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Monday, February 08, 2010

Honor Roll: Pro Basketball's Most Decorated Players

A slightly different version of this article was originally published in the April 2003 issue of Basketball Digest.

Barry Bonds, who won his record fifth NL MVP last season, is a member of the elite fraternity of athletes who have earned at least three MVPs. Unfortunately, most reports of Bonds' accomplishment neglected to mention that Julius Erving also belongs to this group. Erving won three ABA MVPs and one NBA MVP. The NFL recognizes AFL statistics and the NBA should do likewise with ABA statistics, including MVP winners and members of the All-League Team.

These statistics and awards are important for accurately assessing a player's place in basketball history, including worthiness for induction in the Hall of Fame. While Erving spent 11 of his 16 seasons in the NBA and easily did enough during that time alone to earn induction, many great players spent most or all of their careers in the ABA and deserve to have their achievements accorded full and proper recognition. The 11 players who won multiple regular season MVPs and the 12 players who earned at least nine All-League First Team selections represent the crème de la crème of pro basketball history.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar leads the pack with six MVPs and trails Karl Malone by one with 10 All-League First Team selections. Abdul-Jabbar has the most total All-League selections, edging out Malone 15-14. Only the "magnificent seven" of Abdul-Jabbar, Malone, Bob Cousy, Erving, Hakeem Olajuwon, Dolph Schayes and Jerry West made the All-League Team at least 12 times. It should be noted that Malone and Olajuwon's totals are augmented by one and three Third Team selections respectively; the NBA added a Third Team to the All-League roster after the 1988-89 season, by which time four of the five other players had retired and Abdul-Jabbar had just completed his final season.

Elgin Baylor, Cousy, Michael Jordan, Bob Pettit and West matched Abdul-Jabbar with 10 All-League First Team selections. This is a truly remarkable accomplishment, because it means being recognized as one of the two best players (or the best player in the case of the lone center selected each season) at guard or forward for an entire decade worth of seasons. Nobody gets 10 First Team nods by a fluke or accident.

Bill Russell and Jordan are tied for second place on the MVP list with five each. Russell's rival Wilt Chamberlain and Jordan's predecessor in flight Julius Erving are next with four apiece. Chamberlain and Russell enjoyed a stranglehold on MVP honors for over a decade, claiming nine of eleven between 1957-58 and 1967-68. Two-time honoree Pettit and the versatile Oscar Robertson each took one MVP during this period.

The 1961-62 season featured perhaps the greatest quartet of performances to ever vie for the award in one year. Robertson finished second despite becoming the only player to average a triple-double for a season (30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 11.4 apg). Chamberlain scored a record 100 points in a game, set another mark by averaging 50.4 ppg and paced the league in rebounds (2052; 25.7 rpg) but came out third in the voting. Elgin Baylor's 38.3 ppg and 18.6 rpg (albeit in only 48 games due to military service) were only good enough for fourth place. The MVP went to Russell, who finished second in rebounds and was the driving force behind the Boston Celtics' league best 60-20 record and fourth straight championship (a string that would not be broken until it reached a remarkable eight in a row).

Interestingly, the writers and broadcasters who selected the All-League Teams frequently had a different perspective than the players who voted for MVP (writers and broadcasters later took over MVP voting duties as well, starting in 1980-81). Chamberlain made All-NBA First Team in 1961-62 and generally placed ahead of Russell for this honor. Chamberlain finished his career with seven First Team selections and three Second Team nods, while Russell's numbers were almost exactly opposite: three times on the First Team and eight times on the Second Team. They are the only two members of the ten man Associated Press All-20th Century pro basketball team to not have at least nine All-League First Team selections.

Robertson earned his only MVP in 1963-64, when he averaged a near-triple double (31.4 ppg, 11.0 apg, 9.9 rpg). Robertson's selection that year is important because a non-center would not claim the NBA MVP again until Erving won the 1980-81 award.

Erving is significant historically not only as a four time MVP--an elite distinction in its own right--but also because he won his MVPs in an era dominated by centers and he claimed more MVPs than any non-center in history until Jordan came along. While other non-centers did win MVPs in the ABA, which featured a more wide open style of play than the more established league, Erving was the only non-center to win multiple ABA MVPs and he was the only non-center to "validate" his ABA trophies with an NBA MVP. In fact, his trailblazing win in 1980-81 not only "validated" his earlier MVPs but also foreshadowed the emergence of Bird, Magic and Jordan as non-center MVPs over the next two decades.

It is impossible to say how many MVPs Erving would have won if only one pro league had existed at that time but the evidence suggests that in his case it depended more on the style and coaching philosophy of his team than the level of play of the league. When New York Nets' coach Kevin Loughery made Erving the focal point of the team the Nets won two ABA championships in three years and Erving was the MVP three years running. After Erving joined the Philadelphia 76ers he deliberately sublimated his game to blend in with his teammates (including forward George McGinnis, who shared the 1974-75 ABA MVP with Erving) and did not win the MVP immediately, although he was still an All-League player.

Billy Cunningham replaced Gene Shue as 76ers' coach early in 1977-78, Erving's second season with the team. Injuries and personnel turnover hampered the team for the next couple seasons but by 1979-80 the Sixers were clearly built around Erving. He carried the team to the Finals and finished second to Abdul-Jabbar in MVP balloting. The next season Erving won his fourth MVP in eight years.

After Cunningham restructured the team around Erving, the Sixers made three Finals appearances in four years, finally winning the title after adding Moses Malone (another multiple MVP winner) to the mix in 1982-83 to counter the Lakers' combination of past (Abdul-Jabbar, Bob McAdoo) and future (Magic) MVPs.

Erving bridged the gap between Robertson and Bird-Magic-Jordan. His MVP caliber play helped keep the ABA viable and sparked interest in the NBA for a merger to enable the established league to showcase his unique talents. If his MVPs are not counted and listed alongside those of the other greats of the game it is a disservice not only to Erving but to basketball history itself.

The same reasoning applies to All-League Teams. When Erving and Rick Barry's ABA totals are included, each earned nine All-League First Team selections, tying with Robertson, Bird and Magic on the all-time list. This is an accurate reflection of their status in the game, as each of these five players was the preeminent individual at his position for an extended period of time. Barry is the only one of this group to not win an MVP, although some feel that his unpopularity among his peers cost him the 1974-75 trophy. He won Playoff MVP that year after leading Golden State to a shocking 4-0 sweep of the powerful Washington Bullets in the Finals.

One should not assume that players who made the All-ABA First Team would not have attained that honor if only one league had existed at the time. Several players earned All-League First Team recognition in both leagues, including Erving, Barry, Cunningham, Connie Hawkins, Spencer Haywood and McGinnis. Barry began his career in the NBA, sat out his option year to jump to the ABA and then returned to the NBA. In his first 10 seasons (six NBA, four ABA) he made All-League First Team nine teams and was a Second Team selection once.

At least Erving and Barry are both in the Hall of Fame and have secure places in basketball history. Mel Daniels, a two-time ABA MVP and three-time champion with the Indiana Pacers, was a perennial rebounding leader and tough scorer whose best days were past by the time the leagues merged. He is one of the top playoff rebounders in pro basketball history and earned as many MVPs as the more celebrated Pettit and Karl Malone, but he is a largely forgotten figure.

MVP and All-League Team selections are significant not only as recognition for great play during a given season but also as career defining achievements. A great player's legacy is measured in no small part by how many MVPs and All-League Team selections he garnered. Ignoring ABA award winners not only short changes many elite players but also distorts basketball history.

Pro Basketball's Honor Roll

Most Reg. Season MVPs


Player MVPs


Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 6
Bill Russell 5
Michael Jordan 5
Wilt Chamberlain 4
Julius Erving 4
Moses Malone 3
Larry Bird 3
Magic Johnson 3
Bob Pettit 2
Mel Daniels 2
Karl Malone 2

Most All-League Selections







Player Total 1st Team 2nd Team 3rd Team





Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 15 10 5 0
Karl Malone 14 11 2 1
Bob Cousy 12 10 2 0
Julius Erving 12 9 3 0
Hakeem Olajuwon 12 6 3 3
Dolph Schayes 12 6 6 0
Jerry West 12 10 2 0

Most All-League 1st Team Selections



Player 1st Team



Karl Malone 11
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 10
Elgin Baylor 10
Bob Cousy 10
Michael Jordan 10
Bob Pettit 10
Jerry West 10
Rick Barry 9
Larry Bird 9
Julius Erving 9
Magic Johnson 9
Oscar Robertson 9

Notes: The NBA MVP was first awarded after the 1955-56 season; the All-NBA Third Team was first selected after the 1988-89 season.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:02 AM

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