There is no doubt that the NBA has become a global phenomenon. Viewership all across the globe has skyrocketed the past couple of years largely thanks to the efforts by Commissioner Adam Silver to make the NBA the premier league in the United States of America. Another proof of the ever growing popularity of the NBA are the players; year after year, we get an influx of international players looking to represent their countries and we can only hope it inspires kids across the different lands to pursue a career in basketball, after all, it is a sport we all have grown to love and adore.
With the increase of viewership comes the increase of newer fans along with it. As we were all once a new fan, it was a magical period where we were still learning about the history of the league; watching highlights of greats before our time was something we all did. Of course, a newer audience will take its time learning about the league and the drastic changes it has gone through from the rules, to the players, and to the very foundation of basketball itself.
This list will look at past players who can only be recognized by fans who have drenched themselves in NBA knowledge. The players on this list are former players who have made a name for themselves but might not necessarily be a mainstream player. Here are 20 obscure pre-2000 NBA players only true fans would recognize.
20 Eddie Jones
Eddie Jones’ prime was mostly during the '90s where he played for the Los Angeles Lakers. Jones was a two time All-Star for the Lakers as he was the first option on offense before Shaquille O’Neal joined. Jones was popularly known as the guy that Kobe overtook in the rotation and it solidified Bryant as a legitimate threat in the Western Conference for years to come. The All-Star wing was then traded to the Charlotte Hornets in order to give Kobe all the minutes he needs to develop into the all-time great we all know today.
19 Neal Walk
Before the lottery system was implemented the rule was as follows: the worst record in the NBA gets the first overall pick, however, if there is to be a tie a simple coin flip would determine who goes first. During the 1969 draft, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns were tied and they had to do the coin toss in which the Bucks won and proceeded to choose Lew Alcindor, later to become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, out of UCLA. The Suns, however, took Neal Walk who once averaged 20.2 points and 12.4 rebounds per game but ultimately never amounted to anything compared to Kareem.
18 Eddie Johnson
Another former member of the Suns, Eddie Johnson was a high-scoring forward who did damage with his mid-range jump shot. Johnson is well known as the highest-scoring player to never crack an All-Star game, with current player Jamal Crawford now at second. These days, Johnson is known for being the color commentator on the Suns, and while he has never cracked the All-Star roster, "EJ" is well loved by Suns fans due to his unbiased style of announcing, often giving credit to opposing players and criticizing current Suns players.
17 Andrew Toney
Charles Barkley, a former MVP and a part of the 50 greatest players to play in the NBA in 1996, once said that Andrew Toney was the best player he ever teamed with. This is a huge compliment, considering Barkley played with the likes Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Kevin Johnson, Clyde Drexler, and Hakeem Olajuwon. In fact, even Danny Ainge said Andrew “was the toughest guy I have ever guarded.” Toney was a two-time All-Star with the Philadelphia 76ers in the early ’80s but unfortunately, a foot injury derailed Toney’s career and was never the same ever since.
16 Steve Colter
Arguably the least productive player on this list, Steve Colter is known as the guy with the “crooked leg.” An NBA show called Open Court has been quite popular over the last couple of years due to its fun and informative nature with former NBA greats sharing amazing stories about their playing days. On one segment, former champion Isiah Thomas mentioned Steve Colter as a guy he had trouble guarding because of a move called “crooked leg” where Colter hard-plants his lead leg and simultaneously crosses the ball between said leg. Colter has been a household name among NBA circles ever since he got the shout-out from Thomas.
15 Jack Sikma
These days, it’s a norm that power forwards and centers shoot the basketball well from distance but back in the good old days, a player named Jack Sikma was stretching the offense when centers typically roamed below the rim. Sikma was a multiple-time All-Star and a longtime starter for the Seattle SuperSonics and Milwaukee Bucks and an underappreciated pioneer when it comes to big guys shooting the ball. Sikma made the face-up post game relevant when centers would rather play with their backs to the basket. He also was one of the first centers to do a turnaround fadeaway shot from the low post.
14 Jeff Malone
Once upon a time, the Washington Bullets had a hyper-aggressive scoring guard named Jeff Malone. Malone was a two-time All-Star with the Bullets and he had several seasons where he averaged more than 20 points per game. Malone has been lost in conversations talking about good to great players, mostly because he played in an era where Larry Bird and Magic Johnson headlined the news every night. Jeff has received praise from former competitors saying he is one of the most underrated players of his time.
13 Kelly Tripucka
Joe Dumars, Dennis Rodman, Mark Aguirre; those are the names that come to mind when talking about Isiah Thomas’ sidekicks during his prime, but early in his career, he had a great teammate named Kelly Tripucka. Tripucka and Thomas both joined the Pistons as rookies back in 1981 where both made the All-Star team. Kelly was seen as the better player early on but as time went by, Thomas eventually overtook him as far as talent and numbers go. Tripucka was part of a foundation that ultimately led to two championships in Detroit.
12 Šarūnas Marčiulionis
One of the very first Europeans to make an impact in the NBA, Šarūnas Marčiulionis was a lefty shooting guard for the Golden State Warriors in the early '90s. Hailing from Lithuania, Marčiulionis spent eight seasons in the NBA which included a year he averaged 18.9 points on 53.8 percent shooting. Marčiulionis was truly a pioneer when it comes to European basketball and its evolution but unfortunately, the lack of accolades hurt his credibility with younger fans. Nonetheless, Marčiulionis is to be thanked for in the development of Lithuanian basketball, seeing how far it has come compared to the '90s.
11 Kendall Gill
The All-Star spot in the Eastern Conference was very limited in the '90s, thanks to Michael Jordan being a shoo-in year after year. Kendall Gill felt the ill effects of Jordan’s greatness as Gill was left off of a handful of All-Star games. Gill was a great player willing to adapt his game for the sake of winning as he started out as an all-around player focused on scoring and later on became a defensive stopper. He even led the league in steals during the 1998-1999 season with the New Jersey Nets.
10 Kiki Vandeweghe
Kiki Vandeweghe was known for his time with the Denver Nuggets and the Portland Trail Blazers. With the Nuggets, Vandeweghe made two All-Star appearances as one of the premier scorers in the league in the early '80s. With the Blazers, Vandeweghe improved as a three-point threat as he even led the league in three-point percentage with 48.1% back in 1987. Vandeweghe’s name is rarely heard from today mostly because of the influx of better players that have come and go, but make no mistake about it, Kiki is one of the best players to ever put on a Nuggets jersey.
9 Dan Issel
Dan Issel was a constant member of the All-Star team back when he played for the Denver Nuggets in their ABA days. Issel was the prototypical franchise-changing center; he rebounded extremely well and he scored in bunches to boot. After the merger in 1976, Issel was still an All-Star in the NBA and was still quite productive in his new league. Issel has been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame back in 1993. Fans nowadays might not remember Issel due to playing his prime in the ABA.
8 World B. Free
Born Lloyd Bernard Free, which turned into World B. Free, Free was a combo guard who did damage in the midrange area. Free would have one of the highest shooting arcs in NBA history as it helped him average a career-high 30.2 points per game with the San Diego Clippers earning him a spot in the All-Star game. Lloyd was nicknamed “Prince of Midair” and “All-World” because of his popular jump shot, the latter nickname was the reason Lloyd changed his name since he was getting called “World” a lot even before the switch.
7 Spencer Haywood
Much like Vandeweghe, Spencer Haywood was an All-Star in the ABA, meaning he never got much traction when it comes to NBA fans. Haywood was a power forward known for his time with the Seattle Supersonics in the early '70s. After spending one season in the ABA, Haywood’s transition to the NBA was flawless as he looked the same dominant player that he was in his old league. Haywood is one of the most underappreciated players today when looking back at the history of the NBA.
6 Paul Arizin
In 1996, Paul Arizin was part of the 50 greatest players to play in the NBA. Arizin played his entire 10-year career with the Philadelphia Warriors, wherein he made the All-Star game in each season. Arizin was one of the original scoring wings in an era that saw giants like Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain man the paint for their respective teams. Had Arizin play one or two decades later, he would have definitely been seen as a pioneer that he truly is.
5 Bob Lanier
Before the time of the "Bad Boys" Pistons, Bob Lanier was the face of the franchise. Lanier was a mainstay in the Eastern Conference All-Star team as their center, as he posted multiple seasons of 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. Unfortunately for Lanier, he was overshadowed by Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who were the best centers in the NBA at the time. Furthermore, the '70s is known to be the “dead” era of the NBA where viewership was down compared to previous years.
4 Dave Bing
Dave Bing can be considered to be the first wave of “new” point guards in the NBA during his time. Bing played from the '60s to the '70s, mostly for the Detroit Pistons. Bing was a scoring point guard, which was new at the time, considering the likes of Bob Cousy did damage with his passing as opposed to getting up shots for himself. Bing was a seven-time All-Star and the scoring champion in the 1967-1968 season. Unfortunately, fans do not recognize Bing’s name mostly because Clyde Frazier played the same position at the same conference.
3 Jerry Lucas
Like Paul Arizin, Jerry Lucas was one of the 50 greatest players to play in the NBA's first 50 years. Lucas was one of the original rebounding machines in the NBA, grabbing seasons with over 20 rebounds per game. Lucas, of course, is not part of conversations when talking about great bigs that paved the way for the youths of today, mostly because he played in the early days of the NBA when Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain were making waves as the greatest rivalry at the time.
2 Dave Cowens
Jerry Lucas and Dave Cowens had a lot of similarity in their play style. Both were highly effective rebounders, which then allowed them to score most of their points underneath the rim. The two were also capable of scoring from outside. Cowens is part of the great Boston Celtics franchise that has fielded numerous all-time great players. Cowens was an eight-time All-Star and a former league MVP, and of course, was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.
1 Bill Sharman
Bill Sharman was also a part of the Boston Celtics legacy. Sharman was part of the storied franchise from the '50s up to the '60s which saw him winning four championships wearing the proud green of the franchise. Sharman was considered the greatest free throw shooter in his time, as he nailed free throws 84 percent or better in his 11-year career. Sharman was unfortunately left out because of the greats that came before him and the great players he played with and against.