magic Johnson used to run the games," Brown told upon Chamberlain's death in 1999. "And he called a couple of chintzy fouls and a goaltending on Wilt. So Wilt said 'There will be no more layups in this gym' and he blocked every shot after that. That's the truth, I saw it. He didn't let one [of Johnson's] shots get to the rim."

Later in life, Chamberlain excelled in volleyball and even dabbled at polo. Most of his teammates and opponents said that, if not for a fairly pleasant demeanor, he would have been physically dangerous to the other nine guys on the court, he was so strong and dominating.

Monte Johnson, a Kansas teammate, often recalled running laps with Wilt after practice. "We actually got to the point where we would let him run laps by himself because it was like chasing a deer," Johnson said. "He had unbelievable speed, grace and endurance. None of us could stay up with him. You knew you were watching a special human being."

Honorable mentions: O'Neal, Thompson, Kemp, Havlicek, Oscar Robertson, Julius Erving, John Havlicek, Hakeem Olajuwon, Steve Nash, Shawn Marion, Dennis Rodman.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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