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Friday, September 18, 2009

Young at Heart: Pro Basketball’s All-Time Ageless Wonders

A slightly different* version of this article was originally published in the November 2002 issue of Basketball Digest.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones laments, "It's not the years, it’s the mileage." For most pro basketball players it is a combination of both: years banging in the paint and miles sprinting up and down the court. Eventually, the body breaks down, skills erode and the next stop is the golf course or the broadcast booth.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, 46 year old Nat Hickey of the 1947-48 Providence Steamrollers is the oldest player in NBA history. He only appeared in one game that season; the Official NBA Encyclopedia credits Hickey with two free throws made, while the 2002 Sporting News NBA Guide indicates that Hickey did not score any points.

Nine other NBA players have participated in at least one game after turning 40. Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Robert Parish and John Stockton--who joined the club last season--played significant, effective minutes. In fact, while it is becoming increasingly common for players to extend their careers into their late 30s, few of them have maintained a high level of play past the age of 35.

The unquestioned king of the 35 and over club is Abdul-Jabbar; he posted Hall of Fame caliber career numbers just in his final eight seasons. During that time he played an important role on four Lakers' championship teams, was an All-Star each year, earned four All-NBA First or Second Team selections, made the All-Defensive Second Team once and won one Finals MVP. He ranked among the league's scoring, field goal percentage and shot blocking leaders in several of those seasons.

One could argue that his last two All-Star selections were more of a career achievement award than anything else (he averaged only 14.6 ppg and 10.1 ppg at the ages of 41 and 42 respectively). On the other hand, comparing Abdul-Jabbar's last eight seasons to the careers of some Hall of Famers, it could easily be said that he earned such dispensation. His eight All-Star appearances would tie him on the all-time list with luminaries such as Alex English and Bob Lanier, while the four All-NBA selections are more than Dave Cowens, Bob McAdoo or Wes Unseld earned during their distinguished careers. Abdul-Jabbar's 12,117 points (19.4 ppg) in his final eight seasons would rank just behind Willis Reed on the career regular season scoring list.

During his first comeback Michael Jordan had the most decorated season of any 35 year old in pro basketball history. He won the 1997-98 regular season, All-Star and Finals MVPs (only Willis Reed in 1969-70 and Shaquille O'Neal in 1999-2000 have matched this achievement). Jordan also won the scoring title and made the All-NBA First Team and All-Defensive First Team. Jordan capped off 1997-98 by hitting the game winning shot in the Finals and (seemingly) riding off into the sunset.

Of course, last year Jordan made his second comeback. He made the All-Star team and became the oldest player to score at least 50 points in a regular season game (51 points in a 107-90 win versus the Hornets on December 29, 2001). Before being hobbled by knee injuries he, Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady were the only players in the NBA averaging 25-plus points, 5-plus rebounds and 5-plus assists per game. By the All-Star break Jordan had almost single-handedly propelled the previously woeful Washington Wizards (19-63 in 2000-2001) into the chase for home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, Jordan only scored 12.4 ppg after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery on February 27, finishing the season with averages of 22.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg and 5.2 apg. The Wizards were 30-30 when Jordan played (including several losses in which he was severely hampered by his bad knee) and 7-15 without him. Jordan's injuries kept him out of MVP and All-NBA contention and enabled Abdul-Jabbar to retain the unofficial title of best 39 year old basketball player. In 1985-86 Abdul-Jabbar ranked tenth in scoring (23.4 ppg, with a high game of 46), seventh in field goal percentage (.564) and displayed remarkable durability by averaging 33.3 minutes per game in 79 games. He earned All-NBA First Team honors and in the postseason he increased his scoring to 25.9 ppg while shooting a stellar .557 from the field.

In the lockout-shortened 1999 season Karl Malone joined Jordan as the only 35-plus year old regular season MVP. He also made the All-NBA First Team and All-Defensive First Team. Malone was selected to the All-NBA Second Team the following season and the All-NBA Third Team in 2000-01. Malone earned All-Star selections in each of those seasons except 1999, when no All-Star Game was held; he was also chosen for the 2002 game, but did not play. He will turn 40 a few months before the start of the 2003-2004 season and seems intent on playing long enough to break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's regular season career scoring record.

Although Wilt Chamberlain voluntarily reduced his scoring during his last several seasons he remained a dominant defender and rebounder until the end of his career. He won the Finals MVP as a 35 year old for the 69-13 L.A. Lakers in 1971-72. He also made the All-NBA Second Team. Chamberlain won the rebounding and field goal percentage crowns in 1971-72 and 1972-73; he was selected for the All-Defensive First Team and the All-Star team in both of those seasons.

Player-coach Bill Russell led the Boston Celtics to their eleventh championship in thirteen seasons in 1968-69. Chamberlain's longtime rival finished third in the league in rebounds (1484; 19.3 rpg) and made the All-Defensive First Team.

Jerry West became the first 35 year old guard to perform at a superstar level, making the All-NBA First Team, All-Defensive First Team and the All-Star team in 1972-73. He averaged 22.8 ppg and 8.8 apg but was not listed among league leaders because he played in only 69 games (at that time players had to appear in at least 70 games to be ranked among the statistical leaders). West made the All-Star team again in 1973-74 but only participated in 31 regular season games due to injuries.

Ironman John Havlicek, who retired as the all-time leader in games played (1270), did not slow down much when he passed his 35th birthday. He made the All-NBA Second Team and All-Defensive First Team in 1974-75 and 1975-76. He also was selected to four All-Star teams at 35-plus years of age, tied for second all-time with Karl Malone. He was an important contributor to the Celtics' 1975-76 championship team.

John Stockton made the All-NBA Third Team and All-Defensive First Team as a 35 year old in 1996-97. He added another All-NBA Third Team selection in 1999 and made the All-Star Team in 1996-97 and 1999-00. Although Stockton at 35 was not as productive as West at the same age, he has managed to stay healthy and continue to play at a high level for several more seasons than West did.

Stockton celebrated his 40th birthday during the 2001-02 season, although one would never know it by looking at his statistics: 13.4 ppg, 8.2 apg (fifth in the league), 1.85 spg (tied for 10th in the league) and .517 shooting from the field (fifth in the league) in 31.3 mpg. He played in all 82 games for the 15th time. Only Abdul-Jabbar has posted better numbers at 40 (17.5 ppg, 6.7 rpg, .564 field goal percentage in 1986-87); Robert Parish is the next closest, with 11.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg and a .491 field goal percentage in 1993-94.

Dennis Rodman was a key contributor during the Chicago Bulls' second three-peat, winning three straight rebounding titles (1996-98) and making the All-Defensive First Team in 1995-96. His flamboyance likely cost him selections to All-Star and All-NBA teams .

Robert Parish played until he was 43 and holds the records for most seasons (21) and most games played (1611). He made the All-NBA Third Team as a 35 year old in 1988-89 and was an All-Star the next two seasons. Parish averaged less than 5 ppg in each of his last three seasons.

Several other players who enjoyed productive seasons after the age of 35 were not selected for the postseason All-NBA or All-Defensive Teams:

***Alex English made the All-Star team in 1988-89 and finished sixth in scoring (26.5 ppg), including a 51 point outburst; at 35 he was the oldest to score 50-plus points in a game until Jordan topped him last season.

***Julius Erving made three All-Star teams past the age of 35, trailing only Abdul-Jabbar, Malone and Havlicek. In 1984-85 the 35 year old Erving averaged 20.0 ppg and became the oldest 100/100 Club player (135 steals, 109 blocked shots). Two years later Erving averaged 16.8 ppg and blocked 94 shots in only 60 games.

***Lenny Wilkens posted excellent numbers as a 35 year old All-Star in 1972-73 (20.5 ppg, 8.4 apg and 4.6 rpg). He averaged 16.4 ppg, 7.1 apg and 3.7 rpg the next season before his numbers dropped dramatically in his final year.

***Moses Malone played until he was 40, although he did not log significant minutes his last three seasons. He averaged 18.9 ppg and 10.0 rpg as a 35 year old in 1989-90, leading the league in offensive rebounds (364).

***Artis Gilmore averaged 19.1 ppg and 10.4 rpg as a 35 year old in 1984-85. He didn't make the All-Star team that year, but he did make the cut in 1985-86 despite a decline in production (16.7 ppg, 8.5 rpg).

* You may wonder why some of the 20 Second Timeout versions of my Basketball Digest articles are "slightly different" from the versions that were originally published in Basketball Digest. In the writing business it is commonplace for editors to revise submitted copy due to space considerations, grammar and/or factual inaccuracies but I have always prided myself on submitting perfect copy--a final draft that precisely fits word count specifications and does not contain any errors; my consistent ability to do this is why the vast majority of my articles have been published with few or no changes. However, for some strange reason, Basketball Digest editor Brett Ballantini occasionally made odd changes to my submitted copy; for instance, he edited the above article by adding a sentence that contained an inaccurate statistic about John Stockton. At first, Ballantini made such "improvements" without consulting me and I would not know about the alterations until I received a copy of the magazine; I was less than thrilled to see my perfect copy marred by someone else's sloppiness, particularly since most readers simply assume that any mistakes in an article are the fault of the writer.

Eventually, Ballantini figured out that it would be better to either leave my submitted copy alone or to at least run proposed changes by me first.
Naturally, I see no reason to include Ballantini's "improvements" in the versions of these articles that I am posting here.


I submitted the following chart along with this article but Basketball Digest did not publish it. In this chart--and in most of my Basketball Digest articles and charts that I have posted at 20 Second Timeout--I have chosen not to update the statistics because I think that leaving the articles/charts intact provides a "time capsule" feel; after all, articles in Sports Illustrated's "Vault" are presented as they were originally written, so it seems natural to take the same approach for the articles that I am placing in my "Vault" (the righthand sidebar of 20 Second Timeout's main page).

Pro Basketball's Ageless Wonders

Player Years Accomplishments

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 82-89 Finals MVP 85; All-NBA 1st Team 84 & 86; All-NBA 2nd Team 83& 85;

All-Def. 2nd Team 84; All-Star


Michael Jordan 98; 02 MVP/Finals MVP/All-Star MVP 98; scoring champion 98; All-NBA

1st Team 98; All-Def. 1st

Team 98; All-Star 98 & 02; oldest to score 50+ points in a game 02

Karl Malone 99-02 MVP 99; All-NBA 1st Team 99; All-NBA 2nd Team 00; All-NBA 3rd Team

01; All-Def. 1st Team 99;

All-Star 00-02

Wilt Chamberlain 72-73 Finals MVP 72; rebounding champion 72-73; field goal percentage

champion 72-73; All-NBA 2nd Team 72;

All-Def. 1st Team 72-73; All-Star 72-73

Bill Russell 69 Won championship as player-coach;

All-Def. 1st Team; third in rebounds (1484; 19.3 rpg)

Jerry West 73-74 All-NBA 1st Team 73; All-Def. 1st Team 73; All-Star 73-74

John Havlicek 75-78 All-NBA 2nd Team 75-76; All-Def. 1st Team 75-76; All-Star 75-78

John Stockton 97-02 All-NBA 3rd Team 97 & 99; All-Def. 2nd Team 97; All-Star 97 & 00

Dennis Rodman 96-00 Rebounding champion 96-98; All-Def. 1st Team 96

Robert Parish 89-97 All-NBA 3rd Team 89; All-Star 90-91

Alex English 89-91 All-Star 89; sixth in scoring (26.5 ppg) 89; 51 point game 89

Julius Erving 85-87 All-Star 85-87; 20.0 ppg, 135 steals, 109 blocks 85 (oldest 100/100 player)

Note: The "Seasons" column refers to seasons in which the player was at least 35 years old by the end of the season, while the "Accomplishments" column lists the player's main achievements during those seasons (the seasons are abbreviated to two digit numbers for space/format considerations).

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:27 AM


Monday, September 14, 2009

Pro Basketball's 1000 Rebound Club: The Meek Need Not Apply for Membership

This article was originally published in the February 2004 issue of Basketball Digest.

Pro basketball's 1000 rebound club is the hard hat-wearing, lunch pail-carrying counterpart to the 2000 point club. Points can be scored from inside the paint, outside the arc and one at a time from the free throw line but in most cases there is only one way to get rebounds: venture into the lane, dodge the elbows of the giants and show total disregard for the bumps, bruises and loosened teeth that are sure to follow.

A few long rebounds fly out to the guards, but no one ever got 1000 rebounds by waiting outside the paint for such fortuitous bounces. In fact, no guard has ever grabbed 1000 rebounds in a season; Oscar Robertson, a point guard in a forward's body, came closest with 985 when he averaged a triple double for the 1961-62 season (30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 11.4 apg).

Dolph Schayes of the Syracuse Nationals founded the 1000 rebound club in 1950-51 with 1080 boards (16.4 rpg), a very impressive total considering the shorter schedule and slow pace of that era. This is confirmed by the wide margin between Schayes and the second ranked rebounder in 1950-51, George Mikan of the Minneapolis Lakers, who had 958 rebounds. No one grabbed 1000 boards in 1951-52.

Mikan became the first two-time member of the club with back to back 1000-plus rebound seasons in 1952-53 and 1953-54, while Harry Gallatin of the New York Knicks set a league record for single season rebounds with 1098 in 1953-54, his lone 1000-plus rebound campaign.

The introduction of the 24-second shot clock in 1954-55 sped up the NBA game, increasing scoring totals and rebounding opportunities. In 1955-56 Maurice Stokes of the Rochester Royals became the first rookie member of the 1000 rebound club. He snared 1000-plus rebounds in each of his first three seasons before a serious brain injury ended his NBA career.

The rivalry between Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell took the 1000 rebound club--and the sport of basketball itself--to a whole new level. Chamberlain dominates the 1000 rebound club honor roll. He had the most 1000-plus rebound seasons (13), the top seven best single-season rebound totals and by far the best rebounding season by a rookie. In his 14 season career Chamberlain only missed qualifying for the 1000 rebound club once, when a devastating knee injury limited him to 12 games in 1969-70; he came back to average 22.2 rpg in that year's playoffs (his gritty return to action has been obscured by Willis Reed's heroics in game seven of that season's NBA Finals). Chamberlain's 11 rebounding titles are an all-time record.

Chamberlain's best rebounding seasons are listed in the accompanying chart, but his greatness is perhaps most clearly illustrated by looking at his worst complete regular season in historical context: in 1970-71, Chamberlain "slumped" to 1493 rebounds (18.2 rpg, first in the league); only Russell, Bob Pettit, Walt Bellamy, Jerry Lucas, Spencer Haywood, Artis Gilmore and Dennis Rodman have had better single season numbers than that. In fact, remove Chamberlain's other seasons from consideration and his worst season would rank among the 20 best ever!

Russell tallied 12 1000-plus rebound seasons, missing only in his rookie year, when he collared 943 rebounds in 48 games (he started the season late after leading the U.S. to the gold medal in the 1956 Olympic Games). His worst full season figure was 1451 (18.6 rpg) in 1967-68. He won four rebounding titles, two of which came before Chamberlain entered the league. During most of the years that their careers overlapped Chamberlain finished first in rebounding and Russell placed second. Chamberlain and Russell rank first and second in career rebounds (23,924 and 21,620 respectively) and career rpg (22.9 and 22.5 respectively) and lead everyone else in pro basketball history by a wide margin in both categories.

Third place on the career rpg list belongs to Pettit (16.2). He is tied for third all-time with nine 1000 rebound club seasons but he only captured one rebounding title, in large part because he spent most of his career competing against Chamberlain and Russell.

Two other players also posted nine 1000 rebound club seasons. Bellamy made a big splash in his rookie year with 2495 points (31.6 ppg) and 1500 rebounds (19.0 rpg) for the 1961-62 Chicago Packers (the franchise currently known as the Washington Wizards). Both of those totals rank third for rookies in pro basketball history, trailing only Chamberlain's 1959-60 heroics (2707 points/1941 rebounds) and 20-year old (!) Spencer Haywood's prodigious efforts in 1969-70 for the Denver Rockets in the ABA (2519 points/1637 rebounds).

Elvin Hayes is the third player who accumulated nine 1000 rebound club seasons. He finished fourth in the NBA in 1968-69 with 1406 rebounds as a San Diego Rockets rookie, the sixth best first year rebounding performance ever. That same year Baltimore Bullets rookie Wes Unseld ranked second with 1491 rebounds and won not only Rookie of the Year but also MVP.

They later became teammates and in 1977-78 Unseld and Hayes led the Bullets to the NBA championship, with Unseld claiming Finals MVP honors. Hayes averaged 21.0 ppg and 12.5 rpg for his career and his 16,279 rebounds rank sixth in pro basketball history.

Although Chamberlain, Bellamy, Unseld, Hayes and Haywood posted their great rookie seasons within a decade of each other, the 1000 rebound club is not frequently joined by rookies--14 NBA and nine ABA first year pros have made the cut, which works out to roughly one rookie for every three years of those leagues' combined existence. Since the 1976-77 NBA/ABA merger the only 1000 rebound club rookies are Buck Williams of the New Jersey Nets in 1981-82 and Shaquille O'Neal of the Orlando Magic in 1992-93.

Julius Erving's superb 1971-72 rookie season (2290 points/1319 rebounds) ranks eighth on both the all-time rookie scoring and rebounding lists; he joined Chamberlain, Haywood, Bellamy and Hayes as the only players to rank among the top ten all-time rookies in both categories. Erving retired as the third leading scorer in pro basketball history (he currently ranks fifth), but his presence on the rebounding list may surprise some fans. Erving's 1971-72 rookie campaign is his only 1000 rebound club season, but his total that year was not a fluke. He entered the ABA known more as a rebounder than as a scorer; the young Erving was like a Dennis Rodman without tattoos--undersized for an inside player (both are generally listed at about 6-7, 210) but able to compensate for this with quickness, tenacity and jumping ability.

Erving is one of only five players to average 20 ppg and 20 rpg in a Division I college career (Russell, Paul Silas, Artis Gilmore and Kermit Washington are the others). In the 1972 playoffs he increased his average to an ABA best 20.4 rpg, second in pro basketball that year to Wilt Chamberlain's 21.0 rpg for the NBA champion Lakers. Erving ranked in the top ten in rebounding in each of his five ABA seasons, averaging 12.1 rpg.

There is a temptation to deride Haywood and Erving's rookie numbers as inflated, particularly since neither player surpassed his ABA rebounding numbers during his NBA career. However, Bellamy, who played his entire Hall of Fame career in the NBA, also never equaled his spectacular rookie scoring and rebounding accomplishments. Rebounding is generally the province of the young and many of the great rebounders posted their best rebounding season within their first five campaigns: Chamberlain's came in year two, Moses Malone's in year five, Jerry Lucas' in year three, Shaquille O'Neal's in his rookie season. Russell is a bit of an exception, although his year nine career best rpg average was only marginally better than his year four rpg.

As a Sixer Erving split the rebounding chores at various times with George McGinnis, Caldwell Jones, Moses Malone and Charles Barkley, each of whom tallied 1000 rebound seasons during their careers. As a 33 year old small forward Erving was the second leading rebounder (behind Malone) on the 1982-83 76ers championship team that is still widely considered one of the greatest squads ever.

Rodman possessed none of Erving's flair as a scorer, but he sustained a high level of rebounding prowess throughout his career. He won seven rebounding titles, second only to Chamberlain, but injuries and suspensions limited Rodman to five 1000-plus rebound seasons. Rodman's 1530 rebounds in 1991-92 were the most since Gilmore totaled 1538 in 1973-74 for the ABA Kentucky Colonels and the best NBA total since Chamberlain's 1572 in 1971-72.

The 1000 rebound club reached an NBA single season high in 1970-71 and 1971-72 with 13 members in each of those campaigns (the ABA's single season record was 11 members in 1969-70). In recent years the pace of the NBA game has decreased so much that even though field goal percentages have also been slipping there are still fewer rebounds available. In 1995-96 the San Antonio Spurs' David Robinson was the only 1000 rebound club member and the 1996-97 season marked the first time since 1951-52 that not even one pro basketball player got 1000 rebounds.

In 2002-03 three players made the cut: Detroit's Ben Wallace (1126), Minnesota's Kevin Garnett (1102) and San Antonio's Tim Duncan (1043). Active players with multiple 1000-plus rebound seasons include Dikembe Mutombo (4), Ben Wallace (3), Shaquille O'Neal (3) and Duncan (2). While the records of sports immortals such as Babe Ruth and Jim Brown eventually fell, Chamberlain's rebounding standards appear to be out of reach--literally and figuratively--of today's superstars.

Note: the following lists accompanied the original article and thus were compiled prior to the completion of the 2003-04 NBA season.

Most 1000 Rebound Seasons

Player Seasons

Wilt Chamberlain 13
Bill Russell 12
Bob Pettit 9
Walt Bellamy 9
Elvin Hayes 9
Jerry Lucas 8
Nate Thurmond 8
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 8
Artis Gilmore* 8
Wes Unseld 8
Moses Malone** 8

*--5 ABA/3 NBA
**--1 ABA/7 NBA

Most Single Season Rookie Rebounds

Player Rebounds Season

Wilt Chamberlain 1941 1959-60
Spencer Haywood^ 1637 1969-70
Walt Bellamy 1500 1961-62
Wes Unseld 1491 1968-69
Artis Gilmore^ 1491 1971-72
Elvin Hayes 1406 1968-69
Jerry Lucas 1375 1963-64
Julius Erving^ 1319 1971-72
Dave Cowens 1216 1970-71
Mel Daniels^ 1213 1967-68
Moses Malone^ 1209 1974-75
Marvin Barnes^ 1202 1974-75


Most Single Season Rebounds

Player Rebounds Season

Wilt Chamberlain 2149 1960-61
Wilt Chamberlain 2052 1961-62
Wilt Chamberlain 1957 1966-67
Wilt Chamberlain 1952 1967-68
Wilt Chamberlain 1946 1962-63
Wilt Chamberlain 1943 1965-66
Wilt Chamberlain 1941 1959-60
Bill Russell 1930 1963-64
Bill Russell 1878 1964-65
Bill Russell 1868 1960-61
Bill Russell 1843 1962-63

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:44 AM