Fifteen Forgotten NBA Superstars
Watch any NBA broadcast and you will hear someone say that this player may be the next Michael Jordan, or Magic Johnson, or Larry Bird, of LeBron James. But you rarely hear any player before these legends mentioned. Occasionally you here Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, or Pete Maravich, spoke of, but not many more than that, unless someone’s record is about to fall. Judging from the broadcasters of today, all we know of Julius Erving is that he was a “doctor”, Rick Barry shot his free throws underhand, and Calvin Murphy was short. But we don’t hear about how great they and others of the pre Magic/Bird era truly were. In fact, during the recent NBA Draft, analysts were tripping over each other to describe first round pick Bismack Biyombo as “the next Ben Wallace”, who entered the league in 1996. In an effort to add to your hoop knowledge, here are fifteen players who were true superstars who have been forgotten by the general basketball public at large.
(All statistical slash lines are Points Per Game/Rebounds Per Game/Assists Per Game)
Willis Reed (10 seasons, 18.7/12.9/1.8)
A 6’9″ center out of Grambling, Reed was the heart and soul of the championship Knick teams of the early ’70’s. Don’t buy the “He couldn’t play center today because he’s too short” nonsense- Reed played against (and more than held his own with) Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in their primes. If you can do that, then you can play center against anybody. A tenacious and ferocious player, Reed’s spirit never shined more brightly than in the famous seventh game of the 1970 Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. Despite being expected to miss game seven against Wilt and the boys due to serious injury (he tore a thigh muscle in game five and missed game six), Reed hobbled out onto the court just before tipoff, hit his first two shots, manned up against Chamberlain, and inspired his Knicks to their first world championship. Named the NBA Rookie of the Year in 1964/65 and the Most Valuable Player in 1969-70, Reed was named to the All-NBA first team once and four times to the second. Twice an NBA champ, Reed’s outstanding career was properly acknowledged with his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1982. If you ever want to know if a basketball fan is serious about the sport, as them to name the greatest center in Knick history. If they say, “Patrick Ewing”, then they are an amateur- Willis Reed is the greatest center to ever wear a Knick uniform.
Bob McAdoo (14 seasons, 22.1/9.4/2.3)
People today remember McAdoo (if they remember him at all) as an off-the-bench guy for a couple of the Laker champs from the 1980’s. People should remember the 6’10” center as a dominating offensive force of the 1970’s. Cat-quick with a myriad number of moves and sweet touch to 18 feet, McAdoo led the league is scoring, rebounding, and beat out Rick Barry for the league MVP in 1975. McAdoo’s trade to New York in 1976 was the biggest trade in years since Abdul-Jabbar went to L.A., and his following trade to Boston in 1979 ruled the airwaves as well. Once named first team All-NBA and once to the second team, McAdoo’s 22.1 PPG still ranks 31st best all-time. Three times averaging 30+ PPG, McAdoo was recognized for his career by being inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000.
Dave Cowens (11 seasons, 17.6/13.6/3.8)
The fiery leader of the second Celtic dynasty, the 6’9″ Cowens was as tough a competitor as ever walked onto a court. A phenomenal athlete, Cowens could run the floor like a guard (OK, a big, mean, fast, fearless, guard) and jump out of the gym, enabling him to star at center. Along with Bill Walton, Cowens made the “jump hook” a staple shot, and was a sniper out to 18 feet. Winner of both a Rookie of the Year and MVP award, Cowens played in seven All-Star games, was named to the All-NBA second team three times, and led his Celtics to a pair of NBA championships. While the team-based offensive concept of the Boston Celtics kept his scoring down, Cowens rebounding numbers show how he attacked the glass, as he ranks ninth all-time in RPG. Enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1991.
Bob Lanier (14 seasons, 20.1/10.1/3.1)
The first pick in the 1970 NBA draft, the 6’11” Lanier lived up to his billing as he was a man among boys, either in the low post or ranging outside around the key. Pairing with fellow all-time great Dave Bing, Lanier drove the Detroit Pistons to the most success they ever had before the Bad Boy Era. (No, they never won a ring. In fact, they never made it to the conference finals. That shows how tough it was to win in the NBA back then- two all-time greats and you don’t get close. Put that team in today’s game and they’re a dynasty.) Eight times an All-Star in a 14-year career, Lanier was not widely known by the casual fan, but his peers knew how great he was (think of him as a smoother version of Hakeem Olajuwon.) One claim to fame Lanier has is that he was the first winner of the NBA “One-on-One” tournament in 1972, beating Jo Jo White in the finals (and Pete Maravich in the first round). There is a reason that, in the movie “Airplane!”, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar told the kid whose dad questioned his work ethic, “I’m out there busting my buns every night- tell your old man to go drag (Bill) Walton and (Bob) Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes.” Still in the top 60 career-wise in PPG, RPG, and Field Goal Percentage, Lanier was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992.
Wes Unseld (13 seasons, 10.8/14.0/3.9)
How could a 6’7″ player even compete at center, let alone be one of the best ever? By combining the strength of Shaq, outlet passing of Bill Walton, and smarts of an MIT professor, that’s how. Unseld never hung up big scoring numbers, but was an excellent defender and a rebounding demon, as evidenced by his place at #7 on the all-time RPG list. The winner of both the ROY and MVP award his first season in the league, Unseld was named to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1988 and the “NBA’s 50 Greatest” team in 1996.
Also considered: Nate Thurmond– A rebounding and defensive force who could also score; Walt Bellamy– Another great center who toiled in the shadows of Wilt and Russell; Alvan Adams– The ideal high-post center, Adams was the best bassing pivot this side of Bill Walton.
Chet Walker (13 seasons, 18.2/7.1/2.1)
A 6’6″ forward out of Bradley, Walker averaged double-figure scoring in each of his 13 NBA seasons. A star forward for both the Philadelphia Warriors/76’ers and Chicago Bulls from 1962 to 1975, he was also an excellent rebounder and defender, and was named an NBA All-Star seven times. A vital member of the 1967 Philadelphia championship squad, Walker ranks 53rd in career points and 89th in career rebounds. Chet Walker is not in the Hall of Fame, and was not named to the NBA “50 Greatest Team”, but Scottie Pippin was, which is a travesty. Walker was twice the player Pippin was and, if he had played alongside Jordan instead of Pippin, the Bulls may have won 70 games every year. Chet Walker- not Scottie Pippin- is the second-greatest Chicago Bull ever after Michael Jordan.
Elvin Hayes (16 seasons, 21.0/12.5/1.8)
It is funny how the debate as to who the greatest power forward in NBA history revolves around Tim Duncan and Karl Malone, with Kevin McHale thrown in for good measure. If you are going to have that conversation, it should be between Tim Duncan and Elvin Hayes, who were both much better than Malone and McHale. Hayes, a 6’9″ amazing talent out of Houston, was the first pick in the NBA draft in the 1968 NBA draft. From Day One, Hayes was a superstar, and was named All-NBA first team three times and All-NBA second teams three more times in his career. Twelve times a NBA All-Star, it took “The Big E” until the last of his 16 NBA seasons to average less than 15 PPG. (He was 38 at the time, so I’ll cut him some slack for that). Possessor of the best turnaround jumper in league history, you will find Hayes’ name all over the career leader lists, placing 6th in career rebounds, 10th in career points, 24th in blocks, and his PPG and RPG averages are still 40th and 14th respectively. The leader of the 1978 Washington Bullet champs, Elvin Hayes was much better than Karl Malone and Kevin McHale- trust me, I saw them all play, and Hayes was much more dominant. Elvin Hayes was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1990, and deserves much more recognition from today’s fans than he ever receives.
Bob Dandridge (13 seasons, 18.5/6.8/3.4)
When the Milwaukee Bucks won their first NBA title in 1971, Kareem was Kareem (even though he was still Lew Alcindor), Oscar was still “The Big O”, but it was Bobby Dandridge who gave the Bucks that third superstar necessary to win the championship. Dandridge, a 6’6″ small forward taken 45th overall out of Norfolk State, was a key contributor to both the Bucks’ title and the Washington Bullets 1978 championship. A deadly shooter, Dandridge lived on the baseline, nailing jumpers and slashing to the hoop. Named an NBA All-Star four times in his 13-year career, you won’t find his name littering the career leader lists, but Bobby Dandridge was about as good a small forward in the 1970’s as anyone not named Rick Barry. He is not a HOF’er, but he was a superior offensive and defensive player, and any team in today’s NBA would be lucky to have him. Think Ray Allen with a better overall game.
Bernard King (14 seasons, 22.5/4.8/3.3)
A scoring machine from the day his was born, the 6’7″ King put up some incredible seasons and moments in his 14 years in the NBA. Twice named to the All-NBA first team and twice more to the second, King used a number of mystifying spins, fakes, and moves, combined with a so-ugly-it-was-pretty jumper to place in the top 10 in PPG five times, leading the NBA in 1984-85 at 32.9 PPG. As a playoff performer, King was even better, averaging 24.5 PPG and won one of the greatest playoff mano y mano matchups ever with Detroit Piston Isaiah Thomas in the opening round of the 1984 playoffs. Thomas was amazing, but King even more so, as he averaged 42.6 PPG over the five game series despite playing with dislocated fingers on both hands and a bad case of the flu. King’s scoring ability has stood the test of his time, and his career PPG is still good for 27th best in NBA history. New York Knick fans today are all agog over having acquired Carmelo Anthony, believing him to be as good as LeBron James and Dwayne Wade. They should be hoping that Anthony becomes almost as good as Bernard King, who is most deserving of the HOF induction which has eluded him so far.
Dan Roundfield (11 NBA seasons, 15.2/9.7/2.2)
A 12-year NBA veteran, Dan Roundfield was the Atlanta Hawks before Dominique Wilkins. At 6’8″, Roundfield was a natural power forward often pressed into the center position because of his toughness and elite leaping ability. Averaging a double/double in points and rebounds for six straight years from 1977-78 to 1982-83 (just missed making it seven straight in 1983-84, as he “only” averaged 9.9 RPG. Round him up if you want), Roundfield was also a defensive monster, making the NBA All-Defensive first or second teams each year from 1979-80 to 1983-84. Once named to the All-NBA second team, Roundfield was a three-time NBA All-Star. Still ranking in the top 75 in NBA history in RPG and BPG, Roundfield was the template for two-way NBA power forwards in the early ’80’s. While he will never make the Hall of Fame, Dan Roundfield could teach a lesson or two to current NBA’ers like Pau Gasol or Chris Bosh on how to handle the position. Want a comp for Dan Roundfield today? Think a young Ben Wallace with an 18-foot jumper.
Also considered: Spencer Haywood– A superstar who everyone knew in the ’70’s and forgot about in the 2000’s; Bobby Jones– Famous for being underrated when he played, now Jones is forgotten because he was underrated. But the Dr. J-led 76’ers never won a title until they traded the better-known George McGinnis to get Bobby Jones; Buck Williams– Could do everything Dan Roundfield could do except shoot; Paul Silas– could rebound and defend like Dennis Rodman (and score better) without all the distractions.
Walt Frazier (13 seasons, 18.9/5.9/6.1)
Today Frazier is known as the guy using bad rhymes to pitch some hair formula for men. When he played, he was known as the best guard in the NBA between the Oscar/West era and the debut of Magic Johnson. At 6’4″, Frazier had the size to handle the 2 spot , and the floor game to handle the point. Gifted at both ends of the court, Frazier was named to the NBA All-Defensive first team seven times and six times to the All-NBA team (four times the first team, twice the second) in his 13 years in the Association. A seven-time NBA All-Star, Frazier was also one of the best clutch performers in NBA history, with his legendary 36 point, 19 assist, 7 rebound, tour de force in game 7 of the NBA Finals clinching the title for his New York Knicks. Toady, the guard position is much more defined with a specific 1 and 2 than it was in the 1970’s, when the ideal guard could handle both spots. Walt Frazier was the epitome of that ideal in his day, and his 1987 enshrinement in the Basketball Hall of Fame was most deserved.
Hal Greer (15 seasons, 19.2/5.0/4.0)
One of the smoothest scorers ever, Greer spent 15 seasons starring in the backcourt for Philadelphia. This 6’2″ scoring wizard was named to the All-NBA second team seven straight years from 1962-63 to 1968-69, and this was a period when the NBA sported two of the best guards ever in Oscar Robertson and Jerry West. Yes, that means Greer was the third best guard in the league, and it took two of the top four guards in NBA history to keep him there. That also means Hal Greer would have been one of the two best guards in the league in any season throughout NBA history except a couple of the Michael Jordan/Magic Johnson years. For his career, Greer is 34th in total points, and 70th in PPG (remember, he played with Wilt Chamberlain a few years, which will cut into anyobod’s PPG). I doubt that 1% of today’s NBA fans even know who this 10-teime NBA All-Star is, let alone that he is the best guard in 76’er history, with all due respect to Allan Iverson.
Jo Jo White (12 seasons, 17.2/4.0/4.9)
White, a 6’3″ guard, was the first pick of the Boston Celtics in the 1969 NBA Draft, coming off of a gold medal-winning performance in the 1968 Olympics. (Don’t laugh- that team wasn’t expected to be that good, but White and Spencer Haywood led them to the medal). White continued winning in the NBA, quarterbacking the Celtics to NBA titles in 1974 and 1976. White, while he handled the point, excelled in all aspects of guard play, making seven NBA All-Star teams and twice being named to the All-NBA second team during his 12-year career. (In truth, White was very underrated, and should have received even more recognition). The Celtics of the ’70’s played an incredibly balanced offensive game, and their 1976 championship team starting five of Dave Cowens, John Havlicek, Jo Jo White, Charlie Scott, and Paul Silas, was one of the best starting five ever. If you are looking for a modern day comp for White, look no further than Detroit Piston HOF’er Joe Dumars. I am a lifelong Piston fan, and take a back seat to no one in my admiration of Joe Duamrs as a player. But for Dumars to be inducted into the Hall of Fame and Jo Jo White to still be on the outside is unjustifiable. Jo Jo White was better than Joe Dumars, and is, with Chet Walker, the two best players eligible for enshrinement not in the Hall.
Gail Goodrich (14 seasons, 18.6/3.2/4.7)
Speaking of Allan Iverson, meet his grandfather. Goodrich was a 6’1″ guard out of UCLA, where he kicked off the Bruins’ NCAA championship dynasty. Continuing his collection of rings with the LA Lakers, he was the forgotten superstar along with Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West on their ’72 champs. A big time scorer throughout the prime of his 14-year career, Goodrich made five NBA All-Star teams and was named first team All-NBA once. An exceptional offensive talent, Goodrich still ranks 49th in career points and 58th in career assists. A left-handed shooter with range, Goodrich was equally dangerous roaming the perimeter or driving to the lane with flair and fearlessness- now you know why he could be AI’s granddad. Inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1996.
Sidney Moncrief (11 seasons, 15.6/4.7/3,6)
Despite knees that would make Mickey Mantle’s seem healthy by comparison, Moncrief was a wonderful two-way player through the age of 28. This 6’3″ guard could beat you in a number of ways- shooting, posting up, driving the lane, off the glass, or shutting you down. Once named to the All-NBA first team and four times to the second, Moncrief reversed those numbers in being a four-time NBA All-Defensive team pick and once making the second team. Twice named NBA Defensive Player of the Year, Moncrief also made five NBA All-Star teams. Oh, did I mention he also averaged over 20 PPG the two seasons he won the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award? His knees finally gave out in his late twenties, basically ruining the rest of his career. But until that time, Moncrief was the force which drove the Milwaukee Bucks. While his knees ruined any chance Moncrief had at a Hall of Fame career, people need to remember that he was a contemporary of HOF’er Dennis Johnson (who should have been admitted a lot earlier than he was.) They both played the same sort of game, but there isn’t a GM in basketball who would have taken DJ over Sidney Moncrief when they were both in their prime.
Also considered: Mike Newlin– Combined talent and toughness in the backcourt for Houston and New Jersey; Norm Van Lier & Jerry Sloan– the ferocious backcourt duo for the Chicago Bulls of the earl ’70’s; Paul Westphal– A superb player and leader who I would take over Steve Nash.
As much as any sport, basketball is a player’s game, and we admire the superstars who define their generation. Every era has players that shine, and we should not let the glow of today’s superstars dim the glory of those who came before. NBA history extends back before Magic and Bird, Jordan and LeBron. These fifteen players- along with the rest of the NBA superstars of the past- had colorful and exciting careers, and remembering their play helps us appreciate the play of today even more.
Tim Johnson is a historian and the author of the ebook “Who Da Man? The Quintessential History of the NBA Draft 1947-2010”, now available on Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com, Apple IBookstore, and Sony Reader Store.