Influence is more than just what you do on the court in basketball. There have been MANY good to great players to step foot in the NBA. However, not all of them left an impact in the way these players did. Their influence can be measured by their impact on the court, their reputation outside of basketball, and their impact on the generation that followed them. All of these men have contributed greatly to the game & the culture of basketball as a whole. However, only one can be at the top.
A legitimate argument can be made that Michael Jordan is the most famous athlete to ever live. He’s without question the biggest star to step foot on a basketball court. 6 championships with the Chicago Bulls and his dominance in the 1990’s pushed the NBA into mainstream culture. He was one of the most marketable athletes during his playing years. Every kid wanted to “Be Like Mike”, from dunking at the free throw line to repping Air Jordans everywhere to this day. Also, every hooper (including some on this list) were directly inspired by MJ. You can debate him as a player, but his impact on the sport will never be topped. Even his biggest critics will agree.
2. Allen Iverson
A.I came into the league during an interesting time. He was virtually the gap between the 90s style of basketball where names like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson & Larry Bird were wrapping up & the emerging 2000s generation with names like Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Shaq & Tim Duncan were taking over. With that being said, Iverson’s biggest impact on the game can be summed up in one word, “Authentic”. From the braids, the crossovers, the clothing, and the popularity, A.I was as authentic as you can be. His style turned off a lot of people who were used to the “squeaky-clean” persona guys like Michael Jordan portrayed. Iverson was the GOAT for a demographic of people who never truly saw themselves in him. While he doesn't have the career accolades as others on this list, very few have had the cultural impact on their sport the way Iverson had.
Lebron came into the league at 18-Years Old and there has never been a player as scrutinized from day 1 as him. He came in with the expectations of he had to be an all-time great and anything less would be a disappointment. He is now the all-time leading scorer in NBA History, a 4-time champion with 3 different teams, and without a doubt one of the most famous people in the 21st century. Lebron’s impact is also shown in how we consume basketball as fans & how it’s presented to us through media. Lebron’s 2010 ‘Decision” was the first example of player empowerment that others would later follow suit. The constant comparison between him & Michael Jordan has been the number one sports debate in barbershops, gatherings, sports talk shows, etc. Combine that with the feat of being the first active player to become a billionaire, Lebron’s impact on the sport can never be disputed, only respected.
4. Stephen Curry
Throughout basketball history, the model for a great player was always tall, super athletic, guards or bigs who can get to the basket and make highlight plays. Steph Curry is the complete opposite of that model. He’s not as tall as Shaq or Kareem or uber-athletic like Lebron or MJ. However, his ability to hit a shot from literally ANYWHERE on the court has changed the way players approach the game. Great shooters have always existed in basketball but nobody has made it such a focal point of their game and has had the success with it as Curry has. 4 Championships, 2 MVPs, most three-pointers in NBA history are just some of his achievements. Also, his impact can be seen in how the younger generation emulates his game. Younger players used to want to hit 360 dunks & alley-oops. Coaches used to beg players to shoot the ball and not just go for dunks. Now, players want to pull up from mid-court, and back to the basket bigs want to hit pull three’s. Curry’s impact is largely on how his style of play has defined a generation. While other players made their impact on other factors off the court, Curry’s legacy will be how he “revolutionized” the 3-point shot.
5. Kobe Bryant
Every kid who grew up in the 2000s balled up some paper, shot it in the trashcan and yelled “Kobe” at some point. Kobe was a star before he even stepped foot on the court for the Lakers. He was always one of the more popular players in the league while coming off the bench his rookie year. He went on to win 5 titles in his career and finish top 5 in almost every statistical category. However, the thing that set him apart was his mentality. ‘Mamba Mentality” is something that could be applied to any aspect of life, not just sports. Giving 100% percent effort in everything you do & going the extra mile in your preparation are just some of the lessons Kobe taught people through his play. So much so that even in retirement, players would still reach out to him for advice on not just basketball, but life in general. Even after his tragic death in 2020, his mark on a generation is still felt to this day. You can criticize his play on the court, but you cannot challenge the impact he had on not just basketball players, but an entire generation of fans.
6. Magic Johnson
An argument can be made that Ervin “Magic” Johnson was the first true crossover star for the NBA. He had the look, the personality, and playing in Los Angeles doesn't hurt at all. A point guard who was built like a power forward and was the master of “Showtime” in LA. Him & Larry Bird are credited for “Saving” the NBA when the league was going through a truly turbulent time business-wise. Their battles throughout the 1980’s stamped the NBA on the mainstream sports map. Even when he was forced to retire in 1991, he began to make an impact off the court. Becoming an ambassador for helping spread knowledge of the AIDS epidemic, launching multiple businesses, and eventually becoming a billionaire years later. Magic helped make the NBA the flashy & exciting league it is today. However, the 2nd act of his basketball journey has been arguably more successful than his 1st act.
7. Shaquille O’Neal
Arguably the most physically dominant player the sport has ever seen, Shaq came into the league and was a superstar from day one. Him & Penny Hardaway took a young Orlando Magic organization and had them as one of the most exciting teams of the early 1990s. When he left to join the Lakers, him & Kobe Bryant became the most successful duo the sport had seen, only comparable to Jordan & Pippen. He then goes and wins a championship with a young Dwayne Wade in Miami. 4 rings, highlights upon highlights, Shaq is the standard of NBA centers even to this day because we have never seen a player of his size & position be dominant like he was in his prime. Post career, he’s gone on to become the ultimate marketing spokesman. IcyHot, Goldbond, Papa Johns, The General Insurance are just some of his many brand deals he’s achieved in retirement. Movie/TV cameos, a prominent role on Inside The NBA, being a DJ as a hobby, even having rap songs with Biggie while being a player, Shaq has become a prominent mainstream figure in entertainment & business. He’s truly “Larger Than Life”
8. Bill Russell
When being an 11-time NBA Champion isn’t even your greatest accomplishment, you know you’ve done something extraordinary. Bill Russell’s impact is largely based on what he’s done off the court. A civil rights activist who stood side by side with some of the greatest athletes of our time in Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown & Kareem Abdul Jabbar fighting for the rights of Black people in the U.S. He stood up to intense racism playing in Boston during the 1960s and went on to have one of (if not the most) successful careers in sports history. Russell’s legacy will always be that he was a champion and made the Boston Celtics the historic franchise they are. However, his role in the fight for his people will always take precedent. When you see athletes speaking out on social issues and taking stances, the late Bill Russell was a pioneer in that.
9. Dirk Nowtizki
The NBA today has become an international pool of talent. From guys like Nikola Jokic, Luka Doncic, Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and most recently Victor Wembanyama, the myth the foreign players couldn't hang with American players is beyond dead at this point. Dirk Nowitzki is credited as the first true foreign superstar the NBA has had. The German big man came into the league in 1998 for the Dallas Mavericks and was the face of the franchise until he passed the torch to Luka Doncic in 2019. A skillful big who took home league MVP honors in 2007 and won his only title in 2011, Dirk paved the way for the wave of international talent we see occupying the league today. So much so, overseas players are always hyped as “The Next Dirk” when they enter the league.