Skip to main content

Looking back on the NBA’s 75 Years in SI Photos

We handpicked some of our favorite shots from over the decades.

Full Frame is Sports Illustrated’s exclusive newsletter for subscribers. Coming to your inbox weekly, it highlights the stories and personalities behind some of SI’s photography.

To get the best of SI in your inbox every weekday, sign up here. To see even more from SI’s photographers, follow @sifullframe on Instagram. If you missed our story on the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry, you can find it here.IMAGE: WILT CHAMBERLAIN

wilt-chamberlain

The NBA is about a quarter of the way through its 75th season and there are story lines abound. Ahead of the campaign, SI’s Howard Beck pondered the future of dynasties, which have helped mark and organize the league’s history. The Bucks, who could stake a claim to becoming a budding dynasty by repeating as champs this season, have taken a back seat to the resurgent Warriors, streaking Suns, rejuvenated Bulls and more.

But while the action on the court continues to entertain nightly, looking back on the NBA’s history continues to link generations of basketball fans. The league released its own list of 75 all-time greats, which had little chance of satisfying everyone. SI’s NBA staff also compiled their favorite moments in league history while writer Jack McCallum wrote about the “coulda-beens” that may have fundamentally altered the trajectory of the Association. And, you can’t cover the NBA over the years without documenting its impact on sneakers, so SI’s Jarrel Harris ranked the best 75 pairs to grace an NBA court.

Since the 1950s, SI has been covering the NBA, meaning that narrowing down its favorite images from over the years is a tall task. Even so, this gallery is packed with photos that feel like a scroll through a digital museum.

Below, you’ll find a selection of iconic SI photographs capturing some of the most iconic figures in NBA history, complete with a little history about each image from the SI Vault.

bob-cousy

This shot of Cousy graced the cover of SI’s Jan. 9, 1956 issue. Taken during a game on Nov. 19, 1955, it depicts Cousy trying to dribble by the Fort Wayne Pistons’ defense. And while we don’t know the exact outcome of this specific play, chances are he succeeded.

“A person of abundant imagination, Cousy over the years has enlarged and refined his ball-handling techniques to the point where today no oldtimer remembers his equal and no contemporary player can touch him. To begin with, he is unanimously regarded as the game's most accomplished dribbler,” wrote Herbert Warren Wind in that ’56 issue.

1975-golden-state-warriors

Though the final game of the 1975 NBA Finals between the Warriors and Bullets included a chaotic episode where a flagrant foul led Golden State coach Al Attles to be “ejected following a near-brawl,” Walter Iooss Jr.’s image projects a sort of calmness. With the ball just off Washington free-throw shooter Elvin Hayes’s finger tips, Iooss snapped this shot behind the basket at the Cow Palace in Daly City, Calif., just outside San Francisco.

In a major upset, the Warriors swept the Bullets, completing their underdog run to a title. “That one team would sweep the series was not too surprising; that it was the Warriors who did it stunned even those who in recent days had become believers,” wrote Pat Putnam about the series in the June 2, 1975 issue of SI.

celtics-lakers-1985

How many Hall of Famers did Manny Millan manage to fit into one photo? The answer: six.

All of the players in this photo from Game 1 of the 1985 NBA Finals are NBA legends, with James Worthy, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bob McAdoo of the Lakers battling the Celtics’ front court of Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale.

SI Recommends

Although Boston dominated this specific game with a 34-point victory, the Lakers ended up winning the title in six games. “The Lakers, if you please, would like to make one thing clear: The Celts didn't just lose, they succumbed to L.A.'s relentless pressure. Take an ice cube, suck on it, clamp your teeth down, and it’s only a matter of time before it cracks,” Alexander Wolff wrote in the June 17, 1985 issue of SI.

michael-jordan-pistons

Before his title runs in the ’90s, Michael Jordan had to overcome the Pistons and the “Jordan Rules.” And, a big part of that effort was his future teammate Dennis Rodman, who’s seen guarding him in this shot from Millan during the 1989 Eastern Conference Finals.

“Much of the recent history of the Eastern Conference has been determined in showdowns between Detroit's D and Jordan's O,” Jack McCallum wrote in SI’s preview of the following NBA season. “Jordan has lifted Chicago past other, more balanced, coulda-beens in the conference, like the New York Knicks, the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Atlanta Hawks and the Milwaukee Bucks. He has not, however, been able to subdue the one team that has turned guarding him into an art form.”

allen-iverson

Allen Iverson is known as one of the NBA’s iconic scorers, but he could still pick a pass. With the Wizards’ Jordan looking on, Millan’s photo was printed as a two-page spread in the Feb. 4, 2002 issue of SI.

kobe-bryant-rockets

Though Kobe Bryant was the centerpiece of this shot from Greg Nelson, it was the Rockets who got the last laugh or, more accurately, the last win. Houston won 104–92, stretching their win streak to 22 games, which was the second longest win streak in NBA history at the time behind the 1971–72 Lakers. Since then, the Heat (’12–’13) and the Warriors (spanning two seasons between ’14–’15 and ’15–’16) have eclipsed those streaks. The Suns are currently riding a 17-game win streak.

lebron-james-serge-ibaka

Nelson’s cinematic shot landed on the cover of SI’s June 25, 2012 issue, which set the stage for the finish of that season’s NBA Finals. Frozen in front of a darkened background and the awe-struck crowd, the Heat’s LeBron James and the Thunder’s Serge Ibaka leaped to meet above the rim. With a resolution hanging in the balance, it was the perfect shot to go with Lee Jenkins’s story focusing on who could close out that particular series.

stephen-curry-rockets

The Rockets thought they had a chance. Coming into the 2018 Western Conference Finals, Houston felt it was ready to slay the beast. “This year's Western Conference finals against the Rockets marks the first series since the 2016 Finals that the Warriors have any chance of losing,” Jenkins wrote at the time. “Houston won seven more games than Golden State this season, had a higher point differential and took two of three meetings, but again, it's impossible to know how hard the Dubs were trying.”

Facing elimination in Games 6 and 7, the Warriors came back to win the series before sweeping the Cavs to take home another title. This image was then used in the next season’s NBA preview issue of SI, leading a package on “fearless forecasts.”

giannis-antetokounmpo

How much have things changed since this heated 2019 matchup between the 76ers and Bucks? That game featured a 52-point outburst from Giannis Antentokounmpo, which remains his career high. He would go on to win his first MVP award later that year. The Sixers, who won that game 130–125 were led by Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler, all pictured as Antentokounmpo flexed in front of Nelson’s camera.

Fast forward to 2021, and Antetokounmpo is coming off his first NBA title (the seeds of which were planted that season) and Philadelphia has struggled to navigate life without Butler and with Simmons on the sidelines. The drama of that Sixers team was something that photographer Jeffery A. Salter says he could sense when he took a portrait of their starters for the Feb. 25, 2019 edition of SI.

Have questions, comments, or feedback about Sports Illustrated's newsletters? Send a note to josh.rosenblat@si.com.