When James Naismith placed two peach baskets and a soccer ball on an indoor YMCA court in Springfield, Mass. More than 130 years ago, no one could have predicted what was to come.
Over the next century, this simple activity involving a ball and hoop swept the globe. From millions of kids’ sprinting across the chipped asphalt of their schoolyards to the brightest lights’’ shining down on the world’s greatest athletes, basketball’s undeniable and unifying culture changed the world forever.
But how did this game become one of the most recognizable and widely played sports today? How is basketball different today compared to when the NBA began? In The Step Back, I’ll aim to answer these questions. By creating all-time rankings, making predictions, unpacking the latest rumors and analyzing historic moments, we’ll gain insight into just how dynamic the basketball landscape is today and uncover where it may be heading in the years to come.
In the spirit of examining basketball in a larger historical context, this first column is a tribute to the game’s most impactful and important players. This top-8 ranking is not your standard statistical “greatest of all time” ranking — that list looks pretty different. Instead, I will rank which players have had the biggest impact on shaping how the game is viewed and played today, considering which players’ legacies I think will be intrinsic to the NBA's history and its future.
8. Shaquille O’Neal
Almost no one in the history of the NBA has been as dominant as O’Neal. O’Neal had a tendency to put together absurd stat lines, ferocious dunks, championship moments and absolute dominance in the modern era.
7. Wilt Chamberlain
As far as absurd stat lines are concerned, 100 points in a game says it all. While some may argue that Chamberlain didn’t have enough competition, I think that demonstrates how he raised the game to a whole new standard of excellence.
6. Stephen Curry
When Curry passed Ray Allen last month for the most 3-pointers of all time, he added an exclamation point to his legacy. Curry spearheaded the 3-point revolution. As kids on basketball courts, including myself, chuck up half-court heaves everywhere, Curry’s impact on the game is immense.
5. Bill Russell
With 11 championships under his belt, Russell is success personified. As the first truly dominant icon the game has ever seen, he is the true pioneer of the current NBA.
4. Magic Johnson
The flashiest and craftiest passer in NBA history, Johnson’s masterful command of the court shaped modern playmakers everywhere.
3. Kobe Bryant
The late legend’s contributions were countless. Clutch shots, elite-level scoring and the greatest player and leader the game ever saw. Bryant was the definition of greatness.
2. LeBron James
The jack of all trades. James’ combination of passing, scoring and getting to the basket like a freight train, coupled with his unique longevity, is something players will strive to emulate for years to come.
1. Michael Jordan
Jordan stands alone. Jordan’s influence in globalizing the game, dominating his opponents one-on-one and winning with such conviction remains the standard of what it means to be the greatest of all time.