Many people debate who’s the greatest player ever, but there’s no debate for the most influential player of all time, and we have the numbers to prove it.
HoopsHype polled a mix of 52 former and current NBA players for their most influential players ever, and Michael Jordan won in a landslide.
Some prioritized production and impact long-term on the court. Others prioritized influence off the court from cultural branding, style, music, and experience as an executive.
In our scoring system, the top vote on a former or current player’s ballot received five points, the second received four points, the third received three points, the fourth received two points, and the fifth received one point. Below are the results of the poll.
1. Michael Jordan
Share of the vote: 73.85 percent of the maximum amount possible
Almost half of the voters in our poll (25) voted Michael Jordan No. 1 on their ballots. No other player got more than five first-place votes. MJ really ran the table here, and how can you argue with that? His on-court accomplishments are unimpeachable, as is the cultural impact. He was, after all, the most famous person on the planet for a while, turning millions into basketball fans across the globe.
“He just made the game look so fun and painted an amazing picture with the way he played,” one former NBA player who played for Jordan told HoopsHype. “Off the court, seeing how he carried himself. He showed the business side from a branding standpoint that was unreal. His logo speaks for itself, and he ran the basketball operations of the Wizards and played while doing it.”
To this day, he remains extremely popular. Along with endorsements over the years, such as the legendary “Be Like Mike” Gatorade commercials and starring in a McDonald’s commercial with Bird, Jordan became the first NBA player to become a billionaire in 2014.
“It was Jordan’s aura, his swag on the court, and how his presence was felt throughout the world,” one former NBA player told HoopsHype. “Even if you don’t follow basketball, everyone knows who Mike is.”
2. LeBron James
Share of the vote: 37.69 percent of the maximum amount possible
No player has ever entered the NBA with more hype as a teenager and exceeded those expectations more than LeBron James, who finished with the most second-place votes (11) in the poll. His nationally televised free agency decision in 2010 across the country was an iconic must-see television moment.
“LeBron’s ability to influence his peers, public opinion, his basketball dominance from a very young age, and his philanthropic work puts him up there with the most influential NBA athletes,” one former NBA player and current assistant coach told HoopsHype.
Off the court, James has given back to his community by opening the I Promise elementary school, a housing complex, and a community center in Akron, Ohio.
“LeBron’s philanthropic efforts and outspokenness skipped an entire era through the 80s and 90s,” a former teammate of James told HoopsHype. “It’s more indicative of Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Bill Russell.”
James became the first player in NBA history to accumulate $1 billion in earnings on and off the court as an active player.
3. Allen Iverson
Share of the vote: 33.08 percent of the maximum amount possible
When people think of Allen Iverson, the infamous crossover on Michael Jordan, tattoos, shooting sleeves, Reebok sneakers, and scoring barrages all come to mind. These traits helped Iverson finish tied for the second-most first-place votes in our poll (five).
“Iverson’s cornrows, tattoos, and dress style brought the hip hop culture to the game of basketball,” one former NBA player and current assistant coach told HoopsHype. “You include his brilliant basketball career at 6-foot, 160 pounds, and you have to put him up there with the most influential players in the NBA.”
During the NBA Finals, Iverson scored on Tyronn Lue and stepped over him for one of the coldest celebrations the league has ever seen. And while his scoring ability was revered, it was his baggy clothing style that equally influenced people.
“Off the court, Iverson was a guy that changed the NBA forever from a lifestyle standpoint,” another former player who competed against Iverson told HoopsHype. “He was comfortable doing it his way no matter how he was judged.”
In 2005, former NBA commissioner David Stern implemented a dress code, which Iverson criticized.
“Iverson not only influenced fans, but he influenced other players who then influenced more fans,” one former NBA player told HoopsHype. “His influence had levels to it. It’s almost like he had soldiers influencing people for him. He’s the reason people wear sleeves, why they have tattoos, why they have braids. He was the conduit between basketball and hip hop.”
4. Kobe Bryant
Share of the vote: 32.69 percent of the maximum amount possible
Kobe Bryant finished with the most third-place votes (12) in our poll. Following his tragic death from a helicopter crash, Bryant’s influence and legacy grew as people painted murals across the country, and other commemorations, such as the NBA redesigning the All-Star Game MVP trophy, were done in his honor.
“I’ve never had an athlete inspire me as much as Kobe did with his work ethic, his willingness to give back to the game, and inspiration to be great in every other aspect in my life the way he did,” one former NBA player told HoopsHype.
In 2018, Bryant became the first African-American to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. He also became the first former professional athlete to be nominated and win an Academy Award in any category for his film, Dear Basketball. That same year, Bryant began to write, produce and host the ESPN television series Detail. In October 2018, Bryant published his book, The Mamba Mentality: How I Play.
Considered the Michael Jordan of his generation, Bryant’s ability to play through injuries with his “Mamba mentality” and 81-point game and 60-point farewell performances became some of the iconic moments in league history.
5. Magic Johnson
Share of the vote: 28.46 percent of the maximum amount possible
Magic Johnson finished with eight second-place votes among the voters, trailing only Jordan and James.
“Magic, to me, is the first to bring entertainment and excitement to the game,” one former NBA player told HoopsHype. “I’m not trying to take away from Wilt Chamberlain or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but Magic really did put the “Show” in Showtime.”
Johnson was must-see television and is the NBA’s all-time leader in average assists per game (11.2).
Following his playing career, Johnson advocated for HIV prevention, was a former part-owner and executive for the Lakers, is also a part-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Sparks.
6. Stephen Curry
Share of the vote: 27.31 percent of the maximum amount possible
Stephen Curry tied with Iverson for the second-highest first-place selections among voters (5). Curry also had the most fourth-place (10) and fifth-place (8) finishes among the ballots.
Curry changed the way the game is played with his shooting. His ability to stretch the floor from the halfcourt logo began a new wave of more three-point shots attempted across the league than ever. He became the NBA’s top three-point shooter this season. He’s also the face of Under Armour brand.
7. Shaquille O’Neal
Share of the vote: 12.31 percent of the maximum amount possible
Regarded as one of the most dominant big men, Shaquille O’Neal has been larger than life on and off the court thanks to his play and charismatic personality. In our poll, he was the highest-ranked player to not receive a single first-place vote for the most influential player all-time.
“Shaq created himself as a brand,” one former NBA player explained. “He became more than an athlete, venturing off to all aspects of business, TV, books, and whatever you can think of. Shaq was one of the first athletes to branch out of the norms of what athletes do.”
Shaq released several rap albums, starred in the 1996 movie, Kazaam, and was a former minority owner of the Sacramento Kings.
O’Neal won four championships, including a three-peat with the Lakers, and was one of three players ever to win NBA MVP, All-Star Game MVP, and NBA Finals MVP in the same season (2000).
8. Larry Bird
Share of the vote: 7.69 percent of the maximum amount possible
Every player that voted for Larry Bird, who won three straight MVPs from 1984-86, chose him largely for the following reason:
“I feel like those games of Magic and Bird literally saved the NBA,” one former NBA player and current NBA executive told HoopsHype.
Yet, while Bird and Magic were always linked together throughout their careers, there was a wide gap in terms of their standings in the poll.
9. Bill Russell
Share of the vote: 6.54 percent of the maximum amount possible
Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell tied with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for ninth place in our poll.
In 2011, former president Barack Obama awarded Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his accomplishments on the court and in the Civil Rights Movement.
“Russell spoke out and up,” one former NBA player and current broadcaster told HoopsHype. “He risked everything when athletes didn’t make real money. He’s a legend.”
Russell won the most NBA championships for an individual player (11) and was a five-time league MVP. He later had the Finals MVP award named after him in 2009.
9. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Share of the vote: 6.54 percent of the maximum amount possible
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was known for his skyhook shot that helped him become the NBA’s all-time scoring leader with 38.387 points. He also won a record six MVP awards and earned a record 19 All-Star selections.
After retirement, Abdul-Jabbar was an actor, coach, and best-selling author. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton selected Abdul-Jabbar to be a U.S. global cultural ambassador. He also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2016.
Also receiving votes
Dirk Nowitzki (5 percent of the maximum amount possible), Earl Lloyd (4.23), Wilt Chamberlain (3.85), Julius Erving (3.46), Oscar Robertson (2.69), Steve Nash (2.69), Kevin Garnett (1.92), Spencer Haywood (1.92), Drazen Petrovic (1.54), Moses Malone (1.54), Manu Ginobili (1.54), Yao Ming (1.15), Jeremy Lin (0.77), Damian Lillard (0.38), Jerry West (0.38), Tracy McGrady (0.38) and Eddie Jones (0.38).
* Dirk Nowitzki helped European players open more doors in the NBA by becoming arguably the greatest foreigner to play in the league and the prototype for a shooting big man.
* Earl Lloyd, who finished with one first-place vote in the poll, opened the doors for Black NBA players.
“Earl Lloyd isn’t as notarized as Jackie Robinson because basketball was not as popular back then, but he still paved the way,” one former player told HoopsHype. “He’s a trailblazer for sure.”
* Wilt Chamberlain, who finished with one first-place vote in the poll, averaged 30 points and 23 rebounds over his career, played for the Harlem Globetrotters and was the reason for multiple rule changes.
* Julius Erving was the player several voters wanted to emulate while dunking.
“Dr. J gave the league swagger,” one former 10-year NBA veteran told HoopsHype.
* Oscar Robertson began the infatuation with the triple-double.
* Steve Nash, who was the last player to earn a first-place vote in the poll, helped usher the start of Canadian basketball talent at a high level.
“Nash was influential because he was the first MVP who won it because of skill and not some God-given gift,” one former NBA player and current G League assistant coach told HoopsHype. “He isn’t athletic, he isn’t necessarily quick, and he isn’t necessarily tall. He is just extremely skilled and smart. That’s something that can be replicated by a lot more people, and that’s why he was so influential.”
* Yao Ming led the NBA in All-Star fan votes in 2005 and 2006 and helped the NBA game grow internationally.
“Yao is a huge reason why the NBA brand was able to expand to one of the largest populated places in the world,” one former NBA player told HoopsHype. “He also helped build the bridge between the U.S. and China.”
You can follow Michael Scotto (@MikeAScotto) on Twitter.