Inner-Circle Hall of Famers: 1950s/1960s
Per the methodology outlined here, I now present your Inner-Circle Hall of Famers from the 1950s and 1960s… But first, remember the rules: the player had to play 10 years combined in the NBA or ABA (with 1 exception, which I’ll explain below) and had to rank as one of the 4 best players of their decade in terms of both “media” and “stats” points. By popular demand, I dropped the requirement that a player had to win a championship to be included in the “Inner Circle”, instead requiring them to be the best player on an NBA Finalist. This small change allows for the inclusion of players like Elgin Baylor, a legitimate legend who did not technically win a title despite coming extraordinarily close on a number of occasions. Also, be forewarned that I gerrymandered the “decades” slightly to include the highest possible % of the top 20 overall players by 10-year percentage scores, so in this edition Bill Russell is listed in the 1950s even though the majority of his years came in the 60s, in order to include Baylor in the 1960s. This happened two times in the process: once in the 80s/90s, and once here, with Russell/Baylor.
George Mikan (“Mr. Basketball”)
The only player for whom I’m waiving the 10-year eligibility clause. Mikan led the BAA/NBA in scoring average in each of the 3 seasons before minutes played were kept, led in PER in each of the 3 seasons after MP were first tracked, and was 1st-team all-league in all six seasons, so there’s a very good chance (if incalculable by the metrics used here) that Mikan was the game’s best player from 1949-54. That matches up with the prevailing opinion that Mikan was the game’s first true superstar, and arguably still the most influential player in the sport’s history, having “redefined basketball as a game of so-called big men” (according to Wikipedia at least) and prompted a number of rule changes through his sheer dominance. In The Book of Basketball, Bill Simmons argues that Mikan would never be able to compete today, and that’s almost unquestionably true; at the same time, however, there’s no denying the impact Mikan had on the early game, as well as his dominance over his peers. For these reasons, Mikan is a no-brainer for the Inner Circle.
Bob Pettit (“Dutch”)
If you think about it, Pettit was perhaps (though Bob Cousy might have a case as well) the first true “modern” player: a 6’9″ power forward who could score, rebound, and generally bang and scrap under the basket. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like the archetypal PF to me (the Mo Lucas, the Charles Oakley), a hard-nosed guy who was willing to give up his body to help the team win. Pettit was also the NBA’s very first MVP, and was 1st team All-NBA in every single one of his 11 seasons except the last, when he was named to the 2nd team. Some nuggets from Wikipedia: Pettit has the second highest career All-Star Game points per game average, behind only Oscar Robertson, and Pettit & Alex Groza are the only retired players in NBA history to average more than 20 points per game in every season they played. Simply put, Pettit’s resume is clearly the stuff of an Inner-Circle legend.
Bill Russell (“The Winner”)
Obviously, much of Russell’s legend hinges on the Celtics’ extraordinary, almost unbelievable team achievements during the 1950s and 60s — 11 championships in Russell’s 13 seasons, including 8 straight at one point — but Russ also had a very good regular-season resume, as outlined in the chart above. From 1958-1967, Russell was never outside the game’s top 5 players, and was regarded by the media as the best in basketball in 1963 and 1965. And you have to shudder at the thought of how many Finals MVPs he would have had the league given out the award in his day, because he was the singular driving force behind almost all of Boston’s titles during the dynasty years. So this is maybe the no-doubter of all no-doubters: it simply would not be an Inner Circle without William Felton Russell.
Schayes is sometimes forgotten in the annals of NBA history — perhaps because he was constantly playing in the shadow of Mikan, then Russell, then Chamberlain, or maybe because he is synonymous with a team (the Syracuse Nationals) that hasn’t existed in 46 years — but whatever the reason, he deserves more credit for his accomplishments in 15 NBA seasons. He’s still 7th all-time in free throws made, 25th in rebounds, 53rd in points, and 89th in games played, some of which are admittedly due to the ridiculous fast-paced environment in which he played, but are still surprising given the shorter schedule and inferior medical care of his era. In 1958, the media even considered him to be the best player in a league with Russell, Cousy, Pettit, Neil Johnston, and other stars (Russell won the MVP but was named to the All-NBA 2nd team). So let’s take some time to honor this master of the “deadly, high-arcing, outside set-shot“, one of the true Inner Circle legends in hoops history.
On the outside looking in: Bob Cousy
Inner Circle according to HoF Probability: Russell, Pettit, Cousy, Mikan
Elgin Baylor (“The Man With a Thousand Moves”)
Baylor gets a bad rap for some of the worst timing in the history of sports… Thursday, November 4, 1971: Baylor retires because of knee problems (and hurt feelings that Bill Sharman was putting Jim McMillian in the starting lineup over him). Friday, November 5, 1971: L.A. beats Baltimore 110-106. Sunday, January 9, 1972: The Lakers lose for the first time in 33 games. Literally the day after he retired (though some sources say he actually retired on November 5!), L.A. rattled off the first of what would be 33 consecutive wins, still an NBA record; the Lakers would go on the following May to win their first World Championship since moving out west. “Ewing Theory“, anyone? But rings or not, Baylor was a true superstar and a legend imminently worthy of Inner-Circle status. He revolutionized the small forward position and was arguably the first player to make basketball a creative, airborne game rather than one dominated by earthbound big men and unspectacular set shots. His combination of power, speed, and grace paved the way for Julius Erving, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James, a fact that cannot be minimized. That and his outstanding playing resume (see above) make him an obvious choice for the Inner Circle.
Wilt Chamberlain (“The Big Dipper”)
Height: 7-1 Weight: 275 lbs.
Born: August 21, 1936 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died: October 12, 1999
High School: Overbrook in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
College: University of Kansas
Put aside all the individual numbers — so astonishing that the temptation is to question if they really even happened — and the character assassinations — everything from “selfish” to “choker” has been hurled thoughtlessly in Wilt’s direction over the years — for a moment and just think about the physical tools Wilton Norman Chamberlain possessed. 7’1″/275 in an era where his fellow all-NBA “big men” were no taller than 6’9″ (and most of the opposition was shorter than that), Chamberlain was actually a track and field star growing up; at Kansas he “ran the 100-yard dash in 10.9 seconds, threw the shotput 56 feet, triple jumped more than 50 feet, and won the high jump in the Big Eight track and field championships three straight years.” He was Dwight Howard 30 years before Howard was born, David Robinson unleashed on a league where the average player was 6’5″ and 65% of the players were white. He was without a doubt the most talented player of his era and easily the most unstoppable force in NBA history. Say what you will about his personality and the way his teams almost always lost to the Celtics, but Chamberlain’s dominance and overall impact on the game warrants a spot in the Inner Circle.
Oscar Robertson (“The Big O”)
Versatility is perhaps the one word that best sums up Oscar Robertson’s playing style. Yes, the pace of the games was so fast in his era that he would never replicate his triple-double average today, but even so, Robertson was one of the most feared scorers in NBA history, as well as a great passer who could handle the ball and a strong, stubborn physical force who could back you down and mix it up on the glass. Paving the way for big guards like Magic Johnson & Michael Jordan in the 1980s and LeBron James today, he was a player who could do just about anything on the court, which remains his lasting legacy in the game. The fact that he did it while overcoming rampant racism and successfully fighting the NBA’s unfair labor practices only adds to the considerable legend of this indisputable Inner-Circle member.
Jerry West (“The Logo”)
Of the two great combo guards of the 1960s (whose careers, unbelievably enough, came over the exact same seasons), Oscar was the versatile post-up threat, while Jerry West was the outside-shooting machine that could burn anyone from anywhere on the floor (witness his last-second heave against the Knicks in the 1970 Finals). Combining with Baylor, West gave the Lakers one of the most devastating duos in NBA history and ultimately paired with Chamberlain in 1971-72 to lead one of the greatest teams in league history. More to the point, how could we possibly have an Inner Circle of the Hall of Fame without the man whose silhouette adorns the NBA’s logo today? If you’re searching for players about whose legendary status there is no doubt whatsoever, look no further than Mr. Clutch, Zeke From Cabin Creek.
On the outside looking in: Hal Greer
Inner Circle according to HoF Probability: Chamberlain, Robertson, West, Baylor