With the retirement of Shaquille O’Neal and Yao Ming, only one elite center remains active in the NBA. But Dwight Howard , still just 25 years old, has some work to do to earn a spot on this list. Because even though the league is short on quality big men these days, NBA history is full of great centers, including one with 11 championship rings, one with outrageous stats and the league’s all-time leading scorer. Who’s No. 1?
Honorable mention: Dave Cowens, Patrick Ewing, Bob Lanier, Wes Unseld, Bill Walton.
- Bill Russell
In the annals of American sport — and where do they keep those annals, anyway? — there’s never been a winner like Bill Russell. He played 13 NBA seasons. He won 11 NBA championships. Sure, he had great teammates and a great coach, but Bob Cousy and Red Auerbach didn’t win a title until the big man showed up in Boston. A 6-foot-11 lefty, Russell controlled games on defense with his shot-blocking, rebounding and outlet passes. He could score, too, but more than anything he did whatever it took to win, including leading the C’s to a Finals upset of the Lakers in his last season as player-coach. The year after he retired, Boston went 34-48.
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
He played for so long — 20 NBA seasons — that many fans only remember “Old Kareem,” the Yoda-faced giant still tossing in sky hooks in his early 40s but playing a secondary role on the Showtime Lakers. What’s easy to forget is how remarkably fit, agile and athletic Abdul-Jabbar was for the majority of his career. When he entered the league in 1969, he had a mighty Afro and a different name (Lew Alcindor). By the time he left in 1989, he had six MVP awards, six championships and the most points in NBA history (38,387).
- Wilt Chamberlain
If these rankings were based solely on statistics, there’d be no doubt who belongs on top. Individually, no one has dominated the game like Wilt, whoseseason and career stats are almost beyond comprehension. Some of the highlights: 50.4 ppg in 1961-62, 27.2 rpg in 1960-61, and even 8.6 apg in 1967-68. But the man who once scored 100 in a game only won two championships, or 15 fewer than the top two guys on this list. That’s not to say he was a loser. It’s simply an acknowledgement that basketball is a team game, and other centers in NBA history ultimately created more team success.
- Shaquille O’Neal
Could Shaq have had a better career? Sure. If he’d gotten along with Kobe Bryant, if he’d kept himself in better shape, if he could make a damn free throw. But no player in league history (other than Wilt Chamberlain, perhaps) has been as physically dominant as O’Neal was at the peak of his powers, during his three title runs with the Lakers from 2000-2002. At 7-foot-1 and well over 300 pounds, he overpowered opponents for most of his career and isn’t going away any time soon, thanks to his new TNT gig. After all, his personality, like his body, is larger than life.
- Hakeem Olajuwon
Most dominant NBA centers get respect from fans but not love, mainly because their size and power are hard to identify with. Not Olajuwon. With the athleticism of a soccer goalie (his first sport in Nigeria) and the graceful moves of a point guard (who didn’t love his Dream Shake?), the Rockets center was always fun to watch. He outplayed the other great centers of his era — Patrick Ewing, David Robinson and a young Shaquille O’Neal — and led Houston to back-to-back championships in 1994 and ’95.
- Moses Malone
Before KG, Kobe and LeBron made it commonplace, Malone was a rarity — a prep-to-pros superstar. The 6-foot-10 powerhouse from Petersburg, Va., played two ABA seasons, then 19 more in the NBA, and won three MVP awards. No one owned the offensive boards like Malone, who led arguably the greatest team in league history — the 1982-83 Sixers of Dr. J, Mo Cheeks and Bobby Jones — to a championship run that began with his famous playoff prediction, “Fo’, fo’ and fo.” As it turned out, Philly needed four, five and four games to storm through its three series.
- George Mikan
To those who say Mikan wouldn’t even make an NBA roster today, we say, “Of course. He died six years ago!” But seriously, he should be judged by the standards of his era, which he dominated as much as Michael Jordan dominated his own. With his ambidextrous hook shot, the 6-foot-10 Mikan led the Minneapolis Lakers to the first NBA championship in 1950, then four more in the next five years. How good was he? The league widened the lane from six feet to 12 to keep him away from the rim. When he died, Shaquille O’Neal offered to pay for his funeral with this explanation: “Without number 99 (Mikan), there is no me.”
- David Robinson
If anything, the Admiral was too nice. A fitness freak with incredible athletic ability for a 7-footer, he was a matchup nightmare for opponents and put up incredible numbers his first seven years in the league. Still, it wasn’t until Tim Duncan (left) showed up in San Antonio that Robinson won his only two titles. That’s because he didn’t have the competitive fire to lead a team to a championship — or so his critics said. It’s kinder to say that Robinson had the grace and humility to accept a secondary role in pursuit of a title. With Robinson, kindness is part of his legacy. After all, a mean streak might have made him a better player, but not a better person.
- Willis Reed
Reed’s career stats (18.7 ppg, 12.9 rpg) are comparable to Ewing’s (21.0 ppg, 9.8 rpg), but Reed did something Ewing couldn’t — lead the Knicks to a championship. Twice, in fact, in 1970 and ’73. That’s not entirely fair to Ewing, who didn’t have the luxury of playing with Earl Monroe, Walt Frazier and Dave DeBusschere. (Reed also didn’t have the misfortune of playing against Michael Jordan.) But Reed’s toughness and leadership were integral to those titles. Everyone’s seen the grainy footage of Reed limping onto the Madison Square Garden court with a torn leg muscle in Game 7 of the 1970 Finals, scoring the first two baskets to spark a romp over the Lakers.
- Nate Thurmond
The top nine centers on this list each won at least one title. Among those who didn’t, Thurmond edges out Patrick Ewing for the 10th spot in a close call. While Ewing was a superior scorer, Thurmond was the better rebounder, passer and defender. Built like granite, “Nate the Great” averaged a 20-20 (21.3 ppg, 22.0 rpg) in the 1966-67 and 1967-68 seasons and was the first NBA player to record a quadruple-double (22 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists, 12 blocks vs. the Hawks in 1974). He also did the little things that don’t show up in a boxscore. When Thurmond set a screen, no defender could get through it without a forklift.