During the 1997 All-Star break in Cleveland, the NBA decided to honor the 50 greatest players of all time. A luncheon was scheduled as part of the event, which featured players from the past and present. At the time of the luncheon Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain had never crossed paths.
The debate over the greatest basketball player of all time usually produces only a handful of arguments. Michael Jordan is widely regarded as the best player of all time, but Wilt Chamberlain also holds a place in the debate. Their dominance has been contrasted and compared at great lengths. Those critical of Chamberlain point to the fact he was putting up stats in a league full of weak competition. They also scoff at the fact that Wilt was only able to win 2 championships. Critics of Jordan also cite the weak competition for the duration of the 90’s and quitting to play baseball. Chamberlain is largely regarded as a stat monster, averaging 50 points and 25 rebounds during the 62 season. He was also able to showcase his versatile skills in the 1967 season, averaging 24 points 24 rebounds and 8 assists. Jordan won a bevy of scoring titles to go along with defensive player of the year awards. Mike was also seen as the greatest winner in basketball since Bill Russell.
So how close is the debate between Chamberlain and Jordan? Depends on the age of the person you ask. However the luncheon at the 1997 All Star game shed some light on the debate, at least from Wilt’s perspective.
The luncheon was held on saturday and many of the old time players attended the event. Among them were Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton and more. In the deep corner of the brunch, Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain sat having an intense discussion. The topic of conversation was predictable, who was the greatest? The two traded jabs the entire brunch until it was time to go. Still, the pair continued to argue. Soon Commissioner David Stern tried to intervene, reminding them they were set to leave 15 minutes earlier. Still jabbering, the pair got up from the table to join everyone else in line. Just before they were about to leave, Chamberlain spoke up. The room grew silent in anticipation of Wilt’s words, “Just remember Michael, when I played they changed the rules to make the game harder for me and when you played they changed the rules to make the game easier for you”. It was the only known time the two had crossed paths.
1. Jim Thorpe
Thorpe was once considered the greatest athlete in the world. He lived in a time where sports records were an after thought among the mainstream. Jim excelled in football, ballroom dancing, baseball, basketball and track & field. Born an Indian American, Thorpe was relegated to his reservation until he was able to play for the Carlisle School (which competed in NCAA events). He led Carlisle to back to back National Championships in Football. In a game verses number one ranked Harvard, Thorpe scored all of his teams points leading them to a 18-15 upset of Harvard. Thorpe was also able to win the 1912 intercollegiate ballroom dancing championship. He won the 1912 Gold Metal in the Olympic games for Pentathlon and Decathlon. After his career with Carlisle he would play both professional football and professional baseball for over 15 seasons. He finished his baseball career with 91 runs scores, 82 RBIs and a lifetime .252 average in the 289 games in the majors. Thorpe was largely relegated to the minor leagues in his baseball career. His NFL career was much better as he was named to the first ALL-NFL team. Thorpe was also the first president of what would become the NFL.
2. Bo Jackson
A rare athlete that could throw a football 60 years, run a 4.2 40 yard dash and bench press over 400 pounds. In 1982, Bo set state school records for indoor high-jump (6'9") and triple-jump (48’8") in high school. He excelled at football and baseball enough to earn a scholarship from Auburn. An immense football talent, he made an immediate impact as a freshman. Jackson was named the Heisman trophy winner his senior. He continued to excel in baseball although he didn’t receive the same kind of hype that he produced on the football field. Following his senior season he was drafted 1st overall in the NFL draft. Because of a dispute with Tampa bay Buccaneers Jackson chose to play pro baseball instead of joining the NFL. He was drafted by the Royals and joined there starting lineup in the big leagues only months later. Eventually Tampa bay traded Jackon’s rights to the Los Angeles Raiders. In his rookie year with the Raiders he was able to beat out hall of fame running back Marcus Allen for the starting spot. Bo spent four years with the Raiders his best year came in 1989 when he rushed for 950 yards, 4 touchdowns to go along with a 5.5 rushing average. Jackson had a career batting average of .250, hit 141 home runs and had 415 RBIs, with a slugging average of .474. On the diamond he didn’t hit for great average but he did display immense power and baseball potential. Jackson displayed his gun like arm strength and terrific speed in the outfield. His best year was 1989, with his effort earning him All-Star status. The power hitter ranked fourth in the league in both home runs, with 32, and RBIs with 105. Bo’s promising career was cut short in an hip injury. The only player to ever be named to the NFL Pro Bowl and MLB All-Star game in the same season.
3. Deion Sanders
An absolute freak of nature the 6’2 Sanders was off the charts athletically. Some consider him the fastest player to ever play in the NFL. Out of high school Sanders was drafted in the 6th round by the Kansas City Royals, instead he chose to enroll at Florida State. “Primetime” first entered the National media exposure at Florida State University where he competed in football, baseball and track & field. He was an exceptional defensive back and return man for the Seminoles winning the Jim Thorpe award in 1988. Once in college, Sanders played the first game of a double header, ran a leg of the 4x100 relay, then return to play the second of the double header. Ran an impressive 4.17 in his pro day 40 at Florida State. His baseball career was good enough to drafted by the Yankees in the 30th round of the 1988 draft. Sanders came in with the Yankees, and played with Atlanta, Cincinnati, and San Francisco. In 1992 Sanders hit .304 with 8 HRs, 28 RBIs, 26 SBs and a league leading 14 triples. Many consider Sanders to be the greatest defensive back of all time. Primetime was a feared all pro for many of his seasons with Atlanta, San Francisco and Dallas. He is the NFL career leader in interceptions returned for touchdowns with 9. 53 career interceptions, 9 defensive touchdowns, 19 fumbled recovered, 6 career put returns for TDs and 3 kick returns for TDs. Sanders was named the 1994 defensive player of the year, 9 time pro bowler, 6 time all pro. Primetime was able to win two Superbowl’s won with the 49ers in 94 and another with the Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX. Sanders holds the unique distinction of being the only man to hit a home run in the MLB and score a touchdown in the NFL in the same week.
4. Jim Brown
One of only a few athletes to make the hall of fame in two different sports. Jim played everything in high school averaging 38 points on the basketball team, dominating on the gridiron, running track and held the distinction of the best lacrosse player in the nation. Jim Brown is arguably the greatest running back of all time but, many sports historians consider him to be the best of all time in Lacrosse. He had a storied career at Syracuse where he was named to the All-American team in football and was also named the Lacrosse player of the year. In his senior season he set school records for highest season rush average (6.2) and most rushing touchdowns in a single game (6). He ran for 986 yards which was good for third most in the country. He also contributed 14 touchdowns as a senior. As a sophomore, he was the second leading scorer for the basketball team (15 ppg), and earned a letter on the track team. His junior year, he averaged 11.3 points in basketball, and was named a second-team All-American in lacrosse. His senior year, he was named a first-team All-American in lacrosse (43 goals in 10 games to rank second in scoring nationally). Brown was taken in the first round of the 1957 NFL draft by the Cleveland Browns, the sixth overall selection.After only nine years in the NFL, he departed as the NFL record holder for both single-season (1,863 in 1963) and career rushing (12,312 yards), as well as the all-time leader in rushing touchdowns (106), total touchdowns (126), and all-purpose yards (15,549). Every season he played, Brown was voted into the Pro Bowl. At the time he retired many considered him to be the best running back of all time.
5. Charlie Ward
Not often is the Heisman Trophy winner playing football as his second sport, such is the case with Charlie Ward. Ward stared in early 90’s for both the Florida State basketball team and football team. He was truly special on the gridiron winning the Heisman Trophy by the largest margin of votes ever. A threat to both run and throw, Ward racked up 3,032 passing yards, 27 touchdowns (only 4 interceptions), 339 rushing yards and 4 running scores. Ward guided the Seminoles to an 18-16 victory over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, giving FSU and head coach Bobby Bowden its first-ever national title. Former teammates included future NBA players Bob Sura, Doug Edwards and Sam Cassell. As a senior he averaged 10 points and 5 assists leadings the seminoles to the sweet 16. Believed to be a superior football talent Ward promised he would only play in the NFL if he went in the first round. As a result he ended up a first round pick of the New York Knicks in 1994 but was not picked in the NFL draft. He played a workman like 10 year career in the NBA where he appeared in the 1999 NBA Finals. He averaged 6 points and 4 assist on 41 percent shooting for his career. In 1993, Charlie Ward won the James E. Sullivan Award from the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) as the most outstanding amateur athlete in the United States.Though Ward did not play baseball in college, he was drafted in the 18th round by the New York Yankees in 1994. An avid tennis player, Ward also shone in the Arthur Ashe Amateur Tennis Tournament in 1994.
6. Jackie Robinson
Not only was Jackie Robinson the first African American to play major league baseball, he was a dynamic multi sport athlete. In high school Robinson played shortstop and catcher on the baseball team, quarterback on the football team, and guard on the basketball team. With the track and field squad, he dominated broad jump. During high school he was also a member of the tennis team. In 1936, Robinson won the boys singles championship in the annual Pacific Coast Negro Tennis Tournament. After a short stint in junior college, Robinson chose to attend UCLA, where he became the school's first athlete to play four varsity sports: baseball, basketball, football, and track. In track Robinson won the 1940 NCAA Men's Track and Field Championships in the long jump, jumping over 24 feet. Oddly enough his future career, baseball was Robinson's worst sport at UCLA, he hit .097 in his only season. Robinson bounced around playing football semi professionally in Hawaii and Los Angeles before serving in the War after the Pearl Harbor attacks. After discharge from the Army in 1944 Robinson joined the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro leagues. The shortstop played in 47 games hitting .387 with 5 home runs and 13 stolen bases, good enough to make the 1945 negro league all star game. The Kansas City took notice of his play and signed him on November 1, 1945. He spent one year in the minor leagues before breaking the major league color barrier in 1947. During his 10 major league seasons, Robinson excelled staring in 6 All-Star games and winning the 1949 NL MVP award. The speedy second baseman twice led the league in stolen bases and lead the league in batting average at .342 in 1949.
7. Danny Ainge
The only person in the history of the United States to be named a high school All-American in three sports. Ainge excelled in football, basketball and baseball at North Eugene High in Oregon. He led his team to back to back state championships in basketball. As a junior Quarterback Ainge was named to the Parade magazine all american football team. Many thought his best sport was baseball where he was drafted by the Toronto Bluejays straight out of high school. Ainge chose to attend BYU on a basketball scholarship, but before he did that he signed with the Toronto Bluejays. Which meant that Danny would play for the Bluejays and attend BYU at the same time. During his sophomore season Ainge would be called up to the majors by the Bluejays. He hit his first home run at 20 years and 77 days old a franchise record. At BYU Ainge dominated on the basketball court posting at least 18 points, 4 assist and 4 rebounds during each of his four seasons. Ainge concluded his senior year by winning the John R. Wooden Award awarded to the best college player in the nation. During his career at BYU, Ainge was an All-American, the WAC Player of the Year and a four-time All-WAC selection. He concluded his college career having scored in double-figures in 112 consecutive games, an NCAA record at that time. After his third season with the Bluejays, Ainge decided to give up baseball to focus on basketball (he could never hit the curve). The guard was drafted by the Boston Celtics in 1981. Ainge would help to contribute to 2 Boston championships in 1984 and 1986. His best season came during 1988 when he averaged 15 points, 6 assists and 3 rebounds good enough to be selected as an all-star. Over a fourteen year NBA career, Ainge finished with 11,964 points and 4,199 assists.
8. John Elway
A two sport star at Stanford University many thought that Elway was the best pro quarterback prospect to ever come out of college. After his high school baseball career was over he was drafted by the Royals. Instead he attended Stanford as he hit .361 with nine home runs and 50 RBIs in 49 games as a sophomore. After his sophomore season he was picked in the first round by the Yankees. He hit .314 with a club-high 24 homers with the Yankees' single-A farm club. Elway started for three seasons on the gridiron for Stanford. He finished his football career with 9,349 passing yards, 77 passing touchdowns to only 39 interceptions. Elway was taken first in the 1983 NFL draft by Baltimore but was then traded to Denver. Many thought he did have a chance to have a great career in the MLB including George Steinbrenner. A story surfaced of George Steinbrenner laying out the 1984 New York Yankee Lineup in which Elway was featured at RF and batted fifth in the order. Elway went on to a stored NFL career where he finished his legacy with two Superbowl victories his final two seasons. He finished his career with over 50,000 passing yards, 300 passing touchdowns and was selected to the pro bowl 9 times. He was also named the MVP in 1987 and the Superbowl MVP in 1999.
9. Keith Erickson
John Wooden once remarked that the best athlete he had ever coached was Erickson. The socal native came into UCLA with a scholarship for both basketball and baseball. The multi skilled forward was part of UCLA first basketball championship as a junior, he started on the undefeated team averaging 10 points and 9 rebounds. After winning the 1964 NCAA basketball title, he played on the 1964 Us Men’s Olympic Volleyball team (the 1st US Olympic volleyball team). During his senior season he helped the basketball team to repeat as national championships finishing 28-2. The forward was named 3rd team All-American in 1965 averaging 13 point and 8 rebounds. After his impressive college career he was drafted in the third round of the NBA draft by the San Francisco Warriors. He won a championship on the legendary 1972 Lakers team that featured Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain. His best season came in 1974 with the Suns where he averaged 14 points and 6 rebounds. Erickson went on to play 12 seasons in the NBA with the Warriors, Bulls, Lakers and Suns. He finished his career with 7,251 points and 3,4449 rebounds.
10. Dave Debusschere
Known as a hall of fame basketball player, DeBusschere dominated in both basketball and baseball at the University of Detroit. He averaged 24 points a game in basketball, helping Detroit reach the National Invitation Tournament twice and the NCAA tournament once. He also pitched the Titans to three NCAA baseball tournament berths as the star pitcher. DeBusschere pitched for the Detroit Tigers for only one season. However he excelled during that one season with a 2.90 era in 14 relief appearances. Debusschere eventually decided to just stick to basketball where he would help lead the Knicks to two championships in the early 1970s. He was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1983 after a 12-year career in which he averaged 16.1 points and 11 rebounds while being named to eight NBA All-Star teams. Part of the NBA's 50th Anniversary All-Time Team. Traded to the New York Knicks in 1968, he played for championship teams in 1970 and 1973.
Honorable Mention : Joe Mauer, Dave Winfield, Scott Burrell, Todd Helton, Tony Gwynn, Jeff Samardzija, Bob Gibson, Babe Didrikson, Kenny Lofton, Carl Crawford, Randy Moss, Russell Wilson, Matt Barnes, Julius Peppers, Chuck Connors, Tom Glavine, Dick Groat, Gene Conley, Chuck Connors, Kirk Gibson, Brian Jordan, Willie Gault, Antonio Gates, Jimmy Grahm, Ed Jones, Wilt Chamberlain, Bob Hayes