This is a picture of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain awaiting the opening tip-off in the 1967 NBA Playoffs. In front of the players it says: The Best Basketball Player Before Jordan?

Who Was The Best Basketball Player Before Jordan?

There are seven players who were widely considered to be the best basketball player before Jordan. George Mikan and Bob Pettit got early consideration. They quickly gave way to Bill Russel, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Finally, in the 1980s many believed Larry Bird or Magic Johnson was the best. 

Opinions about who is the greatest player of all time differ. Most modern lists have Michael Jordan and LeBron James in the top two spots of all time. 

Before Jordan reached his peak, there were a number of players who were considered the best basketball player ever.

Obviously, someone can believe any player is the greatest and they can’t be wrong since it’s just their opinion. 

The list below contains players who were widely believed to be the greatest player of all time – not by everyone, certainly. But, by enough people that it makes sense to include them on this list. 

Who Were The Early Contenders For Greatest Player of All Time?

The early contenders for best basketball player ever include two standout names. 

Obviously, at this point in history it was a bit easier to be considered the greatest player of all time because there just was not that much competition yet. 

George Mikan (1946-1956)

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(one in NBL, 
one in BAA) 

George Mikan was a 6’10 center out of Depaul known for his thick spectacles and for changing the game of basketball. He was widely considered the greatest player of all time when he retired from the game. 

Mikan started out playing in the National Basketball League (NBL) first with the Chicago Gears for a season then with the Minneapolis Lakers.

The Lakers switched to the Basketball Association of American (BAA) for a season. Mikan’s Lakers won the title just as they had in the NBL.

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George Mikan Poster

The Lakers then joined the NBA when it merged with the BAA. Every player from here on played exclusively in the NBA. 

Mikan was so dominant that he completely changed the game – many rules were put in place because of his dominance. 

Those rules included a widening of the lane (the Mikan rule), the outlawing of goaltending, and the creation of the shot clock. 

The latter rule was put in place after the Fort Wayne Pistons refused to try to score when up one point, 19-18, with the belief that Mikan would be able to score on them if he got another chance.

Instead of trying to score, they passed out the game to avoid giving Mikan the ball. This  led to the lowest scoring game in NBA history and a new rule – the shot clock. 

In his short career, Mikan was a 6x champion, a 4x All Star and a 5x All NBA 1st Team member. 

George Mikan changed the game of basketball – both the rules themselves and the influence of big men on the game. Most observers considered him the greatest player ever when he retired. 

Bob Pettit (1954-1965)

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Bob Pettit was a 6’9” power forward from LSU who could really shoot. He was among the first players to take advantage of the shot clock to become great scorers. 

Pettit played his whole career for the Milwaukee/St. Louis Hawks. 

He led the NBA twice in scoring and was the first player to score 20,000 points in the league. 

Pettit was also a great rebounder who led the NBA once in total rebounds. He finished his career averaging more than 26 points and 16 rebounds per game. 

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Bob Pettit Card

Pettit won only one title but was an 11x All Star, won league MVP twice, and was on the All-NBA 1st team for 10 straight seasons.

When he retired due to injury in 1965, Pettit was still near his peak. 

In addition to being the first player to score 20,000 points, Pettit retired as the second leading rebounder in the history of the league as well.

Pettit is still ranked third in rebounds per game behind only Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. You’ll hear more about them soon.

Some people never believed Pettit was better than George Mikan. Others moved from Mikan right on to Bill Russell.

But there was a brief period where enough people believed Pettit was the greatest basketball player of all time that I have included him on this list.

Some modern lists that use fancy analysis based on statistics still rank Pettit highly.

Two Great Big Men and Rivals: Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain 

Not many lists still rank either Georg Mikan or Bob Pettit as the greatest player of all time. Most don’t rank them in the top twenty. 

No list worthy of your time could exclude Bill Russell or Wilt Chamberlain from the conversation about the greatest players to ever live.

If you wanted to claim one of these two as the best basketball player of all time, I couldn’t argue too much.

As a Celtics fan, I have always been partial to the idea that Bill Russell is the greatest player to ever live. 

You can think I am wrong, but you can’t tell me I am crazy. These two rivals are most certainly worthy of consideration as the greatest player to ever live. 

Bill Russell (1956-1969)

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Bill Russell is the greatest winner in the history of basketball and one of the greatest winners in the history of all sports.

Russell was a bit of a late bloomer who had only one offer for a college scholarship. Russell took that offer from San Francisco and ran with it.

After shoring up his fundamentals with higher level coaching, Russell became the dominant defensive force he would be for his entire career.

At San Francisco, Russell was joined by future Olympic and Boston Celtics teammate K.C. Jones. The two led the Dons to back-to-back NCAA titles including a 55 game winning streak.

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Bill Russell Poster

It was in college where Russell was noticed for the things that would become his signature characteristics: defense including shot-blocking, rebounding and winning. 

The winning was shaped by another factor in Russell’s life: racism. After he had a completely dominant junior year, another player was chosen as Northern California Player of the Year at an awards banquet.

It was then Russell says he realized he’d never get the credit he deserved as an individual player in a world dominated by white writers and award voters.

He decided not to focus on individual awards. Instead, he would focus on the one thing in his control: winning. 

The summer after finishing college Russell did what he always did: he won. This time it was a 1956 Olympic Gold Medal for the United States. 

Russell then joined the Boston Celtics and did what he always did: he won everything in sight. Russell led the Celtics to 11 NBA titles in his 13 seasons.

Those teams were full of other Hall of Famers including K.C. Jones, Tommy Heinsohn, Bob Cousy, Sam Jones and John Havlicek.

But they were led by Bill Russell in every way. He was the heart soul of the Celtics championship teams. 

Russell was a 12X All Star, made 11 All-NBA teams and was a 5x MVP.  But winning is what defines his life and career and makes the best argument for Bill Russell as the greatest player to ever live. 

By the start of the 1960s, many people were becoming convinced that Bill Russell was the best basketball player to ever live. By the end of that decade, there was only one other person with a claim. 

Wilt Chamberlain

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If Bill Russell’s claim to the title of greatest of all time is based on winning, Chamberlain’s claim is based on crazy stats. 

Look at those numbers for a second: he averaged 30 points and 23 rebounds for his whole career!

He averaged 50 points and 26 rebounds per game for a whole season in his third year in the league. Wilt was the league’s leading scorer his first seven seasons in the NBA.

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Wilt Chamberlain Poster

Of course, as I wrote about extensively here, he did not win a single NBA title in any of those years. Despite being the dominant physical force of his day, and despite putting up god-like numbers, Wilt did not win that much.

He won two titles only. The first came in the ‘66-’67 season after the Sixers brought in a new coach. 

Wilt had a pattern of not listening to any coach and was often not a very good teammate either – he was sometimes guilty of publicly criticizing his own teammates.

Alex Hannum, the new Sixers boss, had a strong presence and was able to get Wilt to listen. One of the things he convinced Wilt to do was to score less and to play more like Russell. 

Wilt averaged 24 points per game that season and focused more on defense. The team won the NBA title. 

Wilt went back to battling with coaches and hit another championship dry streak. He did not win again until he was a Laker and Russel was retired. 

The team brought in Hall of Fame coach (and player) Bill Sharman, who had just won an ABA title with the Utah Stars. 

Sharman convinced Chamberlain to play more like Russell once again. It worked again, with the Lakers winning the 1972 NBA Title. 

Ultimately, Wilt lost seven times in the playoffs to Bill Russelll and the Boston Celtics. Many will say the Celtic teams were deeper and more talented. 

This is mostly true. But WIlt created some of the problems his teams faced as well. 

If you judge by stats, Wilt is the clear winner. 

If you judge only by winning, Russell was the clear winner. 

By the end of the 1960s, everyone thought one of these two was the best basketball player ever.

The Next Great Big Man: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

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The 70s, and to a lesser extent the 80s, belonged to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Many people never changed their minds after Russell or Chamberlain retired. Many modern lists still have those two as among the greatest players of all time, with some even having one of them as the greatest.

But all of those lists also include the next dominant big man in the NBA: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. 

Kareem, then Lew Alcindor, was a legend before he ever left high school as the Tower from Power. His dominant years at UCLA did not slow down the growth of the legend.

He famously led the freshman team over the varsity squad at a time when freshmen were ineligible to play. He went on to win three national championships as a Bruin.

As a pro, Kareem combined the winning of Russell with the stats of Wilt. Alright, he didn’t quite win as much as Russell – but he won six NBA titles.

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Poster

And no one had Wilt’s stats, but Kareem put up better scoring numbers than Russell by a lot. 

Kareem’s awards and accomplishments are ridiculous: 19x All Star, 15x All NBA, 11x All Defensive Teams, 6x MVP. He led the league in blocks 4x and scoring twice. 

He is, of course, also the career NBA scoring leader.

Ultimately, if anything held back Kareem’s case as the greatest to ever live it’s that he won his last five titles, and played the second half of his career, with Magic Johnson. 

As a dumb kid, I remember thinking Kareem was like Magic’s assistant. But I was not really aware of him until at least the mid-80s because I was too young. 

Many adults, who had seen Kareem through the 70s and early 80s, knew better.

While some people stuck with Wilt or Russell as the greatest basketball player ever, others started to claim it was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. 

The Best Players of the 80’s

The 1980s saw a shift in dominant players from strictly big men to forwards and guards. As a kid, I thought everyone believed that either Magic Johnson or Larry Bird was the best basketball player in history. 

Magic Johnson

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Magic, like Kareem, combined great stats with great winning. He won five titles with the Showtime Lakers. And his stats, as you can see above, are quite nice.

He came into the league winning. Magic was the first pick in the 1979 NBA Draft and immediately took the Lakers to the top.

Magic won Finals MVP as a rookie – a performance that included an insane 42 point, 15 rebound, 7 assist game 6 filling in for an injured Kareem at center.

Magic continued to roll through the 80s. He went back and forth with Bird just like they had in college in the 1979 NCAA title game. 

Magic won championships in 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987 & 1988. He was also a 12x All Star, made 10 All NBA teams and won 3 MVP awards. 

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Magic Johnson Picture

His combination of winning and stats was pretty impressive. The way he did it may have been Magic’s most impressive accomplishment. 

He won with style. The Showtime Lakers won in an incredibly entertaining way. 

The biggest argument against Magic is one I would not have thought of as a kid. He was not that strong a defender. 

Kareem and Russell were incredible defenders. Even WIlt could dominate on defense when he was motivated.

Magic was just okay as a defender. In hindsight, I think this hurts his case as the greatest of all time. 

To be the best player ever, you should be great on both ends of the court. But in the 80s, I don’t remember many people talking about it! 

You were either a Bird guy or a Magic guy – or maybe I was just a kid. But many people did think Magic Johnson was the greatest player ever at the time. 

Larry Bird

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Magic’s main rival, and the man about whom I wrote the first two  articles on this website, was Larry Bird. 

Bird lost to Magic in the 1979 NCAA Finals, but he had already been chosen by the Celtics in the 1978 NBA Draft.  

They stole him by taking advantage of a rule that said players could be drafted when their high school class finished college. Bird’s transfer from Indiana to Indiana State cost him a year. 

Bird, true to himself in a way that would make Shakespeare proud, held the Celtics up for every last dollar after becoming a star in his senior season.

The Celtics never regretted paying top dollar for him. He immediately transformed the Celtics team in 1980. 

 I wrote a post about that team here. The team won only 29 games the season before he arrived but improved to 61 wins his rookie season. 

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Larry Bird Poster

While they were defeated by the Sixers in the Conference Finals his rookie year, the team would go on to win a title in Bird’s second season.

The Celtics added two more titles in 1984 & 1986. Bird was cut down too soon because he was an old rookie, at least by today’s standards, at 23, and by the back injury that would rob him of his athleticism.

Even still, Bird was a 12x All Star, 10x All NBA selection and 3x league MVP. 

Unlike Magic, Bird was decent on defense, at least as a younger player. He was a 3x All-NBA Defensive 2nd team selection.

Of course, those awards are not generally the best measures of defensive ability. But it usually means you are at least not an awful defender and Bird was not.

Defense is where I would draw the line between the big men of the 60s and 70s and Bird and Magic. In hindsight, I think I’d take the big men because they were better two-way players. 

But in the 1980s, I was convinced Bird was the greatest player ever. I was not alone. 

Summary: Best Basketball Player Before Jordan

There are seven players who were widely considered the greatest player ever before Michael Jordan came along. Bob Pettit and George Mikan were basketball pioneers. The trio of big men Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were all considered the best at one time. In the 80s people often argued it was Larry Bird or Magic Johnson.

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