Ten Greatest NBA Duos

by Paul Knepper

Basketball is a team game, though often performed at the highest level when two players work in concert. The pick-and-roll remains the most productive offensive set and no play is more enthralling than an alley-oop. Rarely has a lone superstar carried a team on his back to an NBA championship. Shaq needed Kobe, Jordan needed Pippen and Isiah needed Dumars.

During past this season LeBron James and Dwyane Wade distinguished themselves as the most dynamic duo in the league, even though they fell just short of a championship. Before they can be considered among the elite duos to ever player the game they have to do it for more than one season.

These are the ten greatest NBA duos ever.

10) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson (Milwaukee Bucks)

“The Big O” and Lew Alcindor teamed up for the 70-71 season and led the Bucks to a league best 66 wins. They rolled to the NBA Finals, where they defeated a Baltimore Bullets team led by Earl Monroe and Wes Unseld 4-0. The next day Alcindor announced that he’d changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The two hall of famers played just three more seasons together and never returned to the finals, as Robertson’s skills declined in his mid-30’s.

9) Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars (Detroit Pistons)

Isiah and Dumars teamed up four nine seasons as the starting bakcourt for the Detroit Pistons. Isiah handled the ball and Dumars knocked down jumpers, while locking down the best shooting guards in the league. The “Bad Boys” won back-to-back championships together in 1989 and 1990. Dumars won the 1989 Finals MVP and Isiah took the award in 1990.

8)  John Stockton and Karl Malone (Utah Jazz)

Stockton and Malone mastered the pick-and-roll over their 18 seasons together and went to the playoffs in every one of them. The NBA’s all-time assist leader and second all-time leading scorer led the Jazz to the Western Conference Finals five times in seven years, including back-to-back trips to the NBA Finals in 1997 and 1998, but weren’t able to get past Jordan and the Bulls.

7) Tim Duncan and David Robinson (San Antonio Spurs)

Robinson’s injury during the ’96-’97 season was a blessing in disguise for the Spurs. With the first pick in the ’97 draft they landed Tim Duncan, creating the twin towers that would lead the Spurs to the promised land. San Antonio defeated the Knicks in five games in the ’99 Finals and after a three-peat by the Lakers, Duncan and company delivered Robinson a second ring as a retirement gift in 2003. Duncan was named the MVP of both finals.

6) Wilt Chamberlain & Jerry West (Los Angeles Lakers)

West and the Wilt played together in L.A. for just five seasons, though they advanced to the NBA Finals in four of them and defeated the Knicks to get “the logo” his first ring in 1972. That season West and “The Big Dipper” led the Lakers to 69 wins, including 33 consecutive wins, a record which still stands today.

5) Larry Bird & Kevin McHale (Boston Celtics)

Bird and McHale made five trips to the NBA Finals during their 12 seasons together in Boston, winning championships in ’81, ’84 and ’86. Larry Legend ripped teams hearts out with his long range shooting, while McHale dominated inside with a vast array of post moves. Were their careers not derailed by injuries (McHale never fully recovered from playing on a broken foot in the ’87 playoffs and Bird’s back gave out on him), they may have won more rings.

4) Bill Russell and Bob Cousy (Boston Celtics)

Russell and Cousy were the first dominant duo in the league, both innovators who changed the way their positions were played. They won 6 championships in the late ’50’s and early 6o’s before Cousy retired in 1963. They don’t rank higher on this list because they had so much talent around them, especially Russell. In fact, you can argue that Cousy wasn’t even Russell’s greatest wing man. Slick-shooting Sam Jones was by Russell’s side for 10 of his 11 rings and Havlicek joined him for the later years of his career.

3) Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal (Los Angeles Lakers)

Shaq and a young Kobe joined forces to form an indefensible inside-outside punch which carried the Lakers to three consecutive championships from 2000-2002. Shaq won the Finals MVP each time. Ultimately, the only thing that stood in between this dynamic duo and several more rings was their own egos.

2) Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen (Chicago Bulls)

No two players have ever controlled the perimeter on both sides of the court like MJ and Pippen. Together, they led the Bulls to 6 championships, by way of two different three-peats, ’91-’93 and ’96-’98. Had Michael not walked away from the game for nearly two seasons they likely would have won eight in a row.

1) Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Los Angeles Lakers)

They’re two of the top five players to ever to play the game, the flashy point guard, with the no-look passes and the dominant big man with the unstoppable hook-shot. Magic and Kareem won five championships together and appeared in 8 NBA Finals over their ten seasons as teammates. Kareem led the way in the early years, then Magic carried the load as Kareem grew older.

Honorable Mention:

Jerry West and Elgin Baylor (Los Angeles Lakers)

Moses Malone and Julius Erving (Philadelphia 76ers)

Willis Reed and Walt Frazier (New York Knicks)

Most Influential African-American Athletes

Sports have been a catalyst for social change in this country, especially within the civil rights movement, as African-Americans have battled institutional racism in order to earn equal opportunity and respect in the athletic arena. Through courage and determination, many individual athletes blazed trails for future ballplayers and in the process became heroes and role models for African-Americans in all sectors of society. Black History Month is the perfect time to count down the twenty most influential African-American athletes in sports history.

20) Jackie Joyner-Kersee

Sports Illustrated named Joyner-Kersee the greatest female athlete of the 20th century. She won six Olympic medals in track and field, including three golds, and also scored over 1,000 points in a stellar college basketball career with the UCLA Bruins. She was an inspiration for countless African-American girls.

19) Bill Russell

Russell won 11 NBA championships over his 13 seasons with the Boston Celtics and changed the way the game was played through his dominance on the defensive end of the court. He was a stalwart supporter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement and became the first African-American head coach in any major sport.

18) Andrew “Rube” Foster

Rube was one of the best African-American pitchers of the early 20th century, though his biggest contribution to the game came as an entrepreneur. He organized the National Negro League in 1920, the first long-standing league for African Americans, which was essential to the growth of Negro League baseball in this country.

17) Charlie Sifford

Sifford was the target of racist taunts as he was repeatedly denied access to PGA events throughout the 1950’s. He eventually became the first African-American to participate on the tour when the PGA dropped it’s “Caucasian-only clause” in 1961 and in 2004 became the first African-American inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.

16) Frederick “Fritz” Pollard

In 1919, Pollard and Marshall became the first African-Americans to play in the NFL. Walter Camp once called Pollard “one of the greatest runners these eyes have ever seen.” He led the Akron Pros to the first NFL championship in 1920 and a year later was named player-coach, making him the first African American head coach in the NFL.

15) Jack Johnson

The first African-American to win the heavyweight title was a lightning rod for controversy. He was beloved within the African-American community, though a brash black man with an affinity for white women didn’t go over very well with white America. His victory over Jim Jeffries in 1910 sparked race riots throughout the country.

14) Magic Johnson

Magic brought excitement and prosperity to college basketball and the NBA with his style, flare and million-dollar smile. His announcement that he’s HIV-positive changed the way people perceived the illness and he’s been a leading advocate for HIV/AIDS research and prevention ever since.

13) Hank Aaron

Hammerin’ Hank was the epitome of class, as he endured horrific racism in pursuit of the most hallowed record in professional sports, Babe Ruth’s 714 home runs. Since eclipsing the Babe’s mark he’s worked with Major League Baseball to advance the rights of minorities within the game.

12) Tiger Woods

This son of an African-American father and Thai mother is arguably the greatest golfer of all time and has introduced a white, country club sport to people from all different racial and socio-economic backgrounds. In the process, he’s chipped away at the institutional racism that still exists within the golf world.

11) Curt Flood

Flood refused to accept a trade from the St. Louis Cardinals after the 1969 season and instead took Major League Baseball to court, challenging the reserve clause, which he compared to slavery. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where he lost, but it was the first step in a process that eventually led to free agency in baseball.

10) Wilma Rudolph

Rudolph was one of the stars of the 1960 Olympics in Rome, where she became the first American female to win three gold medals in track and field during one Olympic games. She emboldened girls around the globe to compete in athletics and was an active participant in the civil rights movement.

9) Althea Gibson

Gibson has been called “the Jackie Robinson of tennis” for breaking the sport’s color barrier. She was the first African American to win a Grand Slam event and won a total of five throughout her career. When she retired from tennis she became the first African American woman to play professional golf.

8)  Arthur Ashe

Ashe remains the only African American man to win Wimbledon and was a staunch proponent of civil rights in the U.S. and abroad. He was one of the first athletes to take a stand against apartheid in South Africa and fought for the right of immigrants in the United States, even getting twice for the causes. He also raised awareness for HIV/AIDS, the disease which eventually killed him.

7) John Carlos/Tommy Smith

The two track stars provided one of the most memorable moments in Olympic history when they lowered their heads and raised black-gloved fists on the medal stand during the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner at the 1968 Games. Carlos and Smith paid an enormous price for their gesture, but they succeeded in calling the world’s attention to the plight of African-Americans.

6) Jim Brown

Considered by many to be the greatest football player to ever suit up on the gridiron, Brown starred with Raquel Welsh in the first interracial love scene in a movie in 100 Rifles. He worked with other great athletes to bring about social and political change within the African-American community and in recent years has successfully quelled gang violence in California.

5) Michael Jordan

“Air” Jordan transcended race, becoming one of the most popular athletes in the world and elevating the popularity of basketball to new heights in the U.S. and abroad. He redefined the marketability of a professional athlete, becoming a brand unto himself, and recently became the first African American former athlete to be the majority owner of a sports franchise.

4) Joe Louis

“The Brown Bomber” was one of the greatest boxers of all-time and is best remembered for knocking out Germany’s Max Schmeling. The victory over Hitler’s pawn made him a hero to white America; no small feat in 1938, and it’s safe to say that no athlete has been more embraced and revered by the African-American community.

3) Jesse Owens

Owens was the first African-American athlete to be lionized by Americans of all races when he shattered Hitler’s idea of a “master race” at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. His four gold medals and three world records at the Games inspired millions of African-Americans, including a young Jack Roosevelt Robinson.

2) Muhammad Ali

Ali was one of the greatest pugilists of all-time, a poet, a showman, and perhaps most importantly, an activist. He’s become a worldwide symbol of resistance for his willingness to stand up for what he believes in, whether it’s racial equality, his religion or opposition to the Vietnam War, often at great personal cost.

1) Jackie Robinson

No athlete is more closely identified with the struggle of African-Americans than Robinson. He overcame vile racism and overwhelming pressure to brake the color barrier to America’s favorite pastime, inspiring African-Americans in all facets of society with his courage and dignity. Later in life he used his status to support the civil rights movement.

Honorable Mentions: Wilt Chamberlain, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, Ernie Davis, Lee Elder, Florence Griffith-Joyner, Spencer Haywood, Carl Lewis, Marion Motley, Leroy “Satchel” Paige, Frank Robinson, Gene Upshaw, Serena and Venus Williams