Basketball commentary – North America’s all-time best NBA players

Here’s a column I wrote for on top North American basketball players across the decades. Join the discussion, participate in a debate by adding your thoughts.


To distill the greatness of North American basketball since the inception of the NBA’s predecessors in 1946 into a single article requires broad brush strokes and a few quick impressions on a metaphorical canvas. A primer on the best NBA players of all time is a worthwhile place to start.

The vast geographic region of North America, stretching from Canada to Panama has invented and reinvented the game with innovations and trend-setting moves. The lineage of stars from the outset of the NBA to the current fan favorite charts a who’s who of accomplished athletes. Elgin Baylor, Julius Erving, and Connie Hawkins, for instance, paved the way for Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. And LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

The impressive growth of the NBA — westward expansion, increased media exposure — and the remarkable talent that elevated the league, included the infusion of all-time greats from the ABA in the 1970s.

For the sake of brevity, this rundown of the greatest basketball players from North America features a top five at each position. But a few standouts whose names ought to appear on any reputable list of legends are featured to expand the scope of the discussion — the catalyst for debate — for years to come.


COMMENTARY: Greatest Basketball Players From South America

Here’s the latest column in an ongoing series spanning the globe that I’m writing about basketball standouts:

FLASHBACK: Magazine cover story on Horacio Llamas

This feature on center Horacio Llamas, the first Mexican player in the NBA, appeared in the Phoenix Suns’ Fastbreak Magazine in the October/November 1997 issue.

In Remembrance of The Hawk


Hall of Fame forward Connie Hawkins competes for the ABA’s Pittsburgh Pipers in 1968. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Oct. 11, 2017) — Basketball royalty passed away a few days ago. And maybe now, finally, Connie Hawkins will get his proper respect. Maybe.

Hawkins’ death at age 75 brought back a flood of memories throughout the basketball world about The Hawk’s before-his-time game, his aerial antics, his difficult life story, his greatness as a player long before he reached the NBA with the Phoenix Suns.

Peter Vecsey penned an epic 4,000-word remembrance of the hoop legend,  diligently chronicling Hawkins’ life and times. ( Other columns about Hawkins circulated widely on the internet and have received heavy traffic on social media. (Vecsey also appeared on NPR’s “All Things Considered” with Robert Siegel for a thoughtful interview about The Hawk. Check it out here:

Those that have followed the game for decades and understand the evolution of the sport know that the legendary exploits of Elgin Baylor and The Hawk paved the way for the gravity-defying moves of Julius Erving, Michael Jordan and LeBron James, and many more.

“The Hawk flew before anyone else had wings,” the poet and former NBA forward Tom Meschery declared.

But that was only one aspect of a life that began in 1942, the same year Muhammad Ali was born.

David Wolf’s landmark 1972 book, “Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story,” is a remarkable project, explaining the New York City native’s life and the obstacles (and grave injustice) he overcome that prevented him from rising to NBA stardom at a much younger age.

The tome was summed up this way on “This book is about a professional basketball player, Connie Hawkins, but it is also about American athletics. The hope and despair of the ghetto schoolyard, the cutthroat college recruiting, the camaraderie and dissension in the locker room, the gambling scandals, the blacklists, the legal battles – Hawkins has been through them all. For eight years, the graceful, 6’8″ Hawkins was an outcast, playing in tainted obscurity, blacklisted by the NBA. As a frightened teenager, he had made false confessions – under police pressure – and was wrongfully implicated in a fixing scandal. David Wolf’s magazine article dramatically cleared Hawkins in 1969. Foul! is Connie Hawkins’ story, a meticulously documented, remarkably candid biography of one of our greatest athletes. A compelling portrait of a unique and perceptive black man, it is also a behind-the-scenes look at basketball.”

The unheralded Remember The ABA website captures the essence of Hawkins in a few key passages from Jim O’Brien’s 1972-73 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball.

From Jim O’Brien’s 1972-73 Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball:
His move to the basket is unstoppable, his hands are so big and he has such control of the ball . . . Connie isn’t consistent, but when he’s hot, he’s hot, he’s hot . . . ‘He handles the ball like a guard,’ says Billy Cunningham of the 76ers, once a schoolboy opponent in Brooklyn . . . ‘He has the biggest hands I’ve ever seen,’ said Dave DeBusschere.  ‘He handles a basketball as though it was a baseball.  He doesn’t run, he floats.   Inside, he’s one of the best scorers in the game.”

“…Hawkins was a man caught in a dilemma not of his own making when the last college scandal broke during his freshman year at Iowa . . . It ended his college career and sent him to the ABL, the Harlem Globetrotters, and the ABA before he brought suit successfully against the NBA and played for the Phoenix Suns. . . Subject of engrossing book by David Wolf called ‘Foul!’ … Read it.  May be best book on basketball ever written, and there’s too much to Hawkins’ history to capsulize here . . . When Bill Russell picked all-time all-pro team, The Hawk was on his second-five selection.  ‘If he hadn’t got such a bad deal,’ Russell remarked, ‘you would mention Hawkins with Baylor and (Bob) Pettit.’ ”


Before he ever stepped onto the court as an NBA player, The Hawk was a streetball legend, a Harlem Globetrotter and a brilliant all-around player in both the American Basketball League and American Basketball Association in the 1960s (he was the first MVP in both circuits).

In interviews over the past week, former ABA players reflected on Hawkins’ legacy and his career.

“I did not have much personal time with The Hawk like so many others did unfortunately,” Willie Wise told me. “However, I did have to guard him a few times and what I remember most was he was a quiet gentleman on the court.

“It was, if you can believe this next statement, a privilege and honor to guard him.

“If you did not bother him, in other words, challenge him, he would not do much; however, the minute you tried to show him up, or excite him, he would go to ‘work’ and you were in trouble.

“Then, before you knew it, he had a bunch of points and had embarrassed you.”

Original Indiana Pacer Bob Netolicky, whose forthcoming book, “We Changed The Game,” was written with ABC Sports reporter Robin Miller and Pacers founder Richard Tinkham and is scheduled to be released this winter, marveled at The Hawk’s amazing ability to play the game.

“I grew up in Iowa and first saw Connie play in a preseason freshman-varsity scrimmage. I was amazed at his talent and skill level at that age,” Netolicky said. “In the ABA we played against each other many times. I learned more skills playing against him the first year than I had learned in four years of college competition.”

The previous sentence is a remarkable statement, and it’s worth repeating.

“I learned more skills playing against him the first year than I had learned in four years of college competition.” 
-Bob Netolicky on Connie Hawkins

Netolicky went on: “He and (the late Pacers legend) Roger Brown were two of the best to ever play the game. It’s just a shame they were robbed of their prime playing years for something (point shaving) they did not do.”

La Salle legend and ex-ABA player Larry Cannon said, “Unfortunately I never got to meet Connie Hawkins. We had a couple of mutual acquaintances and certainly I admired his game and the fact that he was able to overcome so many obstacles. Despite the hardships he dealt with those first couple of years in the league, he always spoke fondly of the ABA.”

Steve Bitker, a longtime San Francisco Bay area sports broadcaster, also weighed in on The Hawk’s legendary career, expressing genuine admiration for him.

“I will never forget seeing Connie play for the first time, in the old ABA, on TV, for the Pittsburgh/Minnesota Pipers,” Bitker recalled. “So athletic, so graceful, as though he were playing on a different plane than everyone else.  I subsequently read his biography, ‘Foul,’ which detailed the game-fixing scandal he unknowingly got caught up in, in college at Iowa, which barred him from the NBA, until many years later.  Sad and yet inspiring story. Sweet, gentle man.”

Larry Cannon: Former ABA players seeking legitimacy, respect from NBA

Larry Cannon starred for the ABA’s Denver Rockets in the 1970-71 season, averaging 26.6 points per game. PUBLIC DOMAIN

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Sept. 11, 2017)
Part six in a series

Nobody needs to remind Larry Cannon that his 1973 induction into the Big 5 Hall of Fame and his 1977 induction into the La Salle Hall of Athletes are bold reminders of his splendid college basketball career.

He lived through it. He remembers it.

For Cannon, this includes helping the Explorers go 23-1 in his third and final season on the varsity squad, 1968-69. In that brilliant season, Cannon, a 6-foot-5 star guard, was the squad’s top assist man and No. 2 in rebounds. Over three seasons with the Philly college, he poured in 19.9 points per game.

La Salle was ranked No. 2 in the nation, trailing only mighty UCLA at the outset of the ’68-69 campaign. That La Salle outfit had been penalized for the team’s past recruiting violations. As a result, the Explorers didn’t participate in the NCAA Tournament that spring.

That, of course, didn’t diminish Cannon’s college feats. His superb all-around skills were well known to the top talent evaluators.

He was a highly prized talent, with the Chicago Bulls making him the No. 5 pick in the 1969 NBA Draft.

The Philly native chose another path. He signed with the ABA’s Miami Floridians, beginning his pro career with the South Florida team for one season, and went on to play for the fledgling circuit’s Denver Rockets (1970-71), Memphis Pros (1971) and Indiana Pacers (1971-73) before a brief stint with the Philadelphia 76ers (1973-74). A leg injury cut short Cannon’s pro career. For the 1975-76 Eastern Basketball Association campaign, Cannon earned Coach of the Year accolades, guiding the Lancaster (Pa.) Red Roses to a 19-5 regular-season mark and a championship runner-up finish to the Allentown Jets.

Cannon’s No. 20 was retired by La Salle in December 2016. Weeks before, he issued a statement.

“”The retirement of my La Salle uniform number is particularly meaningful,” Cannon said at the time. “I’m a born and raised Philadelphian and Big 5 basketball has always been a major influence on the way I played the game. I can’t find the words to express how proud I feel to be joining the elite company of Tom Gola, Ken Durrett, Lionel Simmons and Michael Brooks.”

Contrast that joy with Cannon’s absolute disgust for the way the NBA has handled the issue of former ABA players seeking a modest increase in their pension. (see related stories below).

The NBA league office received the 24-page letter from the Retired ABA Players in early April. It’s response in a May 12 was a mere five paragraphs. (The letter is posted in Part 1.)

Not surprising, though, considering the general policies enacted by the NBA in its handling of ABA-related issues over the years.

As in, thank you, go away. I don’t want to speak to you.

“I saw that,” Cannon said, referring to the NBA’s response, “and it was very brief.”

Among the general public, Cannon, now 70, believes the former ABA players haven’t been forgotten.

“It would be my contention, though, that the ABA is still scarred in people’s minds,” Cannon said by phone from Florida in a recent interview. “They may need their memories jarred just a bit but certainly I think most basketball people do have some recollection of the ABA, either having experienced it themselves or having heard about it, and I think that in general that the feeling is very good about the ABA. … I think that they’ve heard good things.”

He went on: “I think that the NBA has promoted the idea that the NBA has basically embraced the ABA as if the relationship was very cordial. The fact is that there are difficulties in the relationship, and I think that those difficulties should be examined and people should have a chance to understand exactly what’s going on.”

Cannon can’t see any good coming out of the NBA’s terse, direct rejection of the Retired ABA Player’s request to come to the negotiating table to discuss retired players’ pensions.

“I find it very hard to understand the NBA’s reluctance to sit down and talk,” he said. “I just don’t understand for those reasons that I just went over, that the relationship appears to be a good one and certainly I don’t like the idea that a lot of players seem to be taking more of a hostile attitude toward the NBA. I don’t think that that should be the case.

“I think what all the players want really is two things. I think first they want to be legitimized, and the pension is really the only way in my opinion to legitimize the league and its players. …. They are looking for legitimacy and the respect from the NBA.”

Cannon is disgusted and perplexed by the NBA’s refusal to grant the ABA players a forum to discuss their requests.

“Their reluctance to sit down and even discuss the matter is very disturbing,” Cannon said, “and it’s just hard to understand. It’s also very hard to understand because (NBA commissioner) Adam Silver has positioned himself from what I’ve seen as a player’s commissioner, I would say. He’s a guy who expresses his concern for the integrity of the game, he expresses his concern for the welfare of the players, and he expresses great concern for the people who helped grow the game, as he refers to the pioneers, and how he feels it’s very important for the pioneers to be recognized.”

Based on how the played, revolutionizing the game in the 1960s and ’70s, and their impact on the way the NBA changed afterward, Cannon and his former ABA teammates and foes maintain great pride in their historical significance.

“And we feel that we are without a doubt pioneers of the modern game,” Cannon said. “We not only are pioneers of the modern game, we are more pioneers of the game than the NBA players were, in our opinion, because we were playing today’s NBA game — space the floor, emphasis on the 3 (-point shot), and a lot of excitement in the game.”

He added: “(For the players), these issues touch a chord with them because it’s hard. Like myself, I was the fifth player taken in the NBA Draft, and I for whatever reason decided I’m going to play in the American Basketball Association, and now I look back and say players that were, let’s say my peers, equal-type players if they played in the NBA their pension is paying them 30 times, at least, 30 times more than the pension I’m being paid, and that’s an insult.”

And a very valid point.

“It delegitimizes and it makes my game a second-rate game,” Cannon continued, “and it makes me a second-rate citizen in professional basketball … and it’s very disturbing. I had great pride in my game and feel like I had great success, and unfortunately went through an injury and I don’t need any more insults.

“This is more or less an insulting situation with regard to the pension and the inequality of the pension.”

The NBA has failed to grasp the value of fully celebrating its rich history, including its ABA roots, even players who came from now-defunct ABA clubs.

Or as Cannon put it: “It should be a celebration. The NBA should be embracing this idea. Of course we want to celebrate the ABA, of course we want to extend respect to those players, of course we want to recognize what those players did.”

Cannon continued his critique of the matter, raising the question of why this common-sense approach — helping former ABA players’ lives by raising their pensions — has gone nowhere.

“From the very first I’ve heard of it, I’ve said, ‘If this is presented to Adam Silver clearly and (responsibly) … there’s no way he says no.’ How can he say no? How can he possibly say no?” Cannon said. “Because it can’t be a question of money.

“This is change for them (the owners),” he added. “I mean, my god, the way they said thanks that the $37 million, which I’m told is an exaggeration of what it would actually cost them in their letter. … They fine an owner $15 million for luxury tax. It doesn’t make sense, man.”

But money is not the issue. Instead, it boils down to this: confronting the human side of the equation. Real people with real-life issues.

“The NBA would be embarrassed to extend to us what we have asked,” Cannon said. “It is so paltry. … They would have to legitimize their offering and make it more respectable, and even there it’s still what would it be — instead of $300 a month, would it be $500? Big (expletive) deal. It’s chump change, man. Chump change.”


“We’re all getting old and this is a disgrace,” Cannon said. “It’s a disgrace.”

He continued: “They certainly should be willing to sit down and talk. That’s all that was really requested was an opportunity to discuss the possibility of showing a little consideration to these surviving players, these handful of surviving players.”

Looking back at the end of his playing career, Cannon said he was stunned that his pension didn’t measure up to what was doled out to his NBA counterparts.

“I walked away from the game as a young man, thinking that when I was of age that I would be receiving the same, equal pension as the NBA player,” he said. “And I was shocked, I mean shocked, in disbelief when I saw that wasn’t the case, because certainly that’s the way everybody left when the merger took place and the league dispersed…”

Mistakes were made, and rewriting history can’t be done.

“I think the players just accepted it back those years ago,” Cannon said, “and it is obvious, I guess, that we weren’t as well represented legally as we should’ve been, and that was something that we had to accept and nobody said anything.”

Fast forward to 2017, when the 50th anniversary of the ABA’s inaugural season took place.

“That has players talking,” noted Cannon, “and then you have the NBA signing this new TV contract for $24 billion (which began with the 2016-17 season) and you hear of mediocre players receiving $10 million a year, and then you look at our little situation and understand that we have not been legitimized.”

What’s more, he said, the NBA has gone out of its way to adopt the ABA’s style of play.

“The NBA has embraced all of the positive things of the ABA,” Cannon observed. “They’ve just sort of left the players out.”

To galvanize public interest and passion for the plight of ex-ABA players, Cannon speaks with conviction that he and his peers need a public face for their cause.

“I told (former Pacers teammate) Bob Netolicky that you need a spokesman and you need a campaign,” he said.

Is there an obvious candidate?

Cannon thinks Hall of Famer Julius “Dr. J” Erving could make a major impact.

“If Doc would call ESPN and say, ‘Look, I want you to be aware of this issue, I think it’s something that should get some attention,’ there’s no doubt in my mind that they would give him the opportunity to talk about it,” Cannon said.

2017 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee George McGinnis (30) of the Indiana Pacers during a 1972-73 ABA game against the Kentucky Colonels. PUBLIC DOMAIN

Cannon recalled a May 2016 interview Erving did with Fox Sports, which highlighted the Doc’s affection for the ABA and the special place it has had in his life.

“Doc talked about how the ABA is still relevant in the NBA 40 years later,” Cannon said. “He was talking 40 years after the merger. He talked about the ABA still has this magneticness about it, how much he appreciates what the league did and how much he enjoys talking about it and seeing the old players, so if the Doc were to step up and make a call, and he could put together a little committee, which would really (help). If you were to get The Iceman (George Gervin) and get George McGinnis and Spencer Haywood and get the boys together, there’s no question in my mind that they could do it.

“But of course it’s the issue of the NBA, they’re a powerful organization … and it’s not about being hostile to the NBA. We love the NBA. … We just want to be a part of it. We just want to be a legitimate part of the NBA.”

San Antonio Spurs star George “The Iceman” Gervin. PUBLIC DOMAIN

In his own career, Cannon always accepted legitimate challenges, including the decision to begin his pro career in the ABA.

“I could’ve been,” he said of being an NBA player from the get-go. “I was the fifth player taken in the draft … but I knew, I grew up in Philly and I’d seen the game evolve from the modern game from its infancy. When I was 10 years old, I was watching in the mid-50s the game transition from walking the ball up the court shooting set shots, two-handed set shots, to in the summer where they would pick up the pace and it just so happened that I was a kid and I would run across the street to the recreation center and see the best, polished players in Philadelphia making five great dollars … and they are getting down, man. They were running up and down and bring an up-tempo (offense) to the game, a flow to the game.

“So I saw the game from the time it got modern, man. And I really feel this game. It’s been in my blood my entire life, so for somebody to tell me that I’m somehow not a legitimate professional player in any fashion is enough to disturb me. I was all-pro my second year. I averaged 26 points a game (26.4 with the Denver Rockets in 1970-71).”

Switching back to the ABA pension issue, first and foremost, Cannon insists that the Retired ABA Players need a public relations consultant.

In his view, here’s the key question for the PR person: “How do we go about making this issue public?”

Which brings us back to the issue that former ABA players seek to educate the public about.

“The ABA was a legitimate professional basketball league, and the fact is that the league was mistreated during the merger, there were misperceptions about the ABA, and again in this situation, again we feel like we are being mistreated, disrespected,” Cannon concluded. “And that’s what needs to be addressed and the pension would be a way, in my opinion, (to address it). What else are you going to do? You can lip service all you want, but the pension is a way to legitimize the league and the player. It’s as simple as that in my mind.”

Related stories
Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Part 5: