Let’s go back to 1946, the foundation of the greatest sports league in the history of competitive athletic endeavor, as the Basketball Association of America. We can argue all day about who the greatest of all time is. Was it Michael Jordan? Magic? Larry? Dr. J? Wilt? Russell? Big O? There are so many greats to choose from, but here’s one man’s view of who, on the day they retired, were the greatest of all time up to that day, going all the way back to 1946:
March 22, 1950: Bob Feerick
The first guy to shoot over 40 percent from the field, in the BAA’s inaugural season, Feerick twice led the league in Win Shares while playing under Red Auerbach with the Washington Capitols. Feerick also led the league in free throw percentage twice (78.8 percent in 1947-48 and 85.9 in 1948-49), although he was out of the league by the time the first All-Star Game was played in 1951.
March 14, 1954: Jumpin’ Joe Fulks
Fulks was the first-ever low-efficiency volume scorer, winning the scoring title in 1947 and ’48 with the Philadelphia Warriors while shooting 30.5 and 25.9 percent (!) from the field respectively in those two years. The league didn’t count offensive rebounds back then, but you have to wonder just what basketball looked like when your star player had the green light to hoist up three bricks for every two points he was able to score. The league didn’t even count total rebounds until 1951, so we just have to go by legend and by scoring numbers (and Fulks’ two All-Star appearances in 1951 and ’52, plus the ring he won in the BAA’s inaugural season) and crown him the champ.
March 21, 1956: George Mikan
Mikan. Mr. Basketball. The first superstar of the Minneapolis Lakers before they took off for Los Angeles, the guy who led the league in Defensive Win Shares five of his seven seasons and total Win Shares three times, a four-time All-Star and five-time league champion. Before Wilt, before Kareem, before Shaq, the Lakers had Mikan, and he’s the first guy who indisputably belongs on this list.
April 24, 1963: Bob Cousy
OK, I’m totally cheating by choosing not to count Cooz’s abortive seven-game comeback in Cincinnati in 1970, but this guy WAS the Boston Celtics during the franchise’s early days of success. The original distributor and playmaker, Cousy led the league in assists for eight straight years, appeared in 13 straight All-Star Games, won six titles, and hey, whatever happened to Kent cigarettes, anyway?
May 5, 1969: Bill Russell
Now we’re starting to get into the untouchables category. The Boston Celtics won 11 titles in 13 years; Bill Russell played those 13 years…and no others before or after. He led the league in rebounds five times, and that only because Wilt Chamberlain was such a worthy competitor on the boards. Russell was the greatest passing big man of all time, averaging 4.3 assists in a career when getting an assist out of the low post wasn’t as simple as finding Steph Curry or JJ Redick or James Harden out on the perimeter for a corner three. By the time the big man needed to pass the ball in the old-school NBA, it was because the defense had swarmed in and taken away all other possible scoring options; Russell made something out of nothing.
In addition, though the league wouldn’t start keeping blocks as a stat until after he retired, all those who watched him play agree that Russell would doubtless have led the league in blocks not only during his career, but possibly all time as well.
You don’t argue with championships, and Russell was a champion from the moment he set foot on the storied parquet floor of the Boston Garden.
Oh, and he’s also the reason Russell Westbrook is only the second-greatest Russell ever to play:
May 3, 1987: Julius Erving
Dr. J was the first true modern superstar after the NBA/ABA merger. During his ABA days, first with the Virginia Squires and then with the New York Nets, who alongside the soccer New York Cosmos were the epitome of ’70s cool, Erving’s dunks were seen by a privileged few who got to the arena and spoken of in hushed tones by everyone else, as the ABA didn’t have a national TV contract.
But when the Doctor got to the NBA? Between the two leagues, Dr. J had over 30,000 points, led the ABA in both Offensive AND Defensive Win Shares in the league’s final season in 1976, twice led the NBA in WS/48, was one of the greatest defenders and team players the game has ever seen (we forget this because of the insane athleticism of his dunks, but the Doctor led the ABA in Defensive Rating in 1976 and was always among the NBA leaders in that stat; imagine if Kawhi Leonard and George Gervin came together in a single player), and did this, the inspiration for another guy we’ll be getting to on this list in a bit:
June 13, 1989: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
38,387 points. 273.4 Win Shares, or three and a half seasons’ worth, with nine times leading the league. 18 All-Star Games. Nine-time leader in PER. Six titles. The sky hook. And a legend off the court since he retired. There was never anyone like Kareem. Maybe Wilt, but Wilt never had near as well-rounded a game. Not Russell; Bill never had that kind of scoring touch. Not Shaq, or any of today’s dominant big men, who do through force what Kareem always did with finesse. Who’s gonna be the next Kareem? Maybe one of the league’s unicorns, the Anthony Davis or Kristaps Porzingis type?
There are still people who argue that Kareem never gave this belt up. And until someone (LeBron?) scores point number 38,388, they will always have an argument.
June 14, 1998: Michael Jordan
The greatest last shot in the history of the league. 32,292 points, 3,015 of which magically appeared on his ledger after he retired from basketball forever; we’re still not sure exactly how that happened other than wondering if those half-remembered nightmares from the early 2000s of a washed-up MJ trying to make a comeback really happened (they didn’t really happen. They couldn’t have!)
14 All-Star appearances. Six rings. Over 40 points per 100 possessions. Seven straight years leading the league in PER; nine times leading in Win Shares. A legend of the dunk contest matched only by the Doctor himself. The undisputed greatest of all time even among the all-time greats.
There will never be another Michael Jordan, so let your game speak:
Whenever He Retires: LeBron James
Maybe. Not yet. But he’s got a case.
This article originally appeared on February 21, 2017.