I‘m not going to argue that the difference between college basketball and pro basketball is exactly like the difference between enrolling in college and working a real job. That would be an exaggeration. I’m tempted to try, because it would make the introduction to this column much easier. But I don’t believe those things are exactly the same, and I’m not going to pretend otherwise. However, I do believe they have (at least) two things in common, and these two things are imperative. I think that — in both scenarios — the collegiate experience amplifies how important life feels, which means the emotional memory matters more than the technical details. I also think a big part of fondly remembering college — and, by extension, the sensation of loving college basketball — is related to the notion of selective nostalgia: In both instances, you spend a lot of time half-remembering noteworthy people you only knew in passing, and the hazy impermanence of those relationships somehow makes them more retrospectively satisfying.
[This is a complicated way of justifying my composition of a list.]
What follows is a ranking of the 50 greatest college basketball players of all time. This is not a list of the 50 most talented college basketball players of all time, or the 50 who had the biggest impact on the sport. These are the 50 players who inhabit our collective memory as “awesome college guys.” They’re the transient people who make college basketball a little more pleasurable than its professional counterpart, a phenomenon that’s often due to their disjointed combination of temporary excellence with timeless imperfection. They are, for lack of a better term, the reason college basketball is different.
My ranking criteria is as follows:
- Talent. This is the most important quality. However — and I cannot stress this enough — it’s not the only quality. It’s 50 percent of the equation, and sometimes less.
- The individual’s college career must be more meaningful than his pro career. This doesn’t mean the player had to be a professional bust, or even a professional disappointment — the candidate could be still be the league MVP, win multiple Larry O’Brien trophies, and spend his summers playing Clue in Billy Hunter’s boathouse with Hubie Brown.1 It does not require anyone to be a terrible NBA product. However, the peak of the player’s career needs to happen when they’re working for free (or at least pretending to work for free). If an objective, informed fan hears this person’s name, they should reflexively associate that individual’s greatness with the idiom of college basketball. That’s the key — any theoretical pro career is just something semi-irrelevant that happened later in life.
- Ideally, the player should possess an unorthodox game. Are you an undersized two-guard with no conscience? Do your unnaturally long arms compensate for your lack of a natural position? Do your physical limitations give you a paradoxical advantage? Were you the “one man” on a “one-man team”? Are there no other players comparable to your rarified version of weirdness? If so, congratulations. These are the qualities that make you memorable.
- There needs to be something vaguely “collegiate” about the individual’s persona. This, obviously, is an abstraction; ranking college players on how “collegiate” they seem is a little like ranking filmmakers on how “cinematic” they act. But there’s still something to this, even if it’s impossible to quantify: I like unfinished people. I like players who are still figuring out who they are. I like guys who wear sweaters instead of suits. You can disagree with the logic of my argument, but it’s not really based on logic, so your argument will fail.
- As with any historical list, my age is a bias. I am 39. I’m aware that human nature causes us to (a) romanticize players we remember from childhood, (b) lionize people we’ve only read about, and (c) undervalue modern players who seem like lesser versions of people we’ve seen before.
- The dead are valued more than the living. I’m simply being honest here: It helps to be dead. If I have to choose between a dead legend and a living legend, it’s never a difficult choice.
“OK, you’re Miss Scarlet. You have a rope. Maybe you have a lead pipe. You have all the tools. You’re in the billiards room, but you want to be in the study. You like the study …”
The ball is tipped, and there you are …
50. Alfredrick Hughes (Loyola University, 1981-1985): There will never be another Alfredrick Hughes, which is kind of like saying there will never be another GG Allin. As a freshman, he once missed 20 consecutive shots vs. Bradley. As a junior, he took 655 shots and finished the year with only 17 assists. He’s perhaps best remembered for a bootleg T-shirt that was popular around campus that screamed, “SAVE LOYOLA BASKETBALL, SHOOT ALFREDRICK HUGHES. ” But the freak could always fill it up: 17.0 as a frosh, 25.7 as a sophomore, 27.6 as a junior, and 26.3 as a senior. Somewhere in Chicago, Alfredrick is taking an ill-advised shot right now.
49. David Rivers (Notre Dame, 1984-1988): Ultra-quick and totally unpredictable, Rivers was a point guard from a video game (and I mean a video game from the ’80s, when nobody cared how realistic they were). When Al McGuire used to announce Irish games on NBC, you could almost hear the saliva dripping off his lips whenever Rivers broke somebody’s tibia. Of course, David was never designed for the pro game, and he knew it. He knew it before anyone else. Here’s what he said after getting cut by Minnesota Timberwolves coach Bill Musselman: “I didn’t fit in. He wanted a guard who would run the offense, pass the ball, and play defense. That’s not me at all.”
48. Gerry McNamara (Syracuse, 2002-2006): There have been many players better than Gerry McNamara. But how many humans ever played better than McNamara during the best week of his life? His four-game performance in the
2008 2006 Big East tournament was more extraordinary than Billy Owens’ entire career.
47. Stacey Augmon (UNLV, 1987-1991): Nobody ever terrorized the passing lanes like the Plastic Man. Is it possible to be “laid-back” and “aggressive” simultaneously? Somehow, that was Augmon’s natural state of existence.
46. Daren Queenan (Lehigh, 1984-1988): “My body is my briefcase,” Queenan once said cryptically, apparently meaning that his body is what he took to work. A 6-foot-4 small forward, he ended his time at Lehigh with 2,703 points and 1,013 rebounds. He eventually won the CBA slam dunk contest and became a naturalized citizen of Belgium. If there’s ever a dunk contest in Bruges, I would still put my bones on this dude.
45. Danny Ferry (Duke, 1985-1989): He was at least as good at basketball as Jay Bilas is at Twitter.
44. Reggie Williams (Virginia Military Institute, 2004-2007): Here we have the third-most famous athlete ever named “Reggie Williams” who played for a team that never went .500 on the year. But he scored a metric ton (a 22.8 average over the course of 112 games), leading the nation as both a junior and a senior.
43. Scott Skiles (Michigan State, 1982-1986): “You know, there is no way I would have Scott Skiles on this team,” Bob Knight told his Hoosier roster in 1986. “But Scott Skiles is tougher than every single one of you.” Scotty was arrested three times during college (once for weed, once for cocaine possession, and once for a DUI). He was a problem, but mostly for people who tried to guard him and inevitably failed. It almost seemed like he vandalized opponents. His pro career was statistically relevant (he had 30 assists in one night for the Magic, which is still a record), but it’s his hard-partying college days that matter more.
42. Michael Graham (Georgetown, 1983-1984): The human incarnation of Hoya intimidation.2
The bald-domed Graham played just one menacing season for Georgetown, jettisoned by coach John Thompson for a lack of academic tenacity. He was one of the most physical difference-makers of the decade, but he only averaged around five points and four rebounds a night. An argument could easily be made that he does not warrant inclusion here, particularly since the following players did not make the cut: Raymond Lewis (who starred for the fake-sounding “California State” in the early ’70s), Mark Macon, Pearl Washington, Bob Kurland, Keith Lee, Kenny Walker, George Gregory, Anderson Hunt, Charles Jones, Bobby Hurley, Richie Farmer, Popeye Jones, Alphonso Ford, Kevin Bradshaw, Stephen Thompson, Tito Horford, Derrick Coleman, Steve Kerr (“Steve KEEERRR!”), Jimmy Black, Kent Benson, Moses Scurry (the Vegas version of Graham), Lancaster Gordon, Ken Norman, Gary McClain, and “Never Nervous” Pervis Ellison. All those guys were awesome. But this is a finite list, and 50 was the number. I was tempted to expand the ranking to 64, and then to 68 — but that seemed stupid.
41. Fennis Dembo (Wyoming, 1984-1988): Undoubtedly the only Wyoming cager who’ll ever be on the cover of Sports Illustrated, he probably would have been recruited by Kentucky had his name been Dennis Fembo.
40. Eric “Sleepy” Floyd (Georgetown, 1978-1982): When recalling the 1982 NCAA title game, people tend to mention two things — Michael Jordan’s clutch jump shot from the left wing, and James Worthy intercepting a miscalculated pass from Hoya point guard Fred Brown. Yet if Brown doesn’t turn it over, Jordan’s jumper might be a footnote; everyone watching that game expected Mr. Narcolepsy to score on that final possession. Never sleep on the Sleepy.
39 and 38 (tie). Phil Ford (North Carolina, 1974-1978) and Walt Hazzard (UCLA, 1962-1964): Both represented the class of their respective programs without drawing undue attention to themselves.
37. Chris Jackson (LSU, 1988-1990): Before changing his name and being unjustly persecuted for his political ideals, Jackson was a two-season Cajun superstar (he averaged over 30 a night as a frosh). As a sophomore, he played on an LSU team that had Shaquille O’Neal at center and 7-foot, 285-pound Stanley Roberts at power forward. They went 12-6 in the SEC, somehow.
36. Adam Morrison (Gonzaga, 2003-2006): He had the best Maui Invitational ever, and a mustache that failed. What’s more collegiate than that?
35. Scott May (Indiana, 1973-1976): The textbook example of a man designed only for the college game. His kid might be similar. Both deserve recognition.
34. Rex Chapman (Kentucky, 1986-1988): I have a (possibly racist?) book in my library that described King Rex like this: “Jumps like a brother, shoots like your mother.” I suppose Chapman did have a lot of 7-for-18 games in his life, but the seven he made were always worth it. He was clutch. I still have a Rex Chapman T-shirt somewhere in my parents’ house. It never fit right.
33. Juan Dixon (Maryland, 1998-2002): No matter what happens, I’ll always consider Dixon a greater talent than Steve Blake. And I really like Steve Blake; I just can’t understand how the things Dixon did at Maryland couldn’t translate to the next level. And that makes me like him more.
32. Rick Mount (Purdue, 1966-1970): The fact that people still refer to Rick Mount as the ultimate paragon of jump shot purity is one of life’s most wonderful mysteries.
31. Tom Gola (La Salle, 1952-1955): Fellows from La Salle put up bongo numbers. Gola had 2,201 career rebounds. Granted, they came during an era when boards were easier to come by — but still — how does a guy end up with more rebounds in three seasons than the number of points Patrick Ewing scored in four?
30. Butch Lee (Marquette, 1974-1978): The on-court star of Marquette’s ’77 championship was (until the ascent of Carmelo Anthony) generally viewed as the best Puerto Rican hoopster of all time, although I don’t know how important that designation is (or should be). He certainly had an excellent name, particularly since his career ambition was to become a professional ball player. I can’t imagine meeting someone named “Butch Lee” and thinking to myself, “I bet this guy is a terrible athlete.”
29 and 28. Phillip Hutcheson and John Pierce (Lipscomb, 1986-1990 and 1990-1994): This is just bizarre: Hutcheson scored 4,106 points in his career for the Bison, which — at the time of his graduation — was the most by any player at any level (back then, Lipscomb was still an NAIA program). He was then replaced by Pierce, who somehow finished his career with 4,230. So the two greatest scorers in college history just happened to play at the same tiny school, in immediate succession, for no justifiable reason.
27. Glenn Robinson (Purdue, 1991-1994): Robinson hailed from Gary, Indiana, a town so tough I’ll probably get murdered by Freddie Gibbs just for making a joke about it. During the offseason, he (literally) worked as a welder; during the real season, he (figuratively) swallowed chumps alive. The best Big 10 player of the ’90s.
26. Dereck Whittenburg (North Carolina State, 1980-1983): Our historical record suggests that Whittenburg was the third or fourth-best player on State’s ’83 championship roster; Thurl Bailey, Sidney Lowe, and Lorenzo Charles all had better post-college playing careers. Yet this contradicts the experience of everyone who watched the Wolfpack’s run that March and can only remember the cherubic cat who kept ripping twine from 33 feet away.
25. Jimmer Fredette (BYU, 2007-2011): As a senior, Jimmer took 765 shots. That’s about 235 fewer than he should have.
24. Mookie Blaylock (Oklahoma, 1987-1989): The vortex of those stellar late ’80s Oklahoma squads, Mookie was a defensive chupacabra, a better-than-average shooter, Jeff Ament’s idol, and a gratuitous opportunity for me to write about his coach and mentor, Billy Tubbs. People don’t remember how hilarious Billy Tubbs was, often without even trying. Once, his wife accused Tubbs of loving basketball more than he loved her. “But honey,” he replied, “I love you more than track.”
23. Glen Rice (Michigan, 1985-1989): You know, I have no idea if Rice hooked up with Sarah Palin in 1987. But if he did, I’m happy for both of them. Let’s assume the rumor is true: Why is this information remotely controversial? They were both adults. They probably had a lot in common. They were in Alaska. They were not in the town where Footloose happened. What, exactly, was the espoused atrocity here? At least she was interested in a great player. It was probably the best decision she ever made.
22. Khalid El-Amin (UConn, 1997-2000): Did you ever play intramural basketball against a short, fat, confident kid who kept driving the paint and effortlessly scoring over every clown who tried to stop him? And no matter how hard you played him, he never seemed excited or intimidated or even particularly interested? And then — when the game was finished, and everyone else was exhausted — he casually decided to jump into some other random intramural game and scored another 28 points in the exact same way? El-Amin was the NCAA version of that unstoppable fat kid.
21. Wayman Tisdale (Oklahoma, 1982-1985): The only smooth jazz bassist who was ever a three-time All-American. Unstoppable on the block, and seemingly always in a good mood. He died from cancer in 2009. Tragic.
20. Xavier McDaniel (Wichita State, 1981-1985): Certainly a solid pro3 and an okay grunge-era actor, but his ’85 season for Wichita State — 27.2 points, 14.8 rebounds — established him as the first-ever college player to lead the nation in both categories.
Some may argue, “This feels wrong. When I think of the X-Man, I only think of him as a Supersonic.” But that’s only because these people did not follow Wichita State. Why would they? Imagine what it would have been like if McDaniel had led the nation in scoring and rebounding for Kansas. Brent Musburger would have said his name hundreds and hundreds of times. Wilt Chamberlain didn’t lead the country in both scoring and rebounding, but McDaniel did? He doesn’t get enough credit for this.
19. Jerome Lane (Pittsburgh, 1985-1988): Send it in, Jerome.
18. Steve Alford (Indiana, 1983-1987): He could have been no. 1 on this list, if free throws were worth five points apiece and getting screamed at was worth 25.
17 and 16 (tie). Johnny Neumann (Ole Miss, 1972-1973) and Frank Selvy (Furman, 1951-1954): Only three guys have averaged 40 points a game for a season. These are “the other two guys.” Neumann4 only played for his sophomore season; he had bad acne, a worse attitude, and a Maravich-like style. He jumped straight to the ABA and evaporated. Selvy scored 100 points in one game against Newberry College, but it was kind of sketchy (his coach demanded that everyone on the team made sure Selvy scored as much as possible). That said, 41-of-66 (and 18-of-22 from the line) is quite an evening, sketchy or no.
If you’re interested, there’s some excellent stuff on this guy in Terry Pluto’s ABA oral history Loose Balls.
15. Austin Carr (Notre Dame, 1968-1971): Sure, he had a fine pro career with the Cavaliers, but he was the first big-time college scorer of the 1970s. In the original draft of this story, I also argued that Carr was “the main reason UCLA’s 88-game win streak ended.” This is not true, since Carr had already graduated. But perhaps his memory provided motivation?
14. Danny Manning (Kansas, 1984-1988): As a freshman, he seemed overhyped. As it turns out, he was “accurately hyped.” The Jayhawks won the national title when Manning was a senior, despite a mediocre 21-11 record during the regular season; had he turned pro as a junior, they might have missed the NIT.
13. Freeman Williams (Portland State, 1974-1978): Akin to a more stable World B. Free, the 6-foot-4 Williams averaged 30.9 as a sophomore, 38.8 as a junior, and 35.9 as a senior. If implementing the 3-point goal had been Jimmy Carter’s first directive as president, Freeman breaks the 40-point barrier once (and maybe twice). In 1981, he dropped around 20 a night for the San Diego Clippers, although few remember and fewer care.
12. J.J. Redick (Duke, 2002-2006): Thousands of Americans despise Redick. His crime? Playing for Duke and not missing enough jump shots. If you drain 22-footers so successfully that it makes total strangers hate you, you’ve done something right.
11. Hank Gathers (Loyola Marymount, 1987-1990): The second man to lead the nation in both scoring and boards, Gathers was a 6-foot-7 center who outran everybody and adored offensive rebounding. He’s absolutely the greatest player who ever died during an official game. Here again: Fucking tragic.
10. Tyler Hansbrough (North Carolina, 2005-2009): Hansbrough was the basketball equivalent to Tim Tebow, but he arrived a year earlier. He prepared us for Tebow. He was the pre-Tebow. He was the Prebow.
9. Lionel Simmons (La Salle, 1986-1990): The list of players who’ve scored 2,000 points and snagged 1,000 rebounds is surprisingly long. The list of players who scored 3,000 points while snagging 1,000 rebounds is not. The L-Train finished with 3,217 and 1,429. He’s the best player from the cable-TV era who almost no one outside his hometown ever saw more than once.
8. Christian Laettner (Duke, 1988-1992): Oddly, I’ve always felt Laettner was slightly overrated as a collegiate and slightly underrated (and vastly underutilized) as a pro. But the guy made the most memorable shot of all time and played in 23 NCAA tournament games over a span of four years. At the time, the maximum number of tournament games anyone could play in a given season was six. The math is not complicated.
7. Len Bias (Maryland, 1982-1986): Though the NBA potential of Bias became a little overstated in the wake of his overdose (there were a lot of busts in the ’86 draft and he might have been one of them), there’s no disagreement over his dominance in the ACC. Everyone who played against him seems to insist he was the best college athlete they ever faced, which is one of the complimentary upsides to dying young.
6. Walter Berry (San Jacinto Junior College and St. John’s University, 1983-1986): This 6-foot-8 southpaw was one of the only people to be the best player on two separate collegiate levels — he had one of the greatest JUCO seasons ever at Jacinto and was a Wooden Award winner for St. John’s. He also had the craziest scoring attacks of the ’80s — he ignored his right hand completely, whirled incessantly, and showed supreme disinterest in developing anything as dull as a jump shot. He electrified every college game he played, but — of course — was not designed for the orthodoxy of the NBA. Larry Brown tried to unlock his insanity for the Spurs in 1988, and it did not take. “He’s a fundamentally sound coach,” Berry told a reporter at the time, “and my game does not consist of fundamentals.”
5. Ralph Sampson (Virginia, 1979-1983): Absolutely the most skilled 7-foot-4 player of his (or any) generation, particularly if you like your 7-4 center to occasionally play shooting guard. A three-time Naismith player of the year, Ralph was the best college basketball player I ever saw with my own eyes, thus beginning my lifelong relationship with being wrong about things I’m totally confident about.
4. David Thompson (North Carolina State, 1973-1975): David Thompson created Michael Jordan.
3. Bill Walton (UCLA, 1971-1974): Deadheads in downtown Portland might quibble with Walton’s inclusion5 on this list, but the man defined both the hippie collegiate experience and the NCAA style of play. Judging from his own statements, I’m relatively certain he’d sacrifice half his injury-plagued pro career just to spend five more minutes in a bomb shelter with John Wooden. Moreover, Walton had the greatest offensive performance anyone’s ever going to see in a meaningful contest, hitting 21 of 22 against Memphis in the ’73 title game.
Here’s part of my thinking on the inclusion of Walton: He only had 2½ great pro seasons, but he had three great years in college. This was the same reasoning I used for exclusion of Elvin Hayes: He feels more important as a college player, but he was a top-flight pro forever. He played in 12 All-Star games. It seemed unbalanced.
2. Pete Maravich (LSU, 1967-1970): The free thinker/lunatic who invented my haircut averaged 44.2 a game during his three-season career; everyone who follows basketball knows this, because there’s simply no corollary for that kind of offensive production. It’s doubtful anyone will average 40 points again, and there’s zero chance someone will do it three times in a row. But here’s something even crazier: Maravich averaged 44.2 points per game while shooting 43.8 percent from the field. His career scoring average was higher than his career shooting percentage. Obviously, this is mathematically possible, because it happened. But try to imagine a modern scenario where that numeric contradiction occurs again. You will spend a long, long time staring into the abyss. Sometimes it pays to play for your dad.
1. Lew Alcindor (UCLA, 1966-1969): This, I cannot deny, is a form of cheating that even Sam Gilbert would find egregious. Obviously, Alcindor changed his name in 1971 and had a decent pro career; one could make the argument that perceiving “Lew Alcindor” as a separate entity from “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar” is essentially a question about the definition of personhood. But here’s the rub — I suspect Jabbar himself would argue that he is not the same Catholic stickman who showed up at Westwood in 1965, and it was that pre-Kareem who remains the most jaw-dropping college player to ever walk the planet. The fact that UCLA won the national title during all three seasons Alcindor played is merely the third-most interesting detail of his college career; the fact that the NCAA outlawed dunking due to his dominance is probably second. But to me, the thing that will always be most unfathomable about Alcindor was his very first game, played when he was an ineligible freshman: UCLA was coming off back-to-back national championships. As an exhibition, the Bruin varsity — ranked no. 1 in the nation — opened the season by scrimmaging the freshmen team. Alcindor had 31 points, 21 boards, and eight blocks. The freshmen hammered the varsity by 15 points; the no. 1 team in the country could not beat a player who could not yet play. As an ineligible 18-year-old, Alcindor was (at worst) the fourth or fifth-best basketball player in the world. So I guess talent does matter, sometimes.