Basketball is a sport known for larger-than-life players with larger-than-life personalities! Unlike hockey or football, where players are covered by layers of protective padding, basketball players are highly visible on the small court, and their personalities and styles of play get to shine. Some players are best known for their signature moves, some for their attitude, some for their behaviour or accomplishments off the court.
There are too many notable personalities in the NBA to name in this list, so here’s our picks for 39 of basketball’s biggest personalities!
39. “The Prince Of Midair"
Lloyd Bernard Free made good use of his last name: he legally changed first his name to “World.” That’s right, World B. Free. He was known for his risk-taking and flamboyant style of play. His signature moves were the “rainbow” jump shot, named for the arch of the ball took in midair, and the jump shot that earned him the nickname “World” in the first place: a 44-inch vertical leap with a 360 degree dunk.
38. Human Victory Cigar
Selected as the number 2 draft pick in 2003, Darko Miličić didn’t exactly make the most of his NBA career. He’s admitted to showing up to practices drunk and was known to punch walls in anger. As a result, he was known as the “Human Victory Cigar": i.e. a player so awful he only comes out at the end of a sure victory.
37. “White Chocolate”
Jason Williams earned the nickname “White Chocolate” in his rookie year with the Sacramento Kings for his “street” style of play, plus his impressive and unorthodox moves such as behind-the-back, half-court, and no-look passes. Says Kings PR rep Stephanie Shephard, who gave him the nickname, “It reminds me of, like, schoolyard street ball when I go to Chicago.” His rough-and-tumble attitude made him a bit of a liability, however, and he was often benched during crucial periods earlier in his career.
36. Two Time
During his impressive basketball career, Steve Nash was the personification of style, grace, and agility. A true blue teammate, he lead the league in assists for five years—and was one of the top 10 players in history in total assists, field goal percentage, and assists per game. He won back-to-back MVPs, thus the nickname “Two Time,” only the second point guard (after Magic Johnson) to do this. He was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2006, and received the Order of Canada in 2007.
In 2012, after becoming a starter for the New York Knicks, Jeremy Lin’s popularity rocketed skyward. His visibility as one of the few Asian-American players in NBA history set him apart, along with his devout Christianity, Harvard education, and reputation as a humble, thoughtful man on and off the court. He led the Knicks in a comeback, setting off a global craze dubbed “Linsanity,” which has since been both trademarked and admitted into the Global Language Monitor dictionary.
34. "German Race Car”
German-born Dirk Nowitzki is considered to be one of the greatest power-forwards of all time. He is one of only seven players to play at least 20 seasons in the history of the the NBA. Nowitzki was spotted at a young age by a private coach in Germany who trained him with unorthodox techniques—he took up a musical instrument and studied literature to give him a better rounded character. Apparently it worked: he became the first European to play in an All-Star Games and to be named Most Valuable Player (in 2007).
33. The Michelangelo of Slam Dunks
The NBA Slam Dunk Contest is always a highlight of the NBA All-Star Weekend, where amateurs and pros bring creativity and peak athleticism together to dunk their best dunk. Flying dunks, backwards dunks, dunks over cars, All-Star competition dunks embrace gimmicks. Utah Spurs’ Jeremy Evans once won the Slam Dunk Competition by dunking two balls at once. But in 2013, he may have broken the game to perform the Inception of slam dunks: he jumped over a curtain-covered easel to perform an open-legged, one-handed slam dunk. He then landed and yanked the curtain away to reveal a painting of himself performing the dunk, which he painted himself!
In a sport dominated by giants, Tyrone Curtis “Muggsy” Bogues is known for being the shortest player in NBA history, standing only 5’3” tall. What he lacked in height, however, he made up for in talent: Bogues’ playing career spanned 14 seasons, including 10 seasons with the Charlotte Hornets. Bogues also appeared alongside Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and Bugs Bunny in the 1996 sports comedy Space Jam.
31. My Giant
From the very small to the very tall: Gheorghe Mureșan is the tallest player in NBA history, standing an impressive 7’7”. He’s also the tallest living person in the European Union. Besides his amazing height, his face is also recognizable to those alive in the 90s: Mureșan’s height is played up on the poster for the 1998 comedy My Giant, which he starred in with Billy Crystal. He also appeared as a ventriloquist to a regular-sized Eminem in the video for “My Name Is.”
30. "White Mamba"
Called “White Mamba”, in response to Kobe Bryant’s “Black Mamba” nickname, Brian Scalabrine has been called “the most useless player in the NBA,” but he’s also a fan favourite.To counter his reputation as a lousy player, in 2013 Scalabrine agreed to take on fans who thought they could best him—he played four fans one-on-one and easily beat them all, proving that even the worst player in the NBA is still a hell of a lot better than the rest of us.
29. The Big Dipper
Over the course of his legendary career, Wilt Chamberlain scored 31,419 points (including 100 points in a single game). He still holds dozens of yet-unbroken basketball records. Yet it is his, ahem, personal life that Chamberlain is best known for. In his autobiography, A View From Above, Chamberlain claims to have bedded over 20,000 women! If you do the math, that works out to 1.4 women per day for 40 years. At the time, during the height of the American HIV epidemic, the claim riled activists who decried him as irresponsible, and criticized him for perpetuating racist and sexist stereotypes. Regardless of whether his numbers were off, his basketballs stats don’t lie: he's got four MVPs and dozens of records for rebounds, field goal percentage, and assists.
28. “Swaggy P”
Better known as Swaggy P, a nickname he claims was given to him in a dream by God, Nick Young is one of basketball’s current most outlandish personalities. In November 2017, he claimed that the airplane carrying the Oklahoma City Thunder, himself among the passengers, was attacked by…a dinosaur? He’s also cousins with rapper Kendrick Lamar, and was engaged to rapper Iggy Azalea.
27. Year Of The Yao
Before Linsanity, there was the Year of the Yao. Yao Ming was the tallest basketball player in the NBA during his career, at 7 ft 6 inches. A Chinese national, much attention was paid to Yao's international heritage, as told in his autobiography, Yao: A Life in Two Worlds. Since his retirement from basketball, Yao has embraced activism and advocacy, participating in Basketball Without Borders, raising money for medical research, and serving as a fundraiser and ambassador for elephant and rhinoceros conservation.
26. The Namesake
The story is that Isaiah Thomas’s father lost a bet to a friend about the 1989 NBA Finals—a bet that resulted in naming his son for the Pistons point guard, Isiah Thomas. It’s spelled a bit differently, but apparently it is all in the name: Isaiah Thomas is now one of the hottest point guards in the NBA himself, and plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
25. Standing Up By Sitting Down
Mahmood Abdul-Rauf may have been ahead of his time in 1996 when he gave up thousands in fines for political protest. 20 years before Colin Kaepernick would do the same, Abdul-Rauf refused to stand during the national anthem, as he viewed the American flag as a symbol of racism and oppression. In the 1990s, Abdul-Rauf’s actions were unprecedented, and athletes were expected to be apolitical.
24. “Knick Killer”
Reggie Miller is considered the Indiana Pacers’ best player of all time. Miller was nicknamed the “Knick Killer” for his dazzling three-pointers during the legendary rivalry with the New York Knicks. He was also known for getting into verbal altercations with Knicks fan Spike Lee, who was often seated courtside. He’s now a commentator on TNT.
23. Ball In The Family
Rookie Laker Lonzo Ball’s hard work has won him acclaim, but it’s his father who really stands out in the personality department. LaVar Ball has three sons—Lonzo, LiAngelo, and LaMeo —whom he acts as spokesman for, and boy does he speak! LaVar relentlessly reps his Big Baller Brand, a shoe outfit. He also makes large claims about the success of his sons: he’s made hard-to-live-up-to draft predictions, and boasted that Lonzo is better than Stephen Curry. He even claimed that he himself could beat Michael Jordan one-on-one.
22. “The Iceman”
One of the greatest shooting guards of all time, George Gervin earned his nickname, “The Iceman,” for keeping his cool under pressure on the court. In a game against the Utah Jazz, Gervin scored 33 points in one quarter—the most points scored in a single quarter in NBA history at the time—and the crowd reported he didn’t even seem to break a sweat.
21. Look Ma, I'm on the Logo
You might not know Jerry West’s name, but we guarantee you’ve seen him. In fact, West might be the most visible NBA player of all time. You might not recognize his face, but you’d know his silhouette anywhere: West was immortalized in the NBA logo.
20. The Player-Coach
Bill Russell, who in 1980 was voted the “Greatest Player in the History of the NBA” by the Pro Basketball Writers’ Association of America, was much more than just a player: he was also a coach! Russell served a three-year stint as player-coach for the Boston Celtics— that’s right, a player AND a coach at the same time.
19. The Comedian
LA Clippers Power forward Blake Griffin makes an impression standing 6’10” tall, but his personality is equally as big. In his time off-court, he performs standup comedy! He's performed at The Laugh Factory in LA and at the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal. He’s reportedly currently dating Keeping Up With The Kardashians star and model Kendall Jenner.
18. Mr. Kardashian
Speaking of Kardashians, Lamar Odom’s marriage to Khloé Kardashian has eclipsed his basketball prowess in most people’s minds. Odom married Kardashian in 2009, a month after they met, and has had several appearances on her reality show. He has also starred in Khloé and Lamar, a spin-off of the show. Kardashian filed for divorce (for the second time) in 2016 and his personal issues with addiction have landed him in the tabloids more than once—including being found unconscious and unresponsive at a brothel in Nevada, where it was determined he had suffered several strokes and kidney failure. He is reportedly recovering well.
17. King James
Lebron James’ resume is impressive: he’s won three NBA championships, four NBA Most Valuable Player Awards, the NBA Rookie Of the Year Award, two Olympic gold medals, three NBA Finals MVP Awards… the list goes on and on. He’s the Cleveland Cavalier’s all-time leading scorer, and one of the most popular basketball players in the world. An Ohio native, James was selected by his his home team, the Cavaliers, as the first draft pick of 2003. When he decided to leave the Cavaliers for the Miami Heat, the decision was of such public interest that ESPN broadcast a special about it, titled The Decision. He returned to the Cavaliers in 2015.
16. “Chocolate Thunder”
Darryl Dawkins, aka “Chocolate Thunder,” has an impressive legacy in the NBA: his dunks were so powerful they shattered the glass backboards, leading the NBA to adopt breakaway rims on the basketball hoops. His nickname was bestowed by none other than Stevie Wonder. His raw power and flair were legendary on the court: he often named his most impressive dunks, such as "The Chocolate-Thunder-Flying, Robinzine-Crying, Teeth-Shaking, Glass-Breaking, Rump-Roasting, Bun-Toasting, Wham-Bam, Glass-Breaker-I-Am-Jam.”
15. “Black Mamba”
Kobe Bryant’s accomplishments are undeniable: he was the first guard in NBA history to play for 20 seasons, and the youngest player ever to score 30,000 points. Sporting News named Bryant “Top NBA Player of the 2000s.” However, in 2003, Bryant was accused of sexual assault, and while the suit was settled out of court, his reputation has been irreparably sullied in the eyes of many.
14. Metta World Peace
Ron Artest might be the most colourful personality in NBA history. Artest was a participant in the most notorious brawl in NBA history, which occurred between the Pacers and the Pistons on November 19th, 2004. The incident is known as “Malice at the Palace”: After a fight between players had already been broken up, a fan threw a drink at Artest, who then charged into the crowd and started a massive brawl. In 2011, Artest legally changed his name to Metta World Peace (first name: “Metta”, last name “World Peace”). His press release stated, "Changing my name was meant to inspire and bring youth together all around the world.” “Metta” is a buddhist word denoting kindness and friendliness towards all.
13. “Mount Mutombo”
Dikembe Mutombo was known as “Mt. Mutombo” for his height (7’2”) and his long arms. The eight-time All-Star won NBA Defensive Player of the Year four times. However, it is Mutombo’s humanitarian work outside the NBA that really sets him apart. Mutombo started the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation, working to improve living conditions in his native Democratic Republic of Congo. Mutombo donated $29 million to open a 300-bed hospital in Kinshasa, Congo, named Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital after his mother.
12. “The Slim Reaper”
Kevin Durant’s cool demeanor on court earned him the nickname “The Slim Reaper.” Durant and teammate Russell Westbrook brought the Oklahoma City Thunder into the spotlight; in 2015 they became the first pair of teammates to each score at least 40 points in a single game since 1996. Durant broke hearts and earned fans’ ire when he announced his departure from the Thunder and move to the Golden State Warriors.
11. “The Baby-Faced Assassin”
It’s all in the Curry family: Stephen Curry is the son of former NBA player Dell Curry and brother of player Seth Curry. Steph’s smaller stature and youthful appearance lead to his nickname, the “Baby-Faced Assassin.” In 2015, Curry won the NBA MVP Award and led the Golden State Warriors to their first championship since 1975—the following year brought another NBA MVP award, when he became the first player elected MVP by a unanimous vote. This year, Curry made news by declining an invitation to the White House.
10. “The Great White Hope”
Larry Bird played for the Boston Celtics his entire NBA career, from 1979-1992. Bird also played on the USA Olympic Basketball Team (aka “The Dream Team”) that won the Olympic gold medal in 1992. After retirement, he coached the Indiana Pacers to their team’s all-time best, and he’s is the only man to be named an MVP, Coach of the Year, and Executive of the Year in the NBA. Bird is known for his basketball prowess and his trash-talking, larger-than-life demeanour; he’s been featured in several video games, starting with 1983’s One on One: Dr. J vs. Larry Bird.
9. The Tallest
At 7 feet 7 inches, Manute Bol was the tallest player ever in the NBA along with Gheorghe Mureșan. His height made him a spectacle on the court, and his long limbs were useful in blocking shots—in fact, he blocked more shots than he scored points, the only NBA player ever to do so. Sudanese by birth, Bol gave the much of his NBA fortune to charities supporting Sudan. He was so well-known for being well-rounded, thoughtful, and intelligent, and for his humanitarian efforts, that after his death, a salute to Bol took place on the floor of the United States Senate. Charles Barkley said of him, “If everyone in the world was a Manute Bol, it's a world I'd want to live in.”
8. “Dr. J”
Basketball would look a lot different if it weren’t for Julius “Dr. J” Erving. Dr. J helped popularize the modern style of play, with an emphasis on jumping, leaping, and dunking. Erving wasn’t the first to dunk, but he brought “slam” dunking into he spotlight, using his impressive shots to intimidate his opponents and fire up his teammates and fans.
7. One Big Bill
Bad boy Allen Iverson was known for his troubles on the court, missing practices and refusing to train. These days he’s known for his troubles off the court: he’s been sued for assaults by his bodyguards, arrested for carrying a concealed weapon, and he made headlines in 2012 for running up a bill of $859,000 at a jewellery store and refusing to pay. Rumor is that athough he made over $154 million during his NBA career, Iverson is now broke.
6. Basketball Billionaire
Michael Jordan's own website describes him as the “best basketball layer of all time,” so what more is there to say? Jordan was the starter in the 1992 Olympic “Dream Team” as well as in the team that saved the world in 1996’s animated Looney Toons movie Space Jam. Jordan made millions in the NBA, but he put his fame and talent to good use and made even more money through endorsements and marketing deals: he was a spokesman for McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Wheaties, and Gatorade. Nike designed a signature shoe for him that was so coveted that people were robbed of their Air Jordans at gunpoint. In 2017, Forbes estimated his worth at over $1.31 billion.
5. The Writer
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is often thought of as the greatest basketball player of all time: a record six-time MVP and record 19-time All-Star. However, those who prefer books over basketball would still know his name: Abdul-Jabbar is an accomplished writer! He’s written four books on topics ranging from autobiography, World War II history, and literature. His latest was a work of historical fiction, a comic about Sherlock Holmes’ brother he co-wrote titled Mycroft Holmes and the Apocalypse Handbook. He’s also written cultural criticism for Time and Jacobin, among others.
4. Sir Charles
Dream Team member Charles Barkley was known for his loud mouth on the court, and has made an impressive post-NBA career out of it as well as a commentator. He’s also known for his compulsive gambling—he claims to have won $700,000 in a single trip to Vegas, but has confirmed that he’s lost over $10 million to gambling in his lifetime, including a $2.5 million loss in six hours. You win some, you lost some.
Earvin Johnson—better known as “Magic”—is one of basketball’s most charismatic figures. In 1991, he shocked the world with the announcement that he was HIV positive. He helped raise awareness of HIV/AIDS and helped dispel its reputation as a “gay” disease which was widely believed at the time. The following year, Magic brought home an Olympic gold medal as a member of the “Dream Team.” He’s remained a passionate advocate for HIV/AIDS awareness and created the Magic Johnson Foundation to fund research.
2. The Menace
Former NBA All-Star Dennis Rodman definitely had some noticeable defensive and rebounding abilities, but his reputation as the "bad boy of basketball” is what made Rodman stand apart. Known for dying his hair bright colours, displaying piercings and tattoos, and for his on- and off-court antics, Rodman wore a wedding dress to promote his 1996 autobiography, Bad As I Wanna Be. In the years since his retirement, Rodman hasn’t calmed down: a stint on TV’s Celebrity Apprentice lead to an intervention and an appearance on Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. In 2013, Rodman became one of the first known Americans to meet Kim Jong-Un, now the leader of North Korea, in a delegation sent to North Korea by Vice Media.
1. “Shaq Attack”
Shaquille O’Neal is a true Renaissance man. At 7’1”, O’Neal began his career in 1993 by winning NBA Rookie Of The Year. He's now been named an NBA All-Star 15 times. In addition to his distinguishing career on the court, Shaq’s an actor (1994’s Blue Chips and 1996’s Kazaam), a rapper (his 1993 debut Shaq Diesel went platinum), and a professional wrestler and mixed martial artist. He's also known as "The Big Aristotle": He returned to school in 2000 to earn a Bachelor of Arts, fulfilling a promise to his mother. He then earned an MBA from the University of Phoenix online in 2005, plus a Doctorate of Education in Human Resource Development in 2012. Many people have tried to tarnish Shaq's stellar reputation. Most famously was the Robert Ross case who claimed that he had a sex tape showing Shaq with multiple women at different times while he was still married to Shaunie O'Neal. Further, Ross alleged that Shaq hired gang members to kidnap and beat him in order to make him give up the tapes. In 2011 a judge threw out a case against Shaq and the 7 gang members after the DA lost confidence in Ross. It eventually came to light that a tap never existed.