Clockwise from right: Larry Bird, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, and the no-name funnyman kids everywhere are happy to see get his comeuppance, “up top.”
No doubt during tonight’s NCAA men’s championship, you’ll see the popular AT&T ads featuring a focus group leader asking schoolkids “what’s better, fast or slow?”
Except the latest group of students is taller than your average kindergartner. And certainly more…mature. So if you’re not a basketball fan, or were born after 1990, let me re-introduce you to these leggy, living legends.
Magic Johnson, 6-9, L.A. Lakers 1979-1996
I would call Earvin “Magic” Johnson, 53, a “phoenix”—someone who rises from the ashes to find success again and again—except the man never fails at anything. Be it basketball, television, philanthropy, or business (he even co-owns the Dodgers baseball team), Johnson’s charm and acumen have taken him from Lakers MVP point guard to positive influence.
When he retired in 1991 after announcing he had contracted HIV, the world thought Johnson’s career—and possibly his life—were over. But the 1992 Dream Team Member and Hall-of-Famer returned to play again in 1996. He is now known for his HIV/AIDS advocacy almost as much as his rivalry with…
Larry Bird, 6-9, Boston Celtics 1979-1992
You wouldn’t think the great “Hick from French Lick” would ever have been bullied, but famed Celtics forward Larry Bird, 56, abandoned Indiana University after a month, tormented by homesickness and national star Kent Benson’s constant teasing. But he found his way again at Indiana State, winning numerous player of the year awards and leading the Sycamores to the 1979 national championship—only to lose to Magic Johnson’s Michigan State.
Bird was selected for the Celtics, beating Johnson for Rookie of the Year. Their rivalry breathed life into pro hoops again. They met numerous times, including three NBA finals. Still they became offcourt friends. Bird retired in 1992 with back problems but coached the Indiana Pacers NBA team from 1997-2000.
Interestingly, the next player found some revenge for Larry against good ole Kent Benson…
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 7-2, Milwaukee Bucks/L.A. Lakers 1969-1989
Abdul-Jabbar (born Lew Alcindor), 65, was the 1977 number-one draft pick, to the Bucks. Two minutes into his very first pro game, he punched Lakers center—yes, Kent Benson—for a flagrant elbow. Abdul-Jabbar broke his hand, but Bird was probably secretly cheering.
On the other hand, Abdul-Jabbar nearly cost us the slam dunk! As a player during UCLA’s astounding 88-2 record during 1966-69, the dunk was banned from 1967-1976 in large part to then-Alcindor’s prowess. But luckily, he developed his ambidextrous “sky hook,” a nearly indefensible shot that helped him become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, with 38,387 points (check out the sky hook—and some short shorts—here).
Abdul-Jabbar was respected for his leadership and work ethic (he played at UCLA for John Wooden, one of my 7 Classic Coaches to Know), but his disdain for the press was widely-known and cost him high-level jobs. He now works in various scouting and coaching roles.
But he wasn’t the only one to struggle with trusting outsiders…
Bill Russell, 6-10, Boston Celtics 1956-1969
The eldest statesman of this fine group, Bill Russell, 79, accomplished so much in his career the NBA Finals MVP trophy is named for him. A victim of chronic racism in his native Louisiana, he used his anger, kind words from his white coach, and a growth spurt to excel in high school after his family relocated to Oakland. His untrained style of play and lack of offense garnered him only one scholarship, to the University of San Francisco. But Russell saw the offer as chance to escape his past and dedicated his life to his game.
Racism still followed—Russell would be turned away from team hotels and denied awards he clearly deserved. While bitter, he decided not to let it define him.
In the pros, he elevated respect for defensive play, specifically shot-blocking and man-to-man defense, while helping the Celtics to win 11 championships. He was the first true African-American superstar player, and the first black NBA coach as well. For his civil rights work, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.
Now if these four legends aren’t enough basketball greatness for you, I guess you can tape a cheetah to your back and hope for the best. But keep an eye out for them—both in ads and live—tonight with other college basketball royalty, 9:23 p.m. ET on ESPN.