David “Skywalker” Thompson before he arrived in the NBA. Damn.
We sports fans love a good “what if?” debate, and there are millions of them. What if Portland had drafted Michael Jordan instead of Sam Bowie? What if Roman Abramovich had left José Mourinho alone instead of meddling? What if Barry “The Asterisk” Bonds hadn’t decided to become a walking pharmaceutical test facility? What if Don Shula had pulled Earl Morrall and put Johnny Unitas in the game earlier in Super Bowl III? What if the fucking refs had called the interference on that early Baltimore pick-six in their playoff win against the Broncos a few weeks back?
And my favorite: What if [insert player here] hadn’t gotten hurt?
The simple fact is that all of our major sports (and a lot of the minor ones, too) are littered with players who never realized their full potential due to injuries. For instance, I don’t know how many yards Gale Sayers would have finished his career with had he not blown his knee, but if they’d had the medical tech then that they do today it would have been many thousands more than the 4,956 he retired with.
Some of the greatest sports injury what ifs can be found in the NBA. In a parallel universe where a few injuries didn’t happen, the list of top five greatest players in history contains a couple names you don’t find on the corresponding list in this universe. So I decided to have a crack at naming the NBA’s all-time What-If Hall of Fame starting five.
Point Guard: Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway
Hardaway was the #3 pick in the 1993 draft and along with teammate Shaquille O’Neal led the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals in his second season. He was an All-NBA First Teamer in 1995 and 1996 and was named to the third team in 1997. He was also a four-time all-star (1995, 1996, 1997, 1998). But he blew his knee early in the 1997-98 season, and while he returned to play for another ten years he was never the same.
Shooting Guard: David Thompson
Put simply, David Thompson was the best player I ever saw. If not for injuries (and a self-inflicted coke problem later on) there is little doubt in my mind that he would today be regarded as the greatest player who ever lived. Let’s consider some of the highlights:
- 4× NBA All-Star (1977–1979, 1983)
- ABA All-Star (1976)
- 2× All-NBA First Team (1977, 1978)
- NBA All-Star Game MVP (1979)
- ABA All-Star Game MVP (1976)
- ABA Rookie of the Year (1976)
- ABA All-Rookie First Team (1976)
Standing 6’4″, DT was one of the most remarkable pure athletes in basketball history. He had a flat-footed vertical of 44″ and did this show dunk he called “cradle the baby”: he’d wrap his arm around the ball, leap up above the rim and punch the ball down through the net with his other hand. Long-time basketball watchers will tell you that the 1976 ABA Slam-Dunk Contest, with Dr. J beating Thompson in the final (that was the one where Erving became the first person to dunk taking off at the free throw line) was the greatest dunk contest in hoop history. Thompson also pretty much invented the alley-oop, so you’re welcome LA Clippers.
Have a look at his numbers over the first few years of his career.
He began having injury issues after the 1978 season, and even with them he continued to post great numbers through 1980-81.
I guess there’s one other factor to consider – DT never played in a big media market, and that always helps the legend. Had he done everything in his career in LA or New York or Boston there would be a lot less chatter about Michael Jordan being the best ever.
Thompson is in the Hall of Fame. And despite that honor, still stands as the most underrated player in pro basketball history. He was that good.
Small Forward: Grant Hill
My friends in the Offsides Sports Community had a lot of ideas about this one, including Bernard King and Elgin Baylor. The argument there is that as great as their careers were, they could have been even better (a version of the argument I make about Thompson, in essence).
Still, guys who could have had greater careers strike me as less compelling than a guy who, thanks to injuries, barely managed to be a shadow of what he could have been. Hill is the only Hall of Fame level talent ever produced by Duke’s legendary Mike Krzyzewski. Before injuries set in late int he 2000 season we saw serious superstar potential. Hill was named to seven All-Star Games, but look at his stats and notice what happened after 1999-2000.
Hill is still playing and I don’t know if his career will get him into the Hall of Fame. Time will tell.
Power Forward: Maurice Stokes
I’m tempted to go with a twin towers lineup and play Ralph Sampson at the four, just like the Rockets did. But it’s just about impossible to ignore the tragedy of Maurice Stokes, whose story goes way beyond “career cut short by injury.” Wikipedia sums it up for us:
Playing for the National Basketball Association’s Rochester Royals (which became the Cincinnati Royals in 1957) from 1955 to 1958, Stokes grabbed 38 rebounds in a single game during his rookie season, averaged 16.3 rebounds per game overall, and was named NBA Rookie of the Year. The next season, he set a league record for most rebounds in a single season with 1,256 (17.4 per game). He played in the All-Star Game all three seasons of his tragically short career, and was named to the All-NBA second team three times. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a player in September 2004.
On March 12, 1958, in the last game of the regular 1957–58 NBA season, in Minneapolis, Stokes drove to the basket, drew contact, fell to the floor, struck his head and lost consciousness. He was revived with smelling salts and returned to the game. Three days later, after a 12-point, 15-rebound performance in an opening-round playoff game at Detroit against the Pistons, he became ill on the team’s flight back to Cincinnati; “I feel like I’m going to die,” he told a teammate. He later suffered a seizure, fell into a coma and was left permanently paralyzed. In the end, he was diagnosed with posttraumatic encephalopathy, a brain injury that damaged his motor-control center.”
I think we have our power forward. And one of the saddest sports stories you’re likely to encounter. Ever.
Center: Bill Walton
Again, let’s turn to the concise Wikipedia entry for a nice summary:
He signed with the Trail Blazers but his first two seasons were marred by injury (at different times he broke his nose, foot, wrist and leg) and the Blazers missed the playoffs both years. It was not until the 1976–77 season that he was healthy enough to play 65 games and, spurred by new head coach Jack Ramsay, the Trail Blazers became the Cinderella team of the NBA. Walton led the NBA in both rebounds per game and blocked shots per game that season, and he was selected to the NBA All-Star Game, but did not participate due to an injury. Walton was named to the NBA’s First All-Defensive Team and the All-NBA Second Team for his regular season accomplishments. In the postseason, Walton led Portland to a sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers in the conference finals (arguably holding his own against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar during the series) and went on to help the Trail Blazers to the NBA title over the favored Philadelphia 76ers despite losing the first two games of the series. Walton was named the Finals MVP.
The following year, the Blazers won 50 of their first 60 games before Walton suffered a broken foot in what turned out to be the first in a string of foot and ankle injuries that cut short his career. He nonetheless won the league MVP that season (1978) and the Sporting News NBA MVP, as well. He played in his only All-Star Game in 1978 and was named to both the NBA’s First All-Defensive Team and the All-NBA First Team. Walton returned to action for the playoffs, but was reinjured in the second game of a series against the Seattle SuperSonics. Without Walton to lead them, Portland lost the series to Seattle in six games.
Walton soldiered on, finally calling it a day after ten seasons. A close look at his cumulative stats reveals what a remarkable player he was, even beat up and playing on busted wheels. Have a look at those per 36 minute numbers, for instance. There is a very credible argument to be made that had he remained healthy, Walton might have gone down as the greatest center to ever play the game and, along with Thompson, one of the five best at any position in history.
What if, huh?
Special thanks to my peeps in the Offsides Sports Community, who had all kinds of recommendations and insights here.
Image Credit: Today’s ACC Headlines