The game of basketball has undergone massive changes in its 119-year history. Although it has amassed hundreds of millions of players throughout its history, there have been four players that have had a long-lasting effect on the game and its future. These are not simply the four best players of all time, but they have all managed to influence the game in such significant ways that basketball wouldn’t be what it is without them.
1) Magic Johnson: Pioneered the “Tall Guard” Movement
Going into the 1980’s, the NBA began to lose popularity and started to fall into the shadow of the other professional sports leagues. This all started to change when the 6’9 point guard Earvin “Magic” Johnson was drafted out of Michigan State University. Johnson was unlike any other guard in his class, the main contributor to his uniqueness being his height. Johnson was taller than most NBA forwards while still playing the point guard at an efficient level. His height gave him an advantage on both sides of the court. He could grab rebounds, turning him into a one man fast break, he had an elite level IQ. His height allowed him to see the court better than other guards; which played a huge role in his incredible court vision. Johnson’s unique skill set put him in the perfect position to become the leader of the Los Angeles Lakers teams that were eventually given the nickname “Showtime”. Their exciting, fast-pace play style captivated audiences throughout the 1980’s and played a huge role in revitalizing the NBA. The intense rivalry between the Lakers and Celtics, and even more specifically between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, caught the attention of sports fans throughout the world. Although Bird is a legend in his own right, Magic’s unique build was the start of a trend that would come to fruition over 20 years later; that being the tall guard phenomenon. Johnson was able to influence players like Ben Simmons, LeBron James, and Tracy McGrady. His overall dominance throughout the 80’s also had a hand in him being seen as more influential. Without Magic Johnson, the landscape of the NBA, and basketball in general would be much different.
2) Michael Jordan: Turned the NBA Global and Inspired an Entire Generation
Once Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had become established stars in the NBA, it was time to think about who the next generational player would be. Although there were several stars in college that could have been the person to define the 1990’s, a 6’6 guard from the University of North Carolina named Michael Jordan was preparing to take the league by storm. After being drafted 3rd overall by the Chicago Bulls in the 1984 draft. Jordan immediately began to dominate the NBA. In his rookie season, he averaged 28.2 points and 6.5 rebounds while managing to capture the hearts of basketball fans throughout the world. Air Jordan, as he started to be called, was nothing short of dominant in every facet of the game. He could score in any way he wished, whether it be hitting his signature fadeaway or making use of his 46 inch vertical and throwing down a vicious dunk over the heads of defenders. Although Jordan was extremely talented from the start of his career, he needed a better team around him that could compete for a championship. In the 1990-1991 season, Jordan finally proved all his doubters wrong and won his first championship. In the next two seasons, the Bulls would win the championship another two times, completing a three-peat. At this point, the buzz around the Bulls was at an all-time high, and most of that was because of Jordan himself. Before the popularity of basketball was mostly contained to the United States, and although Magic Johnson and Larry Bird definitely contributed to the NBA’s worldwide popularity, Jordan caused basketball to become a worldwide craze. There was not a single person in the world with access to a radio or television who wouldn’t know who Michael Jordan was. The attraction to Jordan then led to the interest in the NBA going up, turning the league today into the powerhouse in the sports world it is today. Jordan’s influence on future generations can be seen in his work ethic. Several players have come forward saying that Jordan is the reason why their work ethic is as consistent as it is. The most well-known would of course be Kobe Bryant, who modeled his entire game after the Bulls legend. Jordan’s contribution to the game of basketball will never be forgotten and will have a lasting impact as long as the game is alive.
3) LeBron James: One of the Leaders of the “Positionless” Basketball Movement & Promoted Activism off the Court
If there was one player to define the 2010’s era of basketball, the answer worldwide would almost unanimously be LeBron James. The 6’8 forward from Akron, Ohio was one of the most hyped up prospects of all time, and he did not disappoint in the slightest. James was compared most often to Magic Johnson, seeing as how they were both tall players who had the vision, IQ, and ball handling skills of a point guard. James was much like Magic, a pass-first player, but the thing that separated him from Johnson was his freak athleticism and durability. Throughout his 17 year career, the worst injury James has ever had was a groin injury in 2019 in which he missed 17 games. James has also become one of the best scorers in the league despite not being a score first player. James’ influence can be seen in the modern day movement of basketball slowly phasing out stereotypical positions. James was one of the first players in the 2000’s era that played and guarded the 1 through 5 with high levels of success.
James’ influence has also managed to escape the basketball court. Since he was in the NBA, he has always been very outspoken social justice and has used his platform to humanize celebrities by allowing them to talk about their personal lives. James has used his platform to give perspectives on what it means to be an athlete, artist, businessman, and a man. This was at its peak in 2018 when James opened the I Promise School in Akron, Ohio. The school was aimed at at-risk children and was formed after James reflected on his experiences living as an inner-city kid in Akron. James has shown an entire generation that success in one area can open doors to opportunities for activism.
4) Stephen Curry: Revolutionized the 3 Point Shot
The 3 point shot has an interesting history; being introduced in 1979, it was simply an afterthought. Teams in the 70’s and 80’s were built on the backs of dominant big men, so the three point line was essentially useless. The line was slowly being used more as teams drifted from the big man ideal. However, an explosion came in the mid 2010’s. Teams started to make the three point shot a point of focus in their offense. It had gone from what seemed to be a gimmick to the deadliest weapon of some teams. This revolution was led by Stephen Curry, a 6’3 guard from Davidson College. Curry was never the tallest or strongest player on the court, so he had to rely on his agility, ball handling, and most importantly, shooting. It seemed like every game Curry was hitting some type of ludicrous shot from 35 feet. This influence of the 3’s popularity caused everyone to want to shoot. Gone are the days of big men operating out of the post, players like Nikola Jokic and Karl Anthony-Towns are a few examples of big men not conforming to the role they had in the past. The influence of the 3 pointer is a huge part in creating the “positionless” game we know today.
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