From Wilt Chamberlain to Michael Jordan, we look at the lives and accomplishments of six of the most celebrated players in the league’s 74-year history.
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1936, Wilt Chamberlain had eight siblings and was raised in a racially integrated middle-class neighborhood. He was already 6’ 11” in high school; he eventually reached 7’ 1”. Chamberlain was a veritable high school basketball star — some 200 universities recruited him. He chose the University of Kansas. Before leaving to go pro after his junior year, he averaged 30 points per game.
Chamberlain joined the NBA’s Philadelphia Warriors in 1959. He was a success from the start, scoring an average of 37.9 points per game during his first season. Throughout his NBA career, in the face of constant fouls and double- and triple-team tactics, Chamberlain seemed to score and rebound at will. He set numerous records, including single-game records for the most points scored (100), most rebounds (55), and most consecutive field goals (18).
Wilt Chamberlain scored more than 4,000 points in a single season, establishing a new NBA record. Equally impressive was the 50.4 points per game average he achieved throughout that 1961–62 season.
Born in 1976 in St Croix, US Virgin Islands, Tim Duncan excelled in freestyle swimming in his youth. Duncan originally intended to follow his sister, an Olympic athlete, into the sport, but was unable to train after Hurricane Hugo destroyed most of the swimming pools on his island. He turned his attention to basketball and is now recognized as one of the greatest power forwards of all time.
Duncan entered Wake Forest University in 1993, garnering national attention for his poise and all-around play. In his final year, he was honored with the John R. Wooden Award as the best male basketball player in the NCAA. Though he had the chance to go pro after his junior year, he had earlier promised his mother, on her deathbed, that he would graduate college. He kept his word and graduated with a degree in psychology.
Duncan was the first overall pick in the 1997 NBA Draft; he went to the Spurs, where he would remain for his entire career. In 1998, he was named Rookie of the Year. During the next season, he led the Spurs to their first NBA title, racking up an average of 24 points and 17 rebounds in the finals against the Knicks. After an injury sidelined him from the 2000 Olympics, he helped the US national team claim an Olympic bronze in the 2004 Athens Games.
Tim Duncan is one of just three NBA players to amass 1,000 career wins, and the only player in Spurs’ history to win five NBA championships. The Spurs reached the playoffs in all of his 19 seasons with the team, and during this time, they held the best winning percentage of any 19-year period in NBA history. Duncan’s nickname is “the Big Fundamental” due to his all-around textbook skills.
Born Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. in 1947, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar took his Arabic name in 1971, when he converted to Islam. At 7’ 2”, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar literally and figuratively dominated basketball throughout the 1970s and early 1980s.
By the time he left high school, Abdul-Jabbar’s offensive skills were so developed that, prior to his enrollment at UCLA, the collegiate basketball rules committee made dunking illegal, fearing that Abdul-Jabbar would score at will. Despite this new rule, Abdul-Jabbar set a new UCLA record, scoring 56 points in his first game.
The first overall draft pick by the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks in 1969, he spent six seasons with the team before being traded to the LA Lakers in 1975. He played 14 seasons with the Lakers and led them to five NBA championships.
Abdul-Jabbar achieved numerous firsts in the sport, including being voted NBA Most Valuable Player six times and amassing 3,189 blocked shots. He also established NBA records for most minutes played (57,446), most field goals (15,837), and most points (38,387). He still holds the record for most points scored to this day. ESPN named him the greatest center of all time in 2007, and he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.
Born in Newark, New Jersey in 1972, 7’1” Shaquille O’Neal was one of basketball’s most dominant players prior to his retirement in 2011. O’Neal combined agility, explosive power, and sheer size to master the game. He was known for his powerful dunks.
After leading his high school to the state championship his senior year, O’Neal enrolled at Louisiana State University. During his time there, he was twice named a unanimous first team All-American and the AP and UPI College Player of the Year in 1991. He was drafted with the Orlando Magic as the first overall pick in the 1992 NBA Draft.
In his first week in the NBA, O’Neal was named Player of the Week, a first in the NBA. He also clinched the Rookie of the Year title in 1993. Over the course of his career, he was a 15-time NBA All-Star and an eight-time All-NBA First Team member. His no. 34 and no. 32 jerseys were retired by the LA Lakers and Miami Heat, respectively.
In 1996, Shaq signed a seven-year contract with the Lakers for $120 million, the biggest deal in NBA history at the time. That same year, he also helped the US national team win gold at the Olympic Games in Atlanta.
Born in 1984, LeBron James established an NBA record as the youngest player in the league’s history to receive the Rookie of the Year Award when he was just 20.
The four-time NBA MVP winner grew up in Akron, Ohio, demonstrating a natural talent for the game from an early age. He was picked first overall in the 2003 NBA Draft by the then-struggling Cleveland Cavaliers. He quickly made history by becoming just the third player ever in the NBA to average at least 20 points, five rebounds, and five assists per game during his rookie year.
Since then, James’ dazzling career has earned him comparisons with Michael Jordan in debates about the greatest basketball player of all time. He is the only player in NBA history to have won championships with three separate teams as a Finals MVP. He is currently the all-time NBA playoff scoring leader, with 7,491 points. In addition, he currently ranks third after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone for all-time career points, with more than 34,330. James is also the youngest basketball player to amass at least 30,000 career points. Respected off the court for his philanthropy, he was named the Time Athlete of the Year in 2020.
Michael Jordan’s name is synonymous with basketball — he dominated the sport from the mid-80s to 90s and is often regarded as the greatest basketball player ever. Born in 1963 in Brooklyn, he moved to Wilmington, North Carolina, at a young age. He had a competitive streak even as a child and was determined to win every game he played.
Jordan was drafted third overall in the 1984 NBA Draft by the Chicago Bulls. During his rookie season, he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated under the title “A Star Is Born” and won Rookie of the Year. He would later lead the Bulls to six NBA championships. Jordan was also a six-time NBA Finals MVP, a five-time NBA MVP, and a 14-time NBA All-Star. He helped the US basketball team win the gold medal at the 1984 and 1992 Olympics.
A shooting guard who could also play as a small forward and point guard, he was known for his fadeaway jump shot, and for his ability to perform under pressure in the final minute of a game. His no. 23 jersey was retired by the Bulls — and by the Miami Heat, out of respect, even though he never played for them. In 2016, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama.