LeBron’s James’ NBA footprints are deep, made so by the weight of record-breaking statistics, championship trophies and the sheer power of showmanship.
His impression is also unique in that it spans from coast to coast on the NBA map.
Though made by the same man, each step is markedly distinct. After his as-great-as-advertised beginning in Cleveland, James rode his groundbreaking “Decision” to Miami. It was the precursor to the superstar player movement that would follow, but in the moment it was easy to over-analyze. James bore the weight of the scrutiny — and won two titles, two Kia MVPs and two Finals MVPs anyway.
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Mission accomplished in Miami, James returned his attention to his original team. His second stint in his home state broke Cleveland’s sports curse in dramatic fashion, punctuated by a historic rally from a 3-1 Finals deficit in 2016 against the most successful regular-season team ever.
But after Golden State reloaded with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving left Cleveland, James found himself looking West when free agency loomed in 2018. Now he is a Laker, a much more meaningful statement after leading L.A. to the 2020 championship and — perhaps just as importantly — serving as the team’s superstar ambassador following the passing of Kobe Bryant.
There is little doubt that each of those three franchises — Cleveland, Miami, and Los Angeles — will retire James’ number whenever his absurdly accomplished career comes to a close. Assuming that happens, he will join an elect few who are so honored in more than one city. Unlike the Bill Russells, Magic Johnsons and Dirk Nowitzkis of the world, most of these were legends whose careers brushed their teams more briefly, but left indelible marks on each of them just the same.
Number retired by: Bucks (No. 33), Lakers (No. 33)
Still the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and almost underrated when it comes to GOAT debates, Abdul-Jabbar’s early days in Milwaukee have been timely revived thanks to the Bucks’ recent ascent. The 7-foot-2 superstar was known as Lew Alcindor when he led a three-year-old franchise to the 1971 championship while seizing Finals MVP honors. After adopting his Muslim name, Abdul-Jabbar went on to earn three MVPs and lead the Bucks to the ’74 Finals, where they lost to the Celtics in a classic seven-game series.Take a look back at Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s career
Abdul-Jabbar requested a trade in 1975, a wish that saw him sent to the Lakers. Three more MVP awards and five championships as the big man of the “Showtime” era cemented his status as one of the all-time greats, as did his passing Wilt Chamberlain for the career scoring record. Now, Abdul-Jabbar’s iconic No. 33 graces the rafters of the franchises that saw him sink one sky-hook after another with an easy dominance no one has ever been able to duplicate.
Number retired by: 76ers (No. 34), Suns (No. 34)
“The Round Mound of Rebound” is widely recognized for his current television work, but proof of his on-court speed and strength still raises eyebrows two decades after his final season as a player. For eight seasons, Barkley bulldozed past, around or through opposing defenders for Philadelphia, putting up numbers and highlights that are mind-boggling to this day. Though he was unable to help the 76ers retain their championship standing once the old guard retired, Barkley is still an undisputed legend there.
Change was ultimately needed for both sides, however, and Barkley was eventually traded to Phoenix in 1992. It was there, alongside All-Stars Kevin Johnson and Dan Majerle, that “Sir Charles” tasted meaningful postseason success. The 1992-93 NBA MVP led the Suns through a grueling Western Conference to The Finals, where his team matched Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls point-for-point (640-640) and came within one possession of forcing a Game 7. Barkley’s No. 34 is retired in Philadelphia and enshrined in the Suns’ Ring of Honor.
Numbers retired by: Warriors (No. 13), 76ers (No. 13), Lakers (No. 13)
Perhaps the most dominant well-traveled superstar before LeBron, Chamberlain is a near-constant reference point when current players produce an absurd statistical performance. “The Big Dipper” was even more overwhelming than expected, winning MVP honors in his rookie season and averaging 50.4 ppg and 25.7 rpg in his third season with the Philadelphia Warriors.
Chamberlain did not taste the ultimate team success, however, until after being traded to the Philadelphia 76ers from the Warriors, who had since moved to San Francisco. In 1966-67, Wilt’s scoring average dipped below 30 points for the first time in his career — and the 76ers upended his ultimate competitor in Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics for the championship. Chamberlain won the MVP three seasons in a row with the Sixers, too.Take a look back at Wilt Chamberlain’s career
A season later, Chamberlain was on the move again, this time to join forces with fellow legends Jerry West and Elgin Baylor on the Lakers for the 1968-69 campaign. Though his time in L.A. marked Wilt’s rebounding average dipping below 20 for the first time in his now-10-year-career, the team thrived and peaked in 1971-72, winning a still-standing record 33 consecutive games en route to winning The Finals against the Knicks. Chamberlain’s monolithic No. 13 hovers over each of his former teams’ current homes, an unmatched symbol of sheer physicality and production.
Number retired by: Trail Blazers (No. 22), Rockets (No. 22)
As memories of Portland’s lone 1977 championship became cluttered by more recent playoff shortcomings, the 14th overall pick of the 1983 Draft tiptoed his way into a new Blazers era. After averaging just 7.7 ppg as a rookie, “Clyde the Glide” and his new team proved they were around to stay. Drexler made eight All-Star teams in Portland while leading the franchise to Finals appearances in 1990 and ’92, an era defined by his greatness and the team’s toughness.
When that period began to fade, Drexler was traded in the middle of the 1994-95 season to defending-champion Houston, where he immediately meshed with reigning MVP Hakeem Olajuwon. Freed by the constant defensive attention drawn by “The Dream”, Drexler’s efficiency and Houston’s repeat chances skyrocketed immediately. A few months later, Drexler was hoisting the championship trophy that had so long eluded him.
Number retired by: Nets (No. 32), 76ers (No. 6)
The legend of “Dr. J” resonates not just across teams, but leagues as well. Erving was more myth than man in the less visible ABA of the 1970s, where he redefined the game’s aerial possibilities. He served as the quintessential superstar for both the league and the New York Nets, which won two championships with Erving leading the way. “The Doctor” also won three straight ABA MVPs (1973-76) before the league merged with the NBA in ’76.Take a look back at Julius Erving’s career
Erving’s new home, Philadelphia, seemed tailor-made for his showmanship — and starving for its first title since the Chamberlain era. “The Doctor” didn’t disappoint, turning the 76ers into an instant contender before breaking through with the 1983 NBA championship.
Number retired by: Pistons (No. 16), Bucks (No. 16)
Detroit’s 1970s NBA identity revolved around Dave Bing and Lanier, a 6-foot-11 lefty that more than held his own with some of that decade’s giants. Mobile and fundamental, Lanier tortured opponents with a sweeping hook from either hand and a quick second jump on the offensive glass. And though his Pistons teams never enjoyed a major playoff breakthrough, his individual success (seven All-Star appearances) and longevity in Detroit ensured his place — and No. 16 — among the franchise’s all-time greats.
Lanier was traded to Milwaukee in the middle of the 1979-80 season. He enjoyed one more All-Star honor with the Bucks, with whom he experienced his first ever conference finals in 1984. That wound up being his final season in the NBA, but Milwaukee didn’t let the calendar year flip before raising his No. 16 to the rafters.
Number retired by: Hawks (No. 44), Jazz (No. 7), Pelicans (No. 7)
One of the most gifted ball-handlers of all time, “Pistol Pete” began his NBA career in Atlanta. In his four years with the Hawks, Maravich was twice named an All-Star and averaged 23 ppg or better in three of those seasons.Take a look back at Pete Maravich’s career
A trade to the then-New Orleans Jazz in 1974 saw Maravich earn three more All-Star nods, as well as All-NBA honors and a scoring title. While his playoff success never matched his talent (he played in 26 career postseason games), Maravich remains an icon for basketball fans who remember or want to see the endless possibilities of a basketball in hand. His instinctual talent for misdirection and improvisation saw his No. 44 retired in Atlanta and his No. 7 with the Jazz. The New Orleans Pelicans franchise, though technically not the team for which Maravich played, also immortalized his No. 7.
Number retired by: Rockets (No. 24), 76ers (No. 2)
Too often, Malone’s name goes unmentioned in conversations of all-time great big men. Fans in Houston and Philadelphia know better. The Rockets enjoyed Malone’s rebounding talent for six seasons, a stretch that saw Malone win two MVP awards and the team make its first trips to the conference finals and Finals.
Malone was traded to Philadelphia in 1982, joining a 76ers team fresh off a Finals defeat to Abdul-Jabbar and the Lakers. With Malone aboard, Philly tore through the competition and prompted their new MVP center to predict a “fo, fo, fo” sweep of the playoffs. He was only one loss off, as the 76ers blasted their foes — including the Lakers in The Finals — en route to the 1983 title.
Number retired by: Wizards (No. 10), Knicks (No. 15)
In a league dominated by big men, “Earl the Pearl” proved that the small could indeed topple the tall. The 6-foot-3 guard dazzled his way to the rim in four seasons with Baltimore, where he won Rookie of the Year honors and a pair of All-Star appearances. Monroe led the team in scoring in 1970-71, a season highlighted by the then-Bullets’ first trip to The Finals.
A trade to New York saw Monroe team up with Walt Frazier to form the “Rolls Royce Backcourt.” The dynamic guard duo led the Knicks to their second title in four season, culminating in a five-game Finals coronation over the star-studded Lakers. “The Pearl” earned another pair of All-Star appearances before retiring with the Knicks in 1980.
Number retired by: Nuggets (No. 55), Hawks (No. 55)
The finger wag is universal now, but it was what came just before it that terrified would-be interior scorers for 18 years. “Mt. Mutombo” led the league in blocks per game from 1993-96), all in his formative years with the Denver Nuggets. His time there is well documented (three All-Star appearances and a Defensive Player of the Year award) and is fondly remembered as the Nuggets became the first No. 8 seed to beat a No. 1 seed in the first round of the playoffs.
Mutombo’s defensive dominance continued in Atlanta, where he earned another three DPOY trophies (he was traded to Philadelphia in the midst of his final award-winning season with the Hawks). He also helped the Hawks to their first back-to-back 50-win seasons since the Dominique Wilkins era.
Number retired by: Lakers (No. 34), Heat (No. 32)
O’Neal’s dominance as a player was matched only by his personality as a person, qualities that meshed with the Los Angeles Lakers perfectly. “The Big Diesel’s” arrival jump-started a new era of NBA basketball in L.A., a new brand of “Showtime” that had an enormous star attraction in the middle. O’Neal realized his full potential with the Lakers, running away with the 1999-2000 MVP award and decimating the rest of the league in route to a trio of NBA titles with a young Kobe Bryant as his running mate.Take a look back at Shaquille O’Neal’s career
A parting of ways saw O’Neal traded to Miami in 2004, where he quickly set about proving he was still a championship-deciding superstar. Alongside another young star guard in Dwyane Wade, O’Neal helped the Heat claim its first championship in 2006.
Number retired by: Kings (No. 14), Bucks (No. 1)
Robertson’s early days are harder to visualize not because of the player, but the team. The Cincinnati Royals are now the Sacramento Kings, but the team’s former city and name remain synonymous with the NBA’s original walking triple-double. Robertson averaged an absurd 29.3 ppg, 10.3 apg and 8.5 rpg in 10 seasons with the Royals, including his iconic triple-double average as a 23-year-old player in his second season. He was an All-Star from 1960-70 in Cincinnati while claiming six assist crowns, a scoring title, Rookie of the Year (1960-61) and MVP honors (1963-64), too. In terms of competitiveness, many of his peers describe him as “Jordan before Jordan.” The Royals came within one game of toppling the mighty Celtics in the 1963 Eastern Division finals.
A stunning trade to Milwaukee in 1970 paired Robertson with the ultimate frontcourt teammate in Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). The pair quickly gelled and led the Bucks to 66 wins in its first season together before rolling through the playoffs and sweeping Baltimore in The Finals. Robertson and Abdul-Jabbar made the Finals again in 1974 before ultimately falling to the Celtics.
Number retired by: Warriors (No. 42), Cavaliers (No. 42)
The oft-forgotten third pillar of rebounding during the Russell-Chamberlain era, Thurmond averaged 15 rpg over his entire Hall-of-Fame career. The “Chairman of the Boards” spent his first 11 seasons with the Warriors, amassing seven All-Star appearances and five All-Defensive honors. Thurmond played for two Finals teams in San Francisco, the latter coming closest in a 4-2 loss to Chamberlain’s 76ers in 1967.
Thurmond spent the last two years of his career in his home state of Ohio, playing a key role in Cleveland’s first conference finals team in 1976.