There has been plenty of recent social media chatter about who the most influential players of all-time are. Yes, it’s something to talk about as baseball season wears on and NBA fanatics wait for another season. In reality, however, the chatter is nauseating and does a dis-service to fans (and even some younger NBA players) who really need to learn how the NBA got to its current state as a widely successful global brand.
It hasn’t always been this way.
NBA players are some of the most recognizable athletes in the world with the opportunity for generational wealth over the past 30 years. The players often viewed today by NBA Twitter and mentioned other social media platforms as the most influential such as Steph Curry, the late Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson, entered a NBA that was already a healthy, vibrant product. Their impact is great, but for Bryant and Iverson in particular, their impact is much more related to influencing fans and popular culture, more so than the game itself. If the game itself is not healthy, popular culture and social influence matters much less.
Let’s take a look at the REAL most influential players of all-time. What they endured and their experiences directly impacted the league and its future prosperity. All players and fans benefit from what these six players (we lump two together) accomplished or changed about the league.
1. Oscar Robertson (Royals & Bucks) 1961-74
The Crispus Attucks (Indianapolis, Ind.) product didn’t have it easy while he was dominating the college game at Cincinnati. He was subjected to cruel racism, but he overcame that to become one of the greatest players of all-time and to fight for individual dignity and players' rights. By 1965, the Big O was the president of the National Basketball Players Association, which was founded in 1954 by the Celtics' Bob Cousy. Robertson was the first African-American president of any sports or entertainment labor union in America and in 1970 he sued the NBA to revoke its reserve clause. The class-action, anti-trust filed in U.S. District Court in New York by Robertson and a player rep from each of the 13 other NBA teams against the league was resolved when the NBA agreed to a class action settlement on April 29, 1976. The NBA eliminated the reserve clause in its uniform contracts, which previously bound a player to one team in perpetuity i.e. forever.
The suit was filed to halt the NBA-ABA merger until the anti-trust issues in player contracts were resolved. This was a major victory for players (employees) in their relationship with teams (employer), as the settlement led to players earning market value for their services and to eventual growth of the league. Eventually, the elimination of the reserve clause and the birth of free agency made the players millionaires and the owners billionaires. Without a victory in this lawsuit, NBA players would likely have to work in the off-season as they did until the mid 1970s and they would have little leverage in salary increases.
2. Spencer Haywood (Rockets, Sonics, Knicks, Jazz, Lakers, Bullets) 1970-1983
This Mississippi native who moved to Michigan as a teenager and was the nation’s top schoolboy recruit out of Pershing (Detroit) in 1967 was on a fast track to the pro basketball. There was a road block, however, for the son of a sharecropper with 10 children who made a reported two dollars a day for her family. At that time, players had to be four years removed from high school before they were eligible to be drafted by the NBA or ABA, but Haywood decided to turn pro after a season of junior college, Olympic stardom and one season at the University of Detroit. The ABA’s Mike Storen introduced a hardship exemption for Haywood because of the extreme poverty he suffered from. After a successful ABA rookie season, Haywood joined the NBA’s Seattle Sonics in 1970-71, as owner Sam Schulman filed an anti-trust suit against the NBA to fight its drafting policies. Similar to the Oscar Robertson Rule, Haywood’s case argued the NBA was in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act.
Haywood vs. National Basketball Association went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Haywood was granted an injunction to play in the NBA and eventually the case was settled out of court. The settlement led to the NBA allowing players to enter the league early via its new “Hardship Rule”. This opened the door for young players to have an opportunity to maximize their earning potential without having to wait until four years of college passed. Moses Malone bypassed college altogether in 1974 when he signed with the ABA’s Utah Stars out of high school, and he was an ABA All-Star at 19 years old. More importantly, he didn’t have to wait until he was 23 to earn a living in a trade he was capable of as a young adult. Haywood’s case was another significant ruling for player’s rights and also changed the way teams drafted and scouted players.
3. Magic Johnson & Larry Bird (Lakers & Celtics) 1980-1992
There is little doubt the Robertson and Haywood rulings were the most impactful moments in league history with regards to its future. The NBA tried to argue the elimination of the reserve clause would ruin the league, but in reality it opened up the door for prosperity, but it would take some time. With the ABA and the NBA fighting for talent in the 1970s, trouble was brewing. Many teams were bleeding money and until the talent was all in one league, the teams would be on shaky financial ground. The merger finally happened after the 1975-76 season with four ABA teams joining the NBA: the Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, New York Nets, and San Antonio Spurs.
We contemplated who was more influential, Magic-Bird or Dr. J, and when you look at the terms of the ABA-NBA merger in 1976, it becomes clear the inseparable duo who came into the league in 1979-80 are more influential. Getting Dr. J in an NBA uniform was a big deal, but at the time of the merger nobody could see how wildly successful the NBA would be 10 years later mainly because of the point guard with the big smile out of Michigan St. and the Hick From French Lick out of Indiana St. If NBA commissioner Larry O’Brien and his trusted advisors (including lawyer David Stern) knew how big the money (particularly broadcast rights) were going to get, no way in heck does the league agree to the financial teams given to the ABA’s two remaining teams. The Kentucky Colonels’ owners were given $3 million to fold, while the St. Louis Spirits’ owners got $2.2 million in addition to a 1/7 share of the four remaining team’s television revenues in perpetuity. From the standpoint on the NBA, it was the worst financial deal in sports history, as the NBA’s popularity, and broadcast rights fees, exploded in the mid 1980s because of Johnson and Bird.
It’s hard to separate the two and their contrasts and comparisons. Both are 6-foot-9 and unselfish players who made teammates better. Both had a thirst for winning and played for the two most iconic franchises. Both won at each other's expense on the biggest stages. One happened to be African-American and outgoing and the other Caucasian and a bit more reserved in style. Together they are the two most important players in history in terms of changing the economic landscape that Robertson set in motion 15 years earlier. We also considered the Rocket’s Yao Ming and his impact in China (where there are over 1 billion people) and the rest of Asia, but that impact was already set in motion by Johnson, Bird and Michael Jordan (easily the most important figure in terms of marketing and cultural impact) as part of the 1992 Olympic Dream Team, which helped spread the popularity of the game worldwide.
4. Julius "Dr. J” Erving (Squires, Nets, 76ers) 1972-1987
The Good Doctor wasn’t a high school All-American at Roosevelt (N.Y.), but he was a good prospect who became a force to be reckoned with at UMass. Because of the availability of the hardship rule, Dr. J left UMass after two varsity seasons and joined the ABA’s Virginia Squires. The Squires were on shaky financial ground and had to sell him to the New Jersey Nets in a move that kept him in the ABA. The Doctor flourished, as he was the league’s marquee player and gave it credibility until it merged with the NBA after the 1975-76 season. The Nets accepted the offer of the 76ers to buy Erving’s contract for $3 million and to pay the Nets’ expansion fee into the NBA (another $3 million). The NBA needed Dr. J because of what transpired during the ABA-NBA negotiating wars prior to the merger.
Fans thought the players had a money-first mentality and it resonated in the media and in public discourse. The league also suffered from poor marketing and poor visibility. Its games were not broadcast live or during prime viewing hours. The NBA also had a drug problem among its players in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but it had the Good Doctor. And he was the player that bridged that gap between the merger and the league’s boom in the mid 1980s. Many people followed the NBA because of Dr. J. He also rates right there with Allen Iverson in terms of his popularity among young fans. Dr. J was idolized, resonated with inner city youth because of his love for blacktop competition, and adults respected him unlike some of the other NBA standouts of the 1970s. Iverson has similar cultural impact, but didn’t impact the NBA’s finances or opportunities as Erving did. Unlike Iverson, Erving's image was also protected by the media because of his importance. Dr. J’s style of play also made it acceptable to attempt high-flying moves and dunks that was more a staple of the ABA. He brought excitement and flair matched only by a few who ever played and his influence is still seen in today’s players both on and off the court.
5. Kevin Garnett (Timberwolves, Celtics, Nets) 1996-2015
The fifth and final spot was up for grabs between players such as Kobe Bryant, Steph Curry, Ming, and Iverson. Again, those players entered a healthy league and when all retire, will see the league in a healthy spot, which is not the case for the four players ranked above. Garnett, like Robertson and Haywood, was a generational high school talent out of Farragut (Chicago, Ill.) via Mauldin, S.C. He was the Mr. Basketball USA choice and national player of the year by USA Today in 1994-95. He was having trouble with a qualifying SAT score for college and the idea of him going pro was thrown around as early as the 1994 Nike Camp, the second consecutive year in which he dominated the prestigious grassroots summer camp. Hours before the 1995 NBA Draft, Garnett found out he got a qualifying score, but the wheels were already in motion for him be the first prep-to-pro player in 20 years.
Garnett was drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves at No. 5, but his talent dictated he probably should have been drafted higher. And that’s where his impact is so great: Garnett changed the thinking of how NBA personnel and fans viewed young players. Many of the NBA’s old guard resisted scouting and drafting high school players, until these players started becoming widely successful. There were a handful of prospects talked about in terms of going straight from high school to the pros after 1975, particularly Albert King (1977), Ralph Sampson (1979), John Williams (1984) and Jason Kidd (1992), but nobody really thought they were going to do it. Garnett wasn’t an instant star, but by the middle of his rookie season it was apparent he would last and become one of the league’s better players in the coming years. If he fails, where does that leave the future high school standouts that wanted to make the leap? Do the Lakers eye Bryant that following year if Garnett wasn’t viewed in a positive light? Eventually all NBA teams took drafting young players seriously and took on a baseball model of looking at teenagers rather than waiting on an established college player.
The one-and-done rule was instituted after the 2005 season, but the game has gone younger since Garnett. There were a host of stars who made the successful prep-to-pro transition, including Bryant, Tracy McGrady and later LeBron James. Looking at the landscape now, NBA personnel are staples at big grassroots and high school events such as the Nike EYBL, NBPA Top 100 Camp, Pangos All-American Camp, Tarkanian Classic and GEICO Nationals. Garnett played a big role in that on his way to becoming NBA MVP in 2004 and eventually landing in the Naismith Hall of Fame.