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The Grueling Truth - Where Legends Speak / The Grueling Truth's Top 10 Sports Lists / Top 10 Old School NBA Players: NBA Legends Ranked

Top 10 Old School NBA Players: NBA Legends Ranked

Publish Date: 04/22/2024
Fact checked by: Simon Briffa

Old-school NBA was the NBA at its finest; you could play hard, foul hard, talk trash, and nobody got offended. Flopping was not allowed, and it started in the 1990s. When we are talking about old-school NBA, I am talking about pre-1990.


What are the criteria? Will you have to play before 1990? The league slowly became softer after 1990. This list will not list the top ten players before 1990; it is about old school. If you like to fight, that helps on this list! Scoring points, defense, and making your teammates better all play in here. So it combines being a great player and a tough SOB!


10) Sidney Moncrief

Sidney Moncrief won his first NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award in 1986 and again in 1987.

Moncrief had an uphill climb with the Milwaukee Bucks when it came to reaching the NBA Finals. Although he played on some great teams during their heydays (76ers led by Dr. J and Celtics with Larry Bird running things in the Eastern Conference respectively).

Moncrief spent 10 seasons with the Bucks, losing in either the conference finals or semifinals eight times during his tenure. NBA great Michael Jordan once described Moncrief as one of two toughest defensive players he ever encountered along with Detroit’s Joe Dumars. Moncrief is considered one of the greatest perimeter defenders of all time!

  • 5 Time NBA All-Star
  • 2 Time NBA Defensive Player of the Year
  • 4 Time NBA All-Defensive Team
Video: Sidney Moncrief: The Greatest Perimeter Defender Ever?

Sidney Moncrief: The Greatest Perimeter Defender Ever?

9) Dennis Johnson

Dennis Johnson graduated from Dominguez Hills High School in Compton, California as a 5-foot-9 student who claimed he only played “one or two minutes” each game.

After graduation, Johnson began working as a forklift driver while growing to 6-foot-3. A junior college coach noticed his intense approach to defensive play during a pickup game and offered Johnson his first break.

Johnson won three NBA titles during his career, almost entirely associated with his time spent playing for the Boston Celtics; this team became his third when Seattle and Phoenix fired him due to clashes between coaches.

Johnson died at 52 from a massive heart attack in 2007, and posthumously was honored with induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010.

  • 3 Time NBA Champion
  • 1979 NBA Finals MVP
  • 5 Time NBA All-Star
  • 6 Time All-Defensive Team
Video: Dennis Johnson: He was Larry Bird’s BEST TEAMMATE and Magic Johnson’s TOUGHEST DEFENDER | FPP

Dennis Johnson: He was Larry Bird’s BEST TEAMMATE and Magic Johnson’s TOUGHEST DEFENDER | FPP

8) Wes Unseld

Although Wes Unseld stood only 6 feet 7 inches, he was one of the premier rebounders in NBA history due to his 250-pound weight.

Unseld made his mark early, becoming just the second player in NBA history—along with Wilt Chamberlain—to capture both Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year awards in one season. They remain the only ones to have accomplished such a feat.

Unseld, famed for his hard-hitting picks, was part of the Bullets team that won an NBA Championship in 1978; during that season, he was honored as Finals MVP.

Unseld was honored with induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1988.

  • 1978 NBA Champion
  • 1978 NBA Finals MVP
  • 1969 NBA MVP
  • 1969 NBA Rookie of the Year
  • 1975 NBA Rebounding Leader
Video: Wes Unseld: Career Tribute Mixtape

Wes Unseld: Career Tribute Mixtape

7) Kevin McHale

Kevin McHale caused opponents consternation with his arsenal of low-post offensive moves known as “the torture chamber” and his fearless, relentless defense.

McHale didn’t become a full-time starter until five years into his career – twice winning NBA Sixth Man of the Year during that span! Now it seems incredible, but McHale didn’t even start his professional basketball career until five years into it!

McHale was known for being an offensively gifted player, while his image as being tough or intimidating was cemented with one iconic play: his clothesline on Lakers forward Kurt Rambis during Game 4 of the 1984 NBA Finals shocked teammates and opponents alike and was thought to have altered the course of that series.

The Boston Celtics took home the championship after seven games of intense play.

  • 3 Time NBA Champion
  • 7 Time NBA All-Star
  • 3 Time NBA All-Defensive Team
  • 2 Time NBA Sixth Man of the Year
Video: Kevin McHale - Career Highlights - The Greatest Post Moves Ever

Kevin McHale – Career Highlights – The Greatest Post Moves Ever

6) Dave Cowens

Anyone who witnessed Dave Cowens play back then knows he was an aggressive player, even to the point of putting himself at risk by playing at such an intense pace.

Cowens was widely considered too short to play center in the NBA at 6-foot-9 during his playing days; yet this proved no hindrance as he won two NBA titles with Boston and was honored as its Most Valuable Player in 1973.

He is one of only five players, alongside LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, Scottie Pippen and Giannis Antetoukompo, to have ever led an NBA team in each of its top statistical categories (points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks) within one season.

Cowens was honored to receive induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1991.

  • 2 Time NBA Champion
  • 1973 NBA MVP
  • 8 Time All-Star
  • 1973 All-Star Game MVP
  • 1976 NBA All-Defensive Team
Video: Dave Cowens : The Undersized Center Who Won MVP

Dave Cowens : The Undersized Center Who Won MVP

5) Bob Pettit

Bob Pettit was one of the most prolific scorers and rebounders in NBA history, so it’s understandable if his career rebounding average of 16.2 is enough to cause you a double-take. That number also reveals his immense toughness – third only behind Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell for that honor.

Pettit spent just 11 seasons in the NBA and was named to first-team All-NBA 10 times; additionally, he made second-team once.

Pettit was also the inaugural NBA Most Valuable Player in 1958 and holds an equal share with Kobe Bryant as most NBA All-Star MVP awards, four each.

  • NBA Champion 1958
  • 2 Time MVP
  • 11 Time All-Star
  • 4 Time NBA All-Star Game MVP
  • 1955 NBA Rookie of the Year
  • 2 Time NBA Scoring Champion
  • 1958 NBA Rebounding Leader
Video: Bob Pettit: A Will To Win

Bob Pettit: A Will To Win

4) Moses Malone

Moses Malone may have been one of the greatest superstars ever underappreciated; he was dominant at the center position with physical toughness as a rebounder, leading the league in nightly boards six times (including an incredible 17.6 average per game!). Malone also used his brute strength to dominate smaller opponents on defense; many consider Malone the greatest offensive rebounder ever; his timing and instincts to chase boards on offense were unmatched by any rival in NBA history.

Malone led the 76ers to a NBA Championship in 1983 as he had one of the most dominant seasons in NBA history.

  • 1983 NBA Champion
  • 1983 NBA Finals MVP
  • 3 Time NBA MVP
  • 12 Time NBA All-Star
  • 6 Time NBA Rebounding Champion
  • ABA All-Time Team
Video: Moses Malone 1982 MVP Highlights

Moses Malone 1982 MVP Highlights

3) Bill Russell

Bill Russell led one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history, winning eleven championships over 13 seasons.

Russell was one of five NBA Most Valuable Players during his era and needed to define toughness to succeed; Wilt Chamberlain served as his direct counterpart and was one of only two other players ever to grab 50 rebounds in one game alongside Russell.

Russell was known for his mental fortitude. As the first black superstar in NBA history, he endured racism at every turn but managed it with grace and dignity.

In 2009, the NBA honored Russell by bestowing upon him its Finals MVP award and in 2011, President Obama awarded him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his contributions towards civil rights activism.

  • 11 Time NBA Champion
  • 5 Time NBA MVP
  • 12 Time NBA All-Star
  • 1963 All-Star Game MVP
  • 4 Time NBA Rebounding Champion
  • Presidential Medal of Freedom
Video: RARE 1960's NBA Career highlights of Bill Russell

RARE 1960’s NBA Career highlights of Bill Russell

2) Larry Bird

Larry Bird may not rank super high in terms of stats due to a shorter NBA career because of a nad back, but that doesn’t lessen his legacy as one of basketball’s all-time greats. As one of its pivots, he filled the stat sheet while possessing incredible all-around game abilities, such as being a shooter, overall scorer, rebounder, and playmaker – qualities unrivalled even today by any NBA superstar. Was Larry Bird the Greatest Boston Celtic?

  • 3 Time NBA Champion
  • 2 Time NBA Finals MVP
  • 3 Time NBA MVP
  • 12 Time NBA All-Star
  • 1982 NBA MVP All-Star Game
  • 1980 NBA Rookie of the Year
  • 3 Time NBA Three-Point Contest Champion
  • AP Athlete of the Year 1986
Video: Bird is the Word - 15 minutes of Larry Legend Highlights

Bird is the Word – 15 minutes of Larry Legend Highlights

1) Wilt Chamberlin

Wilt Chamberlain remains one of the greatest big men offensively in NBA history, though that might have something to do with his competition during his era. Even so, no matter who it was, when someone dominates to such an extreme degree, no one cares who they dominate against. Unfortunately, Wilt’s team’s success usually improved during regular season play rather than playoff play due to his unreliable free throw performance and, therefore, his unwillingness to get fouled late in close games due to this factor.

Chamberlain holds unbreakable single-season rebounding and scoring records and had the second-best scoring average behind only Jordan (had Michael played another year for the Wizards, Chamberlain might actually have been No.1). Furthermore, Chamberlain became the only person ever to lead all three stats during any one season and retire as the all-time leader for scoring and rebounding.

  • 2 Time NBA Champion
  • 1972 NBA Finals MVP
  • 4 Time MVP
  • 13 Time All-Star
  • 1960 NBA All-Star Game MVP
  • 1960 NBA Rookie of the Year
  • 7-time Scoring Champion
  • 11 Time Rebounding Champion
  • 2 Time All-Defensive Team
  • 1968 NBA Assist Leader
Video: Bill Russell vs Wilt Chamberlain ● 1964 NBA Finals Highlights | 4K |

Bill Russell vs Wilt Chamberlain ● 1964 NBA Finals Highlights | 4K |

Honorable mentions

Maurice Lucas

As you consider the greatest enforcers in NBA history, include Maurice Lucas. He deserves it!

He led the Trail Blazers to victory in 1977 and set the tone in Game 2 of the NBA Finals by squaring off against Darryl Dawkins (!). Swinging an elbow at Darryl’s head and striking an instantaneous blow for victory as the Blazers rallied to claim their championship was decisive in that series.

Bobby Jones

Bobby Jones earned a reputation as one of the classiest players ever during 12 NBA seasons. He made nine All-NBA Defensive Teams (eight as first-team selections), never resorting to “dirty” tactics or fighting dirty.

Former 76ers general manager Pat Williams likely described Jones best when discussing him: “He gives two hours of himself, then showers off and goes home.

Bill Laimber

Bill Laimbeer always seems to generate debate about whether he should be seen as a tough or dirty player, with many people believing he embodied both traits simultaneously. It can be challenging to be perceived as one without being perceived as another. Laimber is considered one of the greatest White Centers in NBA history.

Let us be clear in this debate: what gets lost is his talent — four-time All-Star who averaged nearly ten rebounds per game over his career and led the NBA in rebounding during 1986.

Rick Mahorn

Rick Mahorn’s career was truly astonishing because, on paper, it appeared average; yet no one who ever witnessed his play would classify it that way.

Mahorn’s toughness seemed to stem directly from his inability to jump very well and his need to compensate. His Pistons teams in the late ’80s featured some of the roughest players ever seen in NBA history; Mahorn was unquestionably the “baddest” member.



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