There are, as of the end of the 2012-13 NBA season, 27 retired players who played in the league at least ten seasons and for only one franchise throughout their entire careers. There are likely to be more with one-franchise players like the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant and the Spurs’ Tim Duncan winding down their careers. Where would Bryant and Duncan rank when compared with history’s other one-franchise players?
That’s a question that’s probably best answered when the two currently active legends call it a day. After all, Kobe and Tim are still very much capable of reaching multiple other milestones in the remainder of their careers. In the meantime, let’s take a look at the ten best retired superstars who played with only one franchise throughout their entire stay in the NBA:
10. John Stockton / Utah Jazz / 1985-2003
John Stockton turned out to be one of the finest players to ever wear a Jazz uniform, holding, to this day, the records for most most career assists (15,806) and steals (3,265). For this reason, it’s ironic that when Utah selected John as the sixteenth overall pick during the 1984 NBA Draft, Jazz fans gathered at the Salt Palace on draft day sat in stunned silence because they didn’t know what to make of their team’s decision to take in the relative unknown from Gonzaga.
Well, those same fans were certainly not ambivalent about Stockton by the time he ended his career as a franchise Utah player in 2003. He had averaged a double-double with 13.1 points and 10.5 assists per game, his assists total exceeding that of his nearest rival by more than 3,000. He was also named an All-Star ten times (1989-1997, 2000), even being selected as the NBA All-Star Game MVP in 1993. And although John never won an NBA championship with the Jazz, he was immortalized by being inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame twice: in 2009 for his career as an individual, and in 2010 for being part of the 1992 US men’s Olympic basketball team, known as the “Dream Team.”
9. Isiah Thomas / Detroit Pistons / 1982-1994
When Isiah was with Indiana College, his basketball coach Bob Knight was once so upset with Thomas that he yelled at him, “You ought to go to DePaul, Isiah, because you sure aren’t going to be an Indiana player playing like that!” Although Knight was actually referring to his Indiana Hoosiers team and while Thomas would go on to lead that team to the 1981 NCAA tournament championship, Coach Bob’s words seemed to be prophetic; Isiah went on to play only for the Detroit Pistons throughout his NBA career. There, Thomas served a prominent role as part of the Pistons “Bad Boys” that brought him twelve All-Star Game appearances (1982-1993) and two NBA championships (1989, 1990). Moreover, Isiah was named the All-Star Game MVP twice (1984, 1986) and the Finals MVP once (1990).
All throughout his stay with the Pistons from 1981-1994, the 6-foot-1 player showed incredible determination, exemplified most by his performance in Game 6 of Detroit’s 1988 title series with the Lakers. Thomas had severely sprained his ankle late in the game but continued to play and managed to score 25 points in a quarter — an NBA Finals record. For that and many other displays of basketball heroics, Isiah was named to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000, his first year of eligibility.
8. John Havlicek / Boston Celtics / 1963-1978
1962 seventh Overall draftee John Havlicek had a spectacular maiden NBA season. He helped the Boston Celtics win their sixth championship and fifth straight, but being the huge achiever that he was, John wasn’t satisfied with his game. He felt that while many of his points came off fast break opportunities, his shooting and ball handling left much to be desired. To improve his game, he tirelessly practiced and enhanced his shooting and dribbling. “I knew what I needed to work on, and I had the inner drive to push myself. I wanted to improve. I wanted to come back prepared to help the Celtics win another championship,” Havlicek explained.
Well improve himself he certainly did. In fact, “Hondo” ended up revolutionizing the role of the sixth man and cemented his place in Celtics history when he completed a clutch steal in the dying seconds of Game 7 of the 1965 Eastern Conference finals. He would also go on to win seven more championships for Boston (1964-66, 1968-69, 1974, 1976) and be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1984.
7. Julius Erving / Philadelphia 76ers / 1977-1987
Julius Erving grew up a huge fan of the Knickerbockers and the Celtics, but later, he turned out to be an archenemy of the two teams. Dr. J played that role as part of the Philadelphia 76ers where he stayed throughout his entire stint in the NBA. That came after highly successful turns with the Virginia Squires (1971-73) and the New York Nets (1973-76) of the ABA.
With Philly, Erving had to play a smaller role, unlike the all-around / do-everything kind of basketball that he contributed to the Squires and the Nets. Nevertheless, Dr. J quickly adjusted and ended up winning an NBA Championship (1983) and the MVP Award (1981) with the team. Erving was so successful, in fact, that he became one of the first players to endorse many products and have a shoe marketed under his name. It was thus no surprise when he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993.
6. Bob Pettit / Milwaukee – St. Louis Hawks / 1955-1965
The NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award is perhaps the highest individual honor that can be bestowed upon a basketball player, but how many people can say, “I was the first ever MVP of the NBA”? Just one: 50s and 60s basketball superstar Bob Pettit. Remarkably, throughout Pettit’s stay in the NBA from 1954 to 1965, he played for only one franchise, the Milwaukee/St. Louis Hawks. And no one can blame them for hanging on to Bob for dear life.
After being drafted second overall for a then record-setting $11,000, Pettit won Rookie of the Year honors. But his lack of strength made him unable to cope with the NBA bruisers of that time; plus, his ball-handling was quite awkward. To address that difficulty, coach Red Holzman moved Bob to the forward position, and that shift proved wise as Pettit won numerous honors throughout his career: two MVP Awards (1956, 1959), an NBA Championship (1958), All-Star appearances throughout his eleven-season career (1955-1965), and four All-Star Game MVP Awards (1956, 1958-59, 1962). He was also inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1970.
5. Elgin Baylor / Minneapolis – Los Angeles Lakers / 1959-1972
It’s almost impossible to imagine today’s NBA without the Lakers, one of the most popular teams in the league. But the franchise truly almost went bankrupt in 1958 after a disastrous season that saw them go 19-53 after the George Mikan era. Thus, its first overall drafting of Elgin Baylor and his signing for a then huge $20,000 per year was practically a last ditch effort to save the franchise.
Well, fortunately for the Lakers and the NBA, the gamble paid off. Baylor led the team to a dramatic turnaround that saw them go from last place in the league the previous season to reaching the NBA finals. For his efforts, Elgin was named “NBA Rookie of the Year,” an honor that he proved was well-deserved. In fact, he brought the Lakers to the finals seven more times, along the way scoring a then NBA record-setting 71 points in a game against the Knicks (1960-61 season) and a still standing record of 61 points in a finals game against the Celtics (1961-62 season).
Unfortunately, Baylor began to be bothered by knee problems during the 1963-64 season, which hampered his play and led to his retirement near the start of the 1971-72 season. Although he never won a championship, Elgin was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1977 and is considered one of the sport’s all-time greats.
4. Jerry West / Los Angeles Lakers / 1961-1974
The man whose silhouette appears on the NBA logo must play some pretty good basketball, and Jerry West was indeed outstanding at the sport. Playing with the Los Angeles Lakers throughout his entire career, West gave the franchise multiple finals appearances and their first NBA championship (1972). In fact, in 1969, when the Lakers lost the championship to the Celtics in seven games, Jerry was still named the NBA Finals MVP, the only player from a losing team to ever receive the award.
In 1974, West experienced severe contract disagreements with Lakers management. He said, “I felt I was deceived. When you feel that you’re deceived, you don’t want any part of the organization that deceived you. I could’ve played another very good year. Every athlete says that. But I could’ve, and I knew I could’ve. But I could never have played for the Lakers again, and I wasn’t going to play for anybody else.”
Nevertheless, Jerry went down in Lakers history as the player to score the most points for the team (25,192 total, 27 ppg). He was also inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as an individual in 1980 and as part of the gold-winning 1960 U.S. Olympic Basketball Team in 2010.
3. Larry Bird / Boston Celtics / 1980-1992
Larry Bird was the sixth overall pick by the Boston Celtics during the 1978 NBA Draft, but he didn’t sign with the team immediately due to his desire to complete his final season at Indiana State. However, when he did sign a $3.25 million contract afterwards, he immediately impacted the team, improving their win total by 32 games to finish first in the Eastern Conference. He was also named the Rookie of the Year.
Later, when the Celtics acquired Kevin McHale and Robert Parish to help Larry, the Hall of Fame trio immediately won the NBA championship against the Houston Rockets despite being behind 1-3 in the series. That was followed by two more championships (1984, 1986) paired with two Finals MVP Awards for Bird. He was also named the MVP in the 1982 All-Star Game and season MVP three times (1984-86).
Late in his career, Larry joined the “Dream Team” to win basketball gold during the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Afterwards, he retired from the game and went on to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1998 (as an individual) and 2010 (as part of the “Dream Team”). Bird also later earned Coach of the Year (1998, as the Indiana Pacers’ coach) and Executive of the Year (2012, as Pacers President of Basketball Operations).
2. Magic Johnson / Los Angeles Lakers / 1980-1996
Magic Johnson was selected first overall by the Los Angeles Lakers during the 1979 NBA Draft, and that turned out to be one of the best drafting decisions the franchise ever made. In that rookie season, the Lakers immediately won a championship, Magic receiving the NBA Finals MVP Award. That was only the beginning though, as the Johnson-led team went on to win four more championships (1982, 1985, 1987-88) with Magic being named Finals MVP in 1980, 1982 and 1987, and league MVP in 1987, 1989, and 1990.
Sadly, Johnson abruptly retired in 1991 after announcing to the world that he had contracted HIV. However, he returned to play in the 1992 All-Star Game and won the All-Star MVP Award, which he had also claimed in 1990. Needless to say, he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, in 2002 as an individual and in 2010 as a member of the Dream Team.
1. Bill Russell / Boston Celtics / 1957-1969
What better way to be remembered as a basketball player than to have the NBA Finals MVP Award named after you? Well, that honor went to none other than Bill Russell, who played for the Boston Celtics for his entire NBA career of thirteen seasons. There, as the centerpiece of the Celtics dynasty, Russell won eleven NBA championships (1957, 1959-1966, 1968-69) and five MVP Awards (1958, 1961-63, 1965). Of course, it’s a given that Bill was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, the honor bestowed upon him in 2007.
Recently, Russell made news when he commented on his exclusion by LeBron James on his version of an NBA Mount Rushmore. Russell remarked,
Hey, thank you for leaving me off your Mount Rushmore. I’m glad you did. Basketball is a team game. It’s not for individual honors. I won back-to-back state championships in high school, back-to-back NCAA championships in college; I won an NBA championship my first year in the league, an NBA championship my last year, and nine in between. And that, Mr. James, is etched in stone.