College basketball’s best ever
ESPN is counting down the top 25 college basketball players of all time, and here’s how you know the list is political. Michael Jordan is No. 13.
Young whippersnappers will say, why so low. Anyone with a clue will say, don’t you mean 113? No way is Jordan one of the greatest college hoopsters of all time. No one ever thought he was when he played at North Carolina back in the early ’80s, and to include him now is simply revisionist history. Jordan’s unparalleled NBA career often lifts his stock in other areas. He was one of the greatest NBA players of all time, so naturally he must be able to hit a baseball (he was ineffective at Double-A), run an NBA franchise (disaster) and have had an epic college career (it was great, but no greater than 100 others).
I don’t think Jordan is the best North Carolina player in history. I would put ’70s point guard Phil Ford at the top of the list. Maybe some others, too.
Anyway, here’s the list so far, with my take:
14. Elvin Hayes, Houston: A wonderful player. An epic collegian and one of the most underrated pros of all time. Hayes’ game against UCLA and Lew Alcindor in the Astrodome ranks as one of the biggest events in college hoops history.
15. Magic Johnson, Michigan State: Hard to put someone with a two-year career any higher. But maybe you should. Earvin Johnson indeed was magic.
16. Patrick Ewing, Georgetown: About right. If you weren’t paying attention from 1982-85, it’s hard to believe that an individual player could cast such a huge shadow on the game for four years. Played in three NCAA title games.
17. Tom Gola, LaSalle: A throwback pick, star of the 1954 NCAA championship team. And a solid pick. Gola was a great, great player.
18. Ralph Sampson, Virginia: A bogus selection. He came in with unbelievable hype, he got Virginia to a Final Four as a sophomore, but he never was as dominant as the guys we’re talking about. I’d rank him about even with Jordan. And not even close to Patrick Ewing, yet here he is two slots away from Ewing.
19. Elgin Baylor, Seattle: Another throwback, from the ’50s. Baylor was a wonderful player. If he came along today, he wouldn’t sign with Seattle U. He would sign with UCLA or Arizona, play one year, probably lead that team to the NCAA title then become an NBA superstar immediately. Think Carmelo Anthony. Only Baylor played three college seasons.
20. Bob Kurland, Oklahoma A&M: Wonderful to see ESPN recognize Henry Iba’s great center from the 1940s. Kurland changed the game (does goaltending ring a bell?) and delivered two NCAA titles and a Red Cross benefit victory over NIT champ DePaul that helped lift the NCAA to supremacy in the tournament battle.
21. Tim Duncan, Wake Forest: Hard to pick a fellow who never made a Final Four, though Duncan was a wonderful player and one of the last stars to stay four years in school. I saw Duncan in the 1995 East Regional and you could tell he was on Superstar Boulevard. But is he one of the 25 best collegians ever? Doubtful.
22. Austin Carr, Notre Dame: There’s nobody like him today. Nobody. In some ways, he’s a poor-man’s Pete Maravich, but in some ways, not even Maravich did what Carr did. In three years at Notre Dame, 1968-71, Carr averaged 34.5 points a game. In seven NCAA Tournament games, Carr averaged 41.3 points a game, including 52.7 in three NCAA games in 1970. These days, you’re lucky if a team reaches 52 in an NCAA game. Carr is too low. He’s a top-15 guy.
23. Calvin Murphy, Niagara: The little guy who could. Murphy was 5-foot-9, which frankly is no big deal now. All kinds of little guys are stars now, starting with Allen Iverson. But in 1970, no one believed a sub-six-footer could excel. Murphy made them change their minds. An absolute college star. He belongs on the list.
24. David Robinson, Navy: I love Robinson, who grew into an aircraft carrier center at the Naval Academy, and he single-handledly got Navy to an NCAA regional final, a remarkable feat. But I can’t buy Robinson as one of the 25 best collegians of all time.
25. George Mikan, DePaul: Good to see the great big man from the ’40s on the list, but even better to see him listed below Kurland, his great rival. Kurland was the better college player. But they were both mountain peak performers in college basketball.
OK, so who’s left to fill out ESPN’s top 12? The way I see it, there are 11 easy picks:
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Alcindor in college), Maravich, Bill Walton, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, David Thompson, Larry Bird, Christian Laettner, Jerry Lucas, Bill Bradley and Danny Manning.
Heck, I’ll rank those for you.
1. Jabbar, UCLA: You know the old saying, “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore?” They truly don’t make ‘em like Jabbar anymore. A skilled, athletic 7-footer who could shoot and move and knew how to play. Except for that one day in the Astrodome, the game was over when he walked into the gym.
2. Pete Maravich, LSU: Unbelievable numbers. Unbelievable. 44.2 points per game over three years. One of the best shooters of all time, maybe the best, yet a better passer and dribbler than a shooter. Same goes with Pistol Pete. We’ve really not seen anything like him since. Not even close.
3. Bill Walton, UCLA: Just as dominant as Jabbar, just not quite as good. Great defender, great passer, great rebounder. Tough. Smart. Oh, and he could shoot a little too. Made 21 of 22 one night. Against Memphis. In the NCAA championship game.
4. Oscar Robertson, Cincinnati: I’m still not ready to say Jordan was better than the Big O as a pro. And as a collegian, Robertson was a three-time player of the year, averaged 35.1, 32.6 and 33.7 points a game.
5. Bill Russell, San Francisco: The Russell you saw with the Celtics was the Russell you saw with the Dons, an unknown team that exploded onto the national stage for two NCAA titles and 55 straight wins.
6. Larry Bird, Indiana State: He played in the shadows, in the little school at Terre Haute, until that winter/spring of 1979 when America discovered the most amazing player, who could shoot, rebound, pass and scratch out your eyeballs unlike anything they ever had seen. His NCAA title duel with Magic Johnson remains the most compelling championship matchup we’ve ever had.
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