LAGUNA NIGUEL, Ca. – I was invited to participate in an NCAA survey to determine the “15 best-ever” tournament performers as part of the celebration of the event’s 75th anniversary – “75 Years of March Madness” – during Final Four Weekend this April in Atlanta.
The opportunity was both alluring and intimidating: How does one sort through the names of 75 of the sport’s most celebrated players (that were listed on the NCAA ballot) and pick out a measly 15?
After my usual angst when presented with any kind of challenge, I determined that I would narrow my field of options to a more manageable “only the players that I watched multiple times, either in person or on TV”, since the genesis of my passion for the greatest sports event in America.
And that was when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – then known as Lew Alcindor – was flipping in sky hooks and tattooing basketball imprints on the foreheads of UCLA opponents for Coach John Wooden when Pauley Pavilion really was “new” from 1967 to ’69.
I’m sure players such as Oscar Robertson (Cincinnati), Jerry Lucas (Ohio State), Jerry West (West Virginia), Wilt Chamberlain (Kansas) and – especially – Bill Russell (the University of San Francisco) will be among the 15 players who will be honored in Atlanta.
I saw each of those players toward (or during) the twilight of their NBA careers. And reading about (or discussing with some of those who watched them play as collegians) their college careers leave no doubt that they should make that cut.
They just won’t be getting my votes based upon my self-imposed voting criteria.
So, without further adieu, here are the 15 names that I “clicked upon” (listed alphabetically):
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (UCLA/1967-69)
Frank’s rationale: OK, for those of you in need of an introduction or refresher . . . His teams won three national titles (freshmen weren’t eligible for varsity when he was in school), were 88-2 overall and 12-0 in the tournament, where he averaged 25.3 points and 16.8 rebounds. Abdul-Jabbar was a three-time National Player of the Year and won just as many National Championship Most Outstanding Play honors.
He is the greatest college player ever, during both the regular and tournament seasons. Care to disagree?
Larry Bird (Indiana State/1979)
Frank’s rationale: He played in just one tournament but, oh, what a tourney performance it was: Averages of 27.2 points, 13.4 rebounds and 5.2 assists in five games, including 35, 16 and nine in the semifinal win over Arkansas. And, of course, his team’s hook-up with Michigan State and Magic Johnson in Salt Lake City only propelled “March Madness” onto the path it has followed every since.
Anthony Davis (Kentucky/2012)
Frank’s rationale: He edges two other freshmen who led their teams to national titles (Carmelo Anthony/Syracuse in 2003 and Pervis Ellison/Louisville in 1986) after averaging 14.0 points, 12.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 4.8 blocked shots in six games.
Patrick Ewing (Georgetown/1982-85)
Frank’s rationale: He made three Final Fours in four years, including finals with UNC and fellow super frosh Michael Jordan in 1982, Houston and Hakeem Olajuwon in ’84 (his only title) and Villanova in the Wildcats’ “Perfect Game” of ’85. His whole approach at both ends of the floor could best be described as “fierce”.
Darrell Griffith (Louisville/1977-80)
Frank’s rationale: He was the buffer between the definitive “high-rise shooting guards”, David Thompson and Michael Jordan. He averaged 23.2 mostly spectacular points, 5.4 rebounds and 5.2 assists during a five-game run capped by the Cardinals’ 59-54 championship victory over UCLA in Indianapolis in 1980. “Dr. Dunkenstein”, indeed.
Magic Johnson (Michigan State/1978-79)
Frank’s rationale: He and the Spartans won the game over Indiana State and Larry Bird in ’79 but the sport – in how it was played (6-9 “power forwards” could aspire to be “point guards”), watched (the final still has the sport’s best-ever TV viewing numbers) and covered had changed forever.
Michael Jordan (North Carolina/1982-84)
Frank’s rationale: Jordan was still a skinny if unusually spectacular freshman after hitting a jumper from the left wing to helped the Tar Heels beat Patrick Ewing and Georgetown in New Orleans in ’82 to finally give Dean Smith his first national title. What none of us realized, of course, even over all three of his UNC seasons, was he was also on the way toward becoming the best player of his – and maybe any other – generation.
Christian Laettner (Duke/1989-92)
Frank’s rationale: He played in four Final Fours and three title games – the last of those memorial victories over Jerry Tarkanian’s defending champion UNLV program and Michigan’s “Fab Five”. He was one of the most skilled – and competitive – big men in history. Oh, yeah – he also hit the tournament’s most memorial shot with his buzzer- and Kentucky-beating turn-around jumper in the East final in Philadelphia in ’92.
Danny Manning (Kansas/1985-88)
Frank’s rationale: IMHO, only Bill Walton had a more compelling championship performance than Manning, who went for 31 points and 18 rebounds in the Jayhawks’ 81-78 upset of fellow Big Eight team Oklahoma in Kansas City in 1988.
Joakim Noah (Florida/2005-07)
Frank’s rationale: He helped the Gators join Duke as the only program to win consecutive titles in the post-John Wooden Era. His defense, rebounding, ball handling, passing and “energy” provided the cornerstone for the level of play that produced 12 consecutive tourney wins in 2006-07.
Hakeem Olajuwon (Houston/1982-84)
Frank’s rationale: He was 3-for-3 in Final Fours (when he was known as “Akeem” Olajuwon) as the Cougars – ultimately known as Phi Slamma Jamma – lost to eventual national champion UNC in an ’82 semifinal, were stunned by North Carolina State in the title game the following year in Albuquerque and fell to Patrick Ewing & Co. in Seattle in ’84. “The Dream” was the most dynamic low-post offensive presence since Bill Walton and no one has approached that level since.
Isiah Thomas (Indiana/1980-81)
Frank’s rationale: He edged another Big 10 playmaker (Mateen Cleaves, who led Michigan State to the 2000 crown) via his tourney performance while leading the Hoosiers on an ’81 title run that was capped by a victory over Dean Smith’s UNC Tar Heels in Philadelphia.
David Thompson (North Carolina State/1974)
Frank’s rationale: As is the case with Bill Walton and Sidney Wicks, how cool would it have been to watch Thompson legally dunk in college (slamming was banned on the NCAA level from Abdul-Jabbar’s second varsity season but given the green light again to start the 1976-77 campaign)? He played in just one tournament – freshmen were still ineligible for varsity his frosh year in 1971-72; the Wolfpack were ineligible when he was a sophomore due to NCAA probation and his team didn’t qualify in his senior season after an ACC tourney final loss to North Carolina left NCSU 22-6. But, damn! He was so good! He led the team to a win over Bill Walton and UCLA in the 1974 championship semifinal (the Wolfpack beat Marquette in the final) – the reason John Wooden didn’t lead the Bruins to nine consecutive crowns before retiring after their 1975 title victory over Kentucky in San Diego.
Bill Walton (UCLA/1972-74)
Frank’s rationale: As the case with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, unless you watched Walton play in college you can’t really comprehend how skilled and dominant he was as a Bruin. He was far and away the best rebounder, defender (caveat: I’m not nearly old enough to have watched Bill Russell when he led the University of San Francisco to consecutive titles) and outlet passer I’ve watched on the college level. And his championship game performance against Memphis (then called Memphis State) in 1973 – 44 points on 21 of 22 shooting from the field, with 13 rebounds in just 33 minutes of his team’s 87-66 victory – was the greatest in tournament history. And no debate will be entertained.
Sidney Wicks (UCLA/1969-71)
Frank’s rationale: The 6-8 Wicks helped hold down the Bruins’ title run quite well, thank you very much, during the two seasons between the Abdul-Jabbar and Walton Eras. As a defender, rebounder and much-underrated ball handler, no one was better during his junior and senior seasons (he was a sophomore reserve on the final KAJ club). His domination of Artis Gilmore and the rest of Jacksonville’s massive frontcourt in the 1970 final in College Park, Md., was equal portions of bold and spectacular.