Mikan was the league's first dominant big man. He helped kick-start the Lakers' franchise, then in Minneapolis, with its first four league titles, including three in a row from 1952-54. Little wonder the Lakers' visits to New York at the time were billed as "George Mikan vs. Knicks" on the marquee at Madison Square Garden.
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In spending the decade matched up against each other, the two legendary big men redefined the sport. Chamberlain, a dominant scorer and rebounder, won three consecutive MVP awards from 1966-68. But his individual exploits translated into only a single title in the decade (1967), thanks to his chief rival, Russell, who led his Celtics to the championship every other year. An unrivaled defensive force and team leader, Russell won four MVPs in the `60s and five overall.
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Though he won only a single title in the `70s, with the Bucks in '71, Abdul-Jabbar dominated the decade in every other way. Relying on his trademark sky hook, Abdul-Jabbar won back-to-back MVP awards twice in the `70s and had three consecutive seasons in which he averaged at least 30 points and 16 rebounds. He would add five more titles as a member of the Lakers in the `80s.
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In reviving the NBA and renewing the Lakers-Celtics rivalry, Bird and Magic couldn't have fit more perfectly with their respective teams. The plain-spoken, yet cocky, Bird rejuvenated a franchise from one of the Northeast's industrial dynamos whose fans clung fast to their glorious history, while Johnson's flashy play and ubiquitous smile were ideal for a Lakers club tasked with entertaining Hollywood. The two sublime talents led their teams to a combined eight NBA titles in the '80s -- five for Magic, three for Bird.
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If Magic Johnson and Larry Bird resuscitated the NBA, Jordan led it to new heights as the biggest drawing card in sports. Beyond the four MVP awards, six league titles and six scoring titles in the `90s, Jordan, for many, was athletic competition boiled to its essence. Off the floor, Jordan was equally iconic -- stylish, articulate, cool. He remains a symbol by which all great players are measured and the NBA's popularity is gauged.
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O'Neal, an immediate force when he arrived in the mid-1990s, finally saw his individual dominance rewarded with three consecutive titles, from 2000-02 with the Lakers (when he was named Finals MVP each time). While another Finals appearance with the Lakers went unrewarded in `04, O'Neal won title No. 4 with the Heat in '06. True, O'Neal had plenty of help from Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade in winning those championships, but his size, skills and nimble passing have made him a matchup nightmare for opponents throughout his career.
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