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.
The 11 current players on the list consisted of: Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Patrick Ewing, Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, Robert Parish, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson, John Stockton and Shaquille O’Neal. At the time, Shaq was considered the most surprising and perplexing choice given that he had only been in the league four seasons and his team (the Orlando Magic) had been swept from the playoffs for three straight seasons. Some notable omissions from the list were David Thompson, Alex English, Bob Lanier, Connie Hawkins, Bob McAdoo and Bernard King.
On Saturday November 2, 1996 during the opening weekend of the NBA season, Ahmad Rashad hosted “NBA Special: The Greatest Ever” where he and Marv Albert presented the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players to a national television audience on NBC. The special included interviews with select players, including a rare interview with both Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain.
On Wednesday November 13, 1996 TNT aired the NBA’s official documentary “NBA at 50”. The two-hour documentary was hosted by Denzel Washington and for the first time celebrated the league’s history with rare footage.
During halftime of the 1997 NBA All-Star Game in Cleveland the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players were officially honored. The ceremony was the culmination of all the activities that surrounded the NBA at 50 celebration, and 47 of the 50 honorees attended the ceremony. Pistol Pete Maravich was the only deceased player on the list, having passed away unexpectedly in January 1988 of heart failure at the age of 40, but his two sons represented their late father. Shaquille O’Neal was recovering from a knee injury and could not attend, and Jerry West was unable to travel due to an ear infection which required surgery.