Any countdown of the top 10 induction classes in the 51-year history of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame that can start with the 1971 group is a tribute to all those groups that didn't make our cut. Pettit was a pioneer for all big men who prefer to face the basket and step out for 18-footers. Saperstein was the consummate marketer, turning the Harlem Globetrotters into a hoops and entertainment sensation. Come to think of it, that describes Cousy and his ball-handling success.
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Adrian Dantley, William Davidson, Patrick Ewing,Hakeem Olajuwon, Pat Riley, Cathy Rush, Dick Vitale.
Something for everybody in this group, including the centers who defined the 1980s in college and in the pros. Dantley was a sentimental favorite of Hall followers by the time he got the nod 17 years into retirement. Riley and Vitale couldn't be more different in style or haircuts, yet reached the top of their respective professions. Davidson turned Detroit into ''DEEE-troit! Basss-ketball!'' while Rush was proud just to nudge little Immaculata College onto the first nationally televised women's game.
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Bill Sharman (player), Joe Brennann, Emil S. Liston, Bill Russell (pictured), Robert Vandivier.
Vandivier's career peaked in Franklin (Ind.). Liston was a pal of Doc Naismith, though he earned his Hall status as a builder at the college level. Brennann starred before the Depression in six leagues you probably never heard of. Sharman, the great Celtics shooter, would return in 2004 for his coaching. In other words, worthy as those guys were, they're not on this list without Russell, whose 11 championship rings dwarf all runners-up as the greatest winner in team sports history.
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Sam Barry, Wilt Chamberlain (pictured), Jim Enright, Ed Hickey, John McLendon, Ray Meyer, Pete Newell.
We don't think it was a coincidence that five great coaches and a referee (Enright) accompanied Chamberlain into the Hall. The most outsized performer in NBA history -- sorry, Shaq -- the Dipper could be incorrigible, a headache and meal ticket all at once for his coaches (and quick to grimace over calls against him, despite never fouling out). But he was Ruthian in his production, Gretzky-like in the records he set and, lest we forget, capable of transforming his game in late-career like Nolan Ryan mastering the knuckleball.
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Walt Bellamy, Julius Erving (pictured), Dan Issel, Ann Meyers, Dick McGuire, Calvin Murphy, Uljana Semjonova.
Meyers was a female player who overshadowed her pro brother long before Cheryl did it to Reggie. Issel's missing front teeth showed he was the consummate hustle guy. Murphy planted a tall flag for short players. McGuire, the Knicks' playmaker, is one of the only two brothers -- with Marquette coach Al (1992) -- to be enshrined. Bellamy proved this is a young person's game, getting to Springfield largely on his '60 Olympics role and first five tremendous NBA seasons. Then there was Erving, the ABA-NBA ambassador and aerialist link from Baylor to Jordan.
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James Naismith, Harold Olsen, John Schomer, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Oswald Tower, Phog Allen, Henry Carlson, Luther Gulick, Ed Hickox, Chuck Hyatt, George Mikan (pictured), Pat Kennedy, Hank Luisetti, Walter Meanwell, Ralph Morgan, Original Celtics, First Team.
Let's face it, any inaugural class is going to have an unfair advantage, based on the backlog of deserving folks ready for a Hall's door to swing open. Baseball, for instance, made Cy Young wait while Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wager, Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson got in on the first ballot. Basketball's equivalents would be legends and founders such as Mikan, Allen, Stagg and, of course, the guy who scribbled down the original 13 rules.
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Red Auerbach (left), Henry (Dutch) Dehnert, Hank Iba, Adolph Rupp (right), Chuck Taylor.
Unlike Naismith, some of the guys in this class only thought they invented the game. One whistle wouldn't have been nearly enough for Auerbach, Rupp and Iba in a single class, and we can only imagine how many "suicides" they'd have made Dehnert (pioneer of the pivot play) run in practice. Thanks to Taylor's canvas sneaker, he and all players can accomplish the feet, er, feat.
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Rick Barry (pictured), Walt Frazier, Bob Houbregs, Pete Maravich, Bobby Wanzer.
Style and substance earns this group its No. 3 ranking, starting with Maravich's floppy socks, mop-top hair and creativity as a passer and as a scorer (pay attention, Ricky Rubio) that made fans smile. Barry was driven and diligent, way more eager to win than to be liked. No one was -- heck, is -- cooler on the NBA scene than Frazier. Wanzer, you should know, was a free-throw marvel who set an accuracy target for Barry's underhanded heaves. Hook-shot specialist Houbregs was from Vancouver, an early NBA import.
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Les Harrison, Jerry Lucas, Oscar Robertson (right), Everett Shelton, J. Dallas Shirley, Jerry West (left).
Naismith got basketball's shrine but West got the silhouette when the NBA was designing its enduring logo for instant recognition and branding. Let's be clear about how good Mr. Clutch and the Big O -- in lockstep from the 1960 Olympics, through their NBA careers, right to Springfield -- were: If the players from this class or any of our other top six were picked playground-style, these guys would go second and third, no question. Lucas was with them in Rome and matched them in NBA titles.
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Michael Jordan, David Robinson, John Stockton, Jerry Sloan (not pictured), C. Vivian Stringer.
Picking this class as best ever was like deciding which team "won" a trade -- you have to favor the side that got the best player in the deal. That's Jordan, for his impact as a champion, a scorer, an icon and a marketing marvel. But just as with the Bulls, Jordan couldn't win alone -- it helped that he has the second-best point guard ever, a top 10 center (officer and gentleman, too) and two driven, tireless coaches on his side.
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