Basketball U: NBA Legends and the Evolution of the Game
Posted Oct 9 2003 10:36AM
Basketball has a rich history of superstar players. Although the game continues to evolve, the talents of yesterday's stars are seen in today's NBA.
Russell and Chamberlain
The greatest rivalry in pro sports during the 1950s and 1960s may have been that between Bill Russell's Celtics and Wilt Chamberlain's 76ers and Lakers squads. Russell and Chamberlain defined the role of the dominant big man in different ways. Chamberlain was the better offensive player, providing his team with low-post scoring while passing out of double-teams to open teammates. Russell was the greater defender, providing an intimidating presence for his team by blocking shots and rebounding. This started the fast break for his teammates, allowing them easy baskets in transition. The interior presence of Russell and Chamberlain has been seen in later generations of NBA players, such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson.
Chamberlain had the statistical edge, averaging 30.1 points and 22.9 rebounds for his career. Russell, though not the scorer Wilt was, led in another impressive category: NBA titles. Over the course of their careers, Russell won an astounding 11 championships, while Chamberlain won two. Russell's ability to raise the level of his teammates' play contributed to the Celtics' championship dynasty. By making the players around him better, Russell created a model for future championship players like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson extended the Celtics-Lakers rivalry into the 1980s. Though blessed with "big man" size, Boston's Bird and Los Angeles' Johnson excelled at the guard skills of passing and shooting. Because of these consummate team players, the role of the dominant big man evolved to the role of the playmaker who could involve his teammates in the offence, thinking "pass first, shoot second." Bird and Johnson created the blueprint for future swingmen such as Michael Jordan, Penny Hardaway and Tracy McGrady.
Bird and Johnson met in the NBA Finals three times, with the Lakers winning two of three titles. Johnson won a total of five championships, while Bird won three. Both players were fortunate to have accomplished and talented teammates during the course of their careers, as Bird played with five of the 50 greatest players in NBA history (Nate Archibald, Dave Cowens, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Bill Walton), while Johnson played with two (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy).
Stockton and Malone, Jordan and Pippen
Though Bird and Johnson will forever be linked as rivals, some players will forever be linked as teammates. John Stockton and Karl Malone, formerly of the Utah Jazz, were basketball's equivalent of Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, the outstanding duo from the NFL's San Francisco 49ers. Like Montana, Stockton was the quarterback of the offence directing his teammates on the court, while Malone was the "Rice," the recipient of Stockton's pinpoint passes. Stockton and Malone continued the trend of guard-centre combos, like Bob Cousy and Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and current-day duo Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal.
Stockton and Malone are considered two of the finest ever at their positions. Stockton is the all-time NBA leader in both assists and steals, while Malone is the NBA's second all-time leading scorer. Despite playing in the NBA Finals on two occasions, the Utah Jazz pair was unable to defeat another set of future Hall-of-Famers, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen of the Chicago Bulls.
Jordan and Pippen were players of the new millennium: interchangeable and able to play multiple positions well. As both could handle the ball, play defence, score, rebound and direct the offence, Jordan and Pippen were players who defied conventional rules on player positions, instead adapting to the game and the other players on the floor. Jordan and Pippen were multi-talented players who blended their athleticism with creativity. These players measured themselves not just on statistics and wins and losses, but also in "oohs" and "aahs." Today, the Jordan-Pippen style can be seen in NBA players such as Ray Allen and Vince Carter.
Like Russell and Johnson before him, Jordan sacrificed his own personal statistics for the betterment of the team. Though his scoring average dipped slightly under coach Phil Jackson, Jordan won six NBA titles, making the Bulls the team of the 1990s.
Glimpses of the Past
The game of basketball continues to evolve, but you can catch a glimpse of the past in present-day NBA players. Fans and players alike see traces of Chamberlain's inside game in the play of Shaquille O'Neal, while some observers compare Dirk Nowitzki's skills to those of a young Larry Bird. Sheryl Swoopes of the WNBA's Houston Comets, a championship-winning athlete able to dominate opponents both offensively and defensively, has been compared to NBA counterpart Michael Jordan. Although such players have their own distinct and modern style, they continue to emulate the play of NBA legends.