This is a word that is only reserved for the greats. To be more precise, this is a word that is reserved to describe the all-time greats. Many basketball pundits and experts have discussed the idea of placing such dominant basketball gods on a “Mt. Rushmore” of sorts—as a means of properly gauging their legendary contributions to the sport.
As the National Basketball Association celebrates its 70th anniversary, it is only right that we highlight ten individuals whose indelible imprints on the game of basketball transcend the game itself.
- The Foundation Of Dominance
Already a decade in existence, the NBA saw a brief run of dominance when George Mikan and his Minneapolis Lakers won five league championships from 1949-54, and at the time, that sole accomplishment seemed otherworldly. Two years later, however, that notion would change. In 1956, the Boston Celtics would add a young promising center out of the University of San Francisco by the name of Bill Russell. Known by many as the NBA’s greatest champion by virtue of the 9 titles he brought to Bean Town by himself (with the help of many of his Hall-Of-Fame teammates, of course).
The approach to basketball that Russell gave to the game could definitely be emulated in today’s game of disproportionate offense and outlawed lockdown defenses. What’s the brand of basketball that he brought to the table, you ask? Defense. As the undisputed defensive captain of those great Celtics teams of the 1960s, Russell once said, “The idea is not to block every shot. The idea is to make your opponent believe that you might block every shot.”
Bill Russell wasn’t alone in establishing the notion that a player could place his will upon the game by singlehandedly taking it into a chokehold. Oscar “The Big O” Robertson was asserting his own brand of dominance, and it would eventually prove to be much more three-dimensional in its nature than Russell’s intimidating defense. Robertson’s triple double average during the 1961-62 NBA season to this day has yet to be replicated, although a small handful of players have taken a cue from The Big O’s propensity to frequently fill up stat sheets over the course of their own careers, i.e. Magic Johnson, Jason Kidd, LeBron James, and Russell Westbrook.
Robertson’s tremendous impact on the game that Dr. James Naismith created is quite admirable, because it laid the foundation for not only the possibility of a superstar player using his remarkable skills and gifts to dominate the NBA, it also gave fans a sneak peek at what we now know as hybrid players (point forwards, combo guards, etc.).
The player who rounds out this particular era of dominance is Wilt Chamberlain, and he was downright beastly on the court. 100 point games. 50 point per game averages in a single season. Rebound averages in the upper 20’s on more than one occasion. Let’s not forget that Wilt exhibited the discipline on defense (and offense) that would enable him to never foul out of a game. Wilt was so damn good and dominant, that if anything else in reference to his impact on the game was included here, it would appear that excerpts from both John Henry and Paul Bunyan’s stories were plagiarized to describe Wilt Chamberlain’s illustrious NBA career.
- The Consistency of Dominance
Much like Yellowstone National Park’s Old Faithful, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar could be counted on to display both power and grace, while never disappointing admiring onlookers (fans)—for many years. For two decades—considered an eternity by NBA standards—The Captain produced stats that today’s youth would only believe if they saw it on NBA 2K17: six titles, six league MVPs, and the All-Time regular season leading scorer, to boot.
If all of these accomplishments weren’t enough, Kareem was the pivotal piece of the late Coach John Wooden’s college basketball dynasties, winning 3 NCAA titles during his four years as a student athlete at UCLA.
Despite facing cutthroat competition from the league’s menacing centers of the 70’s and 80’s, Kareem’s NBA dominance would be made a little easier because he was equipped with a weapon that has yet to be emulated to this day: the skyhook. It would not come as a surprise if Kareem could got a patent on that particular move, and was able to legally secure it as his own; because that is how exclusive it is in the wide array of player signature moves and shots.
- The Refining of Dominance
As the 1960’s gave way to the 70’s, both the United States and the National Basketball Association underwent a series of changes that would be forever etched in both people’s minds, and the history books. The league, much like American society in general, was expressing itself in a radical, yet fun way. The same afros, bellbottoms, and essence of funk people saw transpiring on their television sets and in their office cubicles was also making its way to the courts and sidelines of the NBA. If the precedence of American culture was being refined, then it was only natural that the culture of NBA dominance would follow suit. The man who would embody this paradigm shift of dominance in basketball was named Julius Erving, better known to the world as “Dr. J.”
While his NBA predecessors would dominate the game through a rough-and-tumble style reminiscent of an old western saloon brawl, Dr. J blazed the trail to take a different route to seizing the outcome of games. This style would consist of gliding and swooping his way to the basket in ways that had not been seen before. Although Elgin Baylor was certainly the first Notable NBA player who would boldly leave his feet to embark on midair forays to the hoop (It was highly frowned upon for a player to leave his feet during the prehistoric NBA. Doing so would result in opposing players delivering a painful reminder as to why that player should’ve stuck to shooting sedentary set shots), it was The Good Doctor of the NBA who decided to explore even higher altitudes.
Armed with enormous hands, long arms, and the free-flowing afro for cool aesthetics, Doc’s basketball brilliance often got lost in the airshows that he would put on for fans. He was a superb rebounder, shot blocker, and scorer, although he went about doing such without scratching and clawing his way to the same results. Based upon his combined ABA/NBA stats (excluding his standalone NBA stats, which are just as impressive), you’ll realize why he was just as dominant as any other player on this list.
- The Joy & Pain of Dominance
It is quite the irony that the term “Joy & Pain” is used to provide this particular example of NBA dominance, given that the term was borrowed from the title of one of the songs of legendary soul group Maze. The reason for such irony is because the song—just like its NBA counterpart of “Joy & Pain”—debuted in 1980, and to this day, people’s hearts swoon at the very mention of both.
The NBA’s version of the beloved term is none other than Magic Johnson & Larry Bird—who technically were drafted in 1979, but solidified their NBA megastar status in 1980 (with Magic winning the NBA title as a rookie in 1980 and Bird winning Rookie of the Year the same calendar year)—who would represent the song title properly. For most of his career as the star point guard for the Lakers, Magic was the epitome of “Joy”, compiling heaps of assists and W’s for his team while doing so with his now world-famous million-watt smile. He punched his on-the-court clock in the American oasis formally known as Los Angeles, and even his job’s company uniform would suggest such joy—consisting of the regal colors of purple and gold.
While this is no slight on the basketball greatness of Larry Legend, Bird embodied the “Pain”. With his stoic demeanor, Larry Bird became the blue collar savior that Celtics fans loved and revered. Building his legacy in the no-nonsense/business-as-usual city of Boston, Larry Bird was the key component of a Celtic machine that revitalized Celtic Pride during the 1980s after a subpar (by Celtic standards—although they still won two titles during the decade) 1970s.
While the narrative(s) surrounding Magic and Bird have become sports history folklore, the very reasons why they were such dominant players for their respective teams often gets lost in conversation. For a number of years after his first retirement from the game Magic was the NBA’s all-time leader in assists—the sole statistical category that exemplifies the ultimate measure of unselfishness—while Bird won three straight MVP awards from 1984-86, something that hasn’t been done since. Both players showed the superior ability to play point forward, although Bird was much more inclined to score than Magic would, but Magic would be much more likely to jumpstart his team’s offense playing his regular position of point guard.
The most telling example of Magic and Bird’s dominance over the NBA during their heyday was the fact that one—or both—of the players’ teams would be featured in the NBA Finals for every year of the 1980s. ‘Nuff said.
- The Glamorization of Dominance
From 1984 until 2003 (and in many instances, present day), we have witnessed an interesting phenomenon occur in which both basketball fans and people who weren’t even fans of the sport were gasping for “Air”. If Julius Erving took NBA dominance to new heights within the parameters of the hardwood in terms of his on court panache, then Michael Jordan took that same blueprint from Dr. J, and applied it to the world outside of NBA arenas as well.
To paraphrase Jordan’s own words given during his polarizing speech at his induction into the basketball hall of fame in 2009, ‘What is it that we don’t know about him’? This leads us to recognize the fact that there’s not much else that needs to be said about MJ that hasn’t been said (or in this case, written). However, it would have been a moot point—and downright sacrilegious in the eyes of the basketball gods–to have excluded him from this list. On the contrary, what we can note about Jordan is that his pope-like status in the world arena is the end result of his on-the-court dominance within the confines of the basketball arena. With six championships, two Olympic gold medals, 10 scoring titles (a barometer of NBA dominance all to itself), and the status of the G.O.A.T., there might be some uncertainty in the minds of some people who read this in regards to Michael Jordan’s legacy and basketball dominance. If this is indeed the case, we’d like to paraphrase Mike one last time when he was recorded in a viral video playing a pickup basketball game with NFL superstar Tom Brady and a few others by saying, “You better YouTube Michael Jordan”!
- The Overwhelming Nature of Dominance
This category suits Shaquille O’Neal well. Shaq was such a basketball anomaly, because he is one of the few physically imposing figures who actually knew he was the biggest on the court, and he wanted to remind his opponents, just in case they forgot to notice his 7’1”, 300-plus pound frame standing next to them on the court during a break in play.
Perhaps no other player since Wilt (and none sense) personified what it means to be a dominant player in the NBA in a myriad of ways. All basketball acumen aside, the mere fact that Shaq tore down an entire regulation-sized NBA goal during a game—on more than one occasion during his rookie season—was quite the testament to just how dominant he would be. Four rings, an MVP award, a couple of broken backboards, and the self-proclaimed nickname of Most Dominant Ever gives you an idea that Shaq had no reason to lie to you about his greatness.
- The Cutting Edge of Dominance
If you were a fan and student of basketball history right at the dawn of the new millennium, then your gut instincts were telling you that you were experiencing a feverish case of déjà vu. You were observing this new crop of budding superstars take a firm grip on the mountaintop of the NBA’s elite, and in the process of them doing so, you felt as if you’ve seen this movie before. Despite you feeling compelled to jump to prophetic conclusions, you decided to reserve judgment until you were able to make the proper diagnosis on what you were witnessing in regards to the NBA’s new sheriffs in town.
As you attempted to shake off this eerie feeling of “I’ve seen this before”, you’ve seen the light. “Yes, this new crop of NBA stars are creating a product on the hardwood that’s fun to watch, and they remind me so much of certain greats who came before them, yet their playing styles have a certain…defiance to them…it has a certain…edge to it.
If there were any two players who could be responsible for ushering the league into the new millennium, then it would have to be Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant. Drafted as rookies in the same year (1996), both players were guards who made their way into the hearts and living rooms of fans worldwide. What made the dominance of their games so cutting edge was the fact that their approach to the game was so unapologetic. Both players were unusually fearless given their statuses as NBA pups, and both of them had the audacity to go right at Jordan—which in their own individual ways are two of the most documented and beloved veteran/young player mano-a-mano matchups in league history.
Seeing as how both A.I. and Kobe had what it took to be what was then considered to be the leaders of the new school, the year 2000 appeared early in these two dynamos’ careers, and the ensuing new millennium would bring abundant basketball blessings to the two—with Kobe’s first NBA title in ’00, and Iverson’s MVP award the following year—and their ten-plus year reign over the league would prove to the world that their names would never be forgotten in NBA (or pop culture) lore.
- The New Age of Dominance
There’s something invigorating about the sensation of newness. This is a feeling that we usually get with the seasonal shifts to more pleasant weather, or when our favorite television series has debuted a new season of episodes on deck for our viewing pleasure. The transition from the old guard (no puns intended to the former greats who played the 1 or the 2) to the new is not much different.
We’ll always hold a special place in our hearts for the exploits of the aforementioned players on this list, yet we are painfully aware that our favorite NBA legends could grace the hardwood for only a limited amount of time. There were only so many no-look passes that Magic Johnson could throw to teammates who were slashing to the bucket. There were only so many ankles that Allen Iverson could break…and there were only so many times that Wilt or Oscar Robertson could fill up a stat sheet similar to the way that a delinquent student would be forced to write repetitive sentences on the chalkboard after school. The most dominant players over the past 70 years of professional basketball can only make a mockery of their opponents for so long before they themselves began to get taunted by Father Time—who laughs victoriously at us all.
Despite this melancholic reality of life, all is not lost on our childhood basketball heroes—because like the old saying goes, ‘Joy comes in the morning.’ The year 2003 signified a symbolic shift in the NBA. Some of its most notable names in history had retired that season, with Michael Jordan, David Robinson, and John Stockton, to be specific. Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson were terrorizing the league with DOMINANT scoring outbursts, and despite the much-hyped international rookie sensation Yao Ming’s league debut in 2002-03, Shaq held firm to his reputation as the game’s most dominant big man. In spite of this smorgasboard of promise and greatness in the league, the general consensus among fans was that there was a void. “Yes, guys like Shaq, Kobe, and A.I. are still around, but they’re not getting any younger. Who will be the next great one to make the NBA landscape all his?” That summer (2003), fans would receive their answer sooner than expected. Behold, a child shall lead them.
LeBron James—much like Wilt, Magic, and Shaq—was and is a basketball anomaly. Ever since he stepped foot on an NBA court as one of its players, James produced nearly a decade and-a-half of a body of work that is unquantifiable. A basketball hybrid of sorts, he can give you Big-O-esque triple doubles, MJ-like athleticism, a floor general savvy that’s reminiscent of Magic, and a humble deference to teammates that only the the Big Dipper (Wilt) could pull off in spite of his freakishly superior physical gifts. With a nickname that is a nod to his brand of NBA dominance, King James has carved his own niche into the basketball history books that is likely to be his, and his alone.
While LeBron has given the world the harmonic balance of sheer power, versatility, and a pedigree of basketball intelligence that coaches swoon over, another young man who he would cross paths with would lift his own team from the doldrums of NBA insignificance.
Stephen Curry is known affectionately under a few aliases, such as Chef Curry, Steph, and “Dell Jr.”, but let’s just call a spade a spade. He is the modern day Moses, leading his budding Golden State Warriors to the NBA’s Promised Land after 40 years of wandering their way through the obscure wilderness of the league’s hypercompetitive Western Conference. Curry’s cartoon-like range, coupled with a wicked handle that makes even Allen Iverson nod his head in approval, and an aw shucks-laced spirit has converted fans into his disciples in a way that we haven’t seen since Jordan’s dominant run back in the 90’s. As an NBA champion, multiple MVP, and all-around good guy, Steph is showing us all that we don’t have to always pop our collars, because if we’re thorough enough, the world will do it for us.