Basketball Icons Kids Should Learn About!

A number of years ago I was saw an interview with a baseball player who had just signed a big free agent contract. The interviewer then mentioned the name of Curt Flood and how maybe he owes him some thanks. The player had no idea who Flood was and the interviewer (and myself) were a bit dumbfounded. Curt Flood was the baseball player who challenged the reserve clause tying a player to one team for his career. He was instrumental in helping to create free agency and thus increasing by leaps and bounds the salaries of ballplayers. Just as we adults have an obligation to teach our youth about the George Washingtons, Abraham Lincolns and Martin Luther Kings of the world, if we are coaching  sports, why not teach our players some of the history of the sport they are playing? We owe it to the players we coach and to the people who helped shape the great sport of basketball. So here we go and by the way a special thanks to my good friend and writer Ralph Sharaga who gave me his input.

1. George Mikan

Considered the original big man. Mikan (nicknamed Mr. Basketball) came out of Joliet, Illinois and with his height, helped shape the way basketball was to be forever played. He is considered a pioneer of basketball. Because of the way he played, the NBA widened the lane from six to twelve feet. He became the first commissioner of the ABA, which used a red, white and blue ball and was the league that first instituted the three point shot. And make sure you mention to your youth basketball players that George Mikan had the ultimate compliment to any player. They name a drill after him. The “Mikan Drill” has been used by almost every basketball player who has ever picked up a basketball.

2. Hank Luisetti

Who you ask is this player out of Galileo High School in San Francisco and then Stanford University? He developed the running one-handed shot. Hank Luisetti helped popularized the jump shot. Many people give him credit for inventing it which has never been a proven fact. As Ralph Sharaga mentioned to me, “this is analogous to inventing the forward pass in football.” He developed spinal meningitis while in the Navy and never played in the NBA. In 1950, sports writers voted him the second-best player in the first half of the century. Make sure your youth players get to hear his name mentioned more than once during the course of a season.

3. Bob Cousy

Cousy was out of New York and was picked up by the Boston Celtics after he refused to report to the Tri-Cities Blackhawks who drafted him. He played college basketball at Holy Cross. Bob Cousy changed the passing game in the NBA. Cousy led the NBA in assists eight straight years. His “no look” and “behind the back” passes helped popularize a different aspect of the game. Convey to your youth team how individually they can be recognized as a great player even if they are not a high scorer.

4. Red Auerbach

Known mostly for bringing the fast break to the NBA and building the Boston Celtic dynasty, Red was also an innovator and was a visionary. He drafted the first black player, Chuck Cooper in 1950 in the NBA. He also hired the first black coach, Bill Russell. Red was also something of a genius and con man the way he seemed to always manipulate things to get everything he wanted. This is from a Knick fan who still cannot understand how he got Charlie Scott.

5. Bill Russell

He follows Red which is appropriate because both are sometimes joined at the hip when talking about NBA basketball in the late 1950’s and 1960’s. As a player there was no one like him. Losing was never an option in Russell’s vocabulary. He made shot blocking vogue. He not only popularized the defensive end of the court, but if you were to use today’s language you could say he helped revolutionize “defense” and “defense 2.0”  all by himself. Russell used to describe his blocked shots as meaningless unless he tapped it to a teammate. This is a great lesson for your youth players. 

6. Elgin Baylor

Names like Michael Jordan, Dr. J and Connie Hawkins are given credit for bringing an aspect of “street ball” to the NBA. The first name on the list should be Elgin Baylor. The term “hang time” first originated with Baylor’s great moves and high leaps to the basket.

His 71 points in a game against the Knicks was a record at the time. He spent his career playing along side Jerry West to combine for one of the best one two tandems ever in the NBA. 

7. Spencer Haywood

Why is Spencer Haywood on this list you may ask? Just as Curt Flood help revolutionize free agency in baseball, Haywood was instrumental in doing the same thing in basketball.

He was a legend while going to high school in Detroit, and a solid NBA player who never really lived up to his billing. But what he did for the players today challenging the free agent system (which was eventually settled with the NBA), was to put literally millions of extra dollars in their contracts and pockets.

8. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Formerly Lew Alcindor of Inwood New York on the northern tip of Manhattan, Alcindor was legendary at a very young age. The most incredible thing about this player who changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was that college basketball actually changed the rule about dunking because of him. Imagine a player so prolific in one aspect of the game that the hierarchy of men’s college basketball took away a part of his game while he was in college, only to change the rule back sometime after he left. This is like major league baseball deciding to put the pitching mound back an extra ten feet because say a Sandy Koufax type pitcher is too dominating. Abdul-Jabbar played on numerous championship teams in college and in the pros and is the all time leading scorer in the NBA. This is in addition to go with his six-time Most Valuable Player and 15-time All-NBA selection.

9. Magic Johnson & Larry Bird

You cannot really mention one of these names without the other. Their rivalry started in college with the Indiana State-Michigan State NCAA championship game. This game was one of the highest rated watched college games ever. Their rivalry continued in the NBA. The Celtic-Laker rivalry at the time was second to none. When these two teams played on a nationally televised game, people actually changed their schedule to watch them. Bird and Johnson are credited with helping to make the NBA popular again on television after it had gone through a kind of dry spell. 

10. Michael Jordan

There is only one Michael Jordan. The NBA could not wait to put the Chicago Bulls on television because of his popularity. If you are ever having a lousy day, go to YouTube and type in his name and sit back and watch. Here is a player who knew of only one way to approach the game of basketball, hard work! If he recognized a part of his game that was lacking, he would work on it. He game into the league as just an average outside shooter and developed into a great outside shooter. His biggest attribute to young people is to hear him talk about not being afraid to fail. And this is a great lesson in life. Also mention to your youth basketball team, Jordan made the All-Defensive team nine times in his career.

These are my ten and I’m sure if you ask 100 people my age for their ten, you’ll get 100 different answers. Just as we owe our youth basketball teams our best coaching, we also owe them to become better citizens. Sprinkling in some historical facts about basketball may not sink in to the whole team. But why not give them the opportunity to learn.

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