During the 1996-1997 season the NBA celebrated its 50th anniversary. The NBA’s goal was to spotlight the history of the league and the early superstars and teams. Unlike the NFL and MLB where young fans were familiar with old-time stars of those leagues, the NBA had notoriously been bad at promoting its history and former legends. The league had experienced a boom in popularity during the 1980s (Larry Bird & Magic Johnson) and the 1990s (Michael Jordan and the Bulls), but those current superstars overshadowed stars of the past. During the 80s and early 90s the league was focused on the future and growing into a global brand, and thus never took time to reflect on its past. As a result, kids like myself in the mid-90s had no clue who Bill Russell, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, Pistol Pete Maravich or George Gervin were and didn’t even know about the ABA. The NBA’s 50th Anniversary gave the league the perfect opportunity to tell its story and finally give past superstars their due.
On June 6, 1996, during the 1995-1996 NBA Finals between the Bulls and Sonics, David Stern officially announced the “NBA at 50” celebration for the upcoming 1996-1997 season. Julius Erving was named spokesman for the campaign.
To kick-off the season-long “NBA at 50” celebration, David Stern announced the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History at a press event in New York City on October 29, 1996. The announcement was made at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, which was built on the former site of the Commodore Hotel where the original NBA charter was signed on June 6, 1946. Voters consisted of media, former players and coaches, current and former general managers and team executives. Players were chosen without regard to position and were not ranked (they were announced alphabetically and vote totals were not revealed). The final list of the 50 Greatest Players consisted of 11 current players and 16 who retired in the 1980s or 1990s. It also included 6 players who spent time in the ABA and 2 players who played in the National Basketball League (NBL), which in 1949 merged with the Basketball Association of America (BAA) to officially form the NBA.