Admittedly it’s a fun topic, if for no reason than to poke a stick at our big cuddly bear of a buddy Charles Barkley and listen to him growl.
In fact, of all the great comedy routines ever done on TNT over the years, my favorite has always been Kenny Smith manning the velvet rope outside the “Champions Club” and laughingly taunting the well-known partier Sir Charles about his lack of credentials to get inside the door.
Occasionally, Smith would push open the door to let the sounds of dance music come and poke his head inside.
“Hey, Charles!” he would call out. “Look, it’s Mark Madsen! And Zan Tabak! Oh, Charles, look! It’s Jack Haley! Can you believe it? Jack Haley!”
It was a fantastic skit and all Barkley could do was shake his head and laugh, because, of course, after 16 often-mind-blowing seasons, he left the NBA ringless.
So here we are just hours from the start of the 2011 NBA Finals that feature LeBron James and Dirk Nowitzki as unfulfilled stars, pondering again the question for the ages: Does greatness require a ring?
Before you use your 36-inch vertical leap to come to a slam dunking conclusion, consider what might happen if I showed at the playground with my team to take on all challengers. I’ve got Barkley at power forward, Elgin Baylor at small forward, Patrick Ewing at center, George Gervin as my shooting guard and point guard John Stockton directing everything. And, oh yeah, sitting over there on the bench are former MVPs Karl Malone and Allen Iverson.
Are you really gonna tell me I can’t call my team “The Greats?”
Drew Davison of the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram does a fine of pulling together a larger list of ringless candidates.
Teams: Philadelphia, 1984-92; Phoenix, 1993-96; Houston, 1997-2000
Honors: Hall of Fame (2006); MVP (1993); 11-time All-Star; five-time All-NBA first team; one of 50 greatest players (1996)
Closest call: 1993. Led the Suns to the Finals, where they eventually fell to the Bulls in six games. Still averaged 26.6 points and 13.6 rebounds in Finals.
Teams: Minneapolis/Los Angeles Lakers, 1958-72
Honors : Hall of Fame (1977); 10-time All-NBA first team; 11-time All-Star; Rookie of the Year (1959)
Closest call: He led the Lakers to the NBA Finals eight times, and came closest in 1962. The Lakers lost to the Celtics in overtime of Game 7 110-107. In 1966, the Lakers fell to the Celtics in Game 7, too, 95-93.
Teams: New York Knicks, 1985-2000; Seattle SuperSonics, 2001; Orlando Magic, 2002
Honors : Hall of Fame (2008); Rookie of the Year (1985); 11-time All-Star; All-NBA first team (1990); six-time All-NBA second team; one of 50 greatest players (1996)
Closest call: 1994. Led the Knicks to the Finals, but they fell in seven games to Hakeem Olajuwon and the Rockets.
Teams: Virginia Squires, 1972-73 (ABA); San Antonio Spurs, 1974-76 (ABA); Spurs, 1977-85 (NBA); 1986,
Honors : Hall of Fame (1996); five-time All-NBA first team; nine-time All-Star; one of 50 greatest players (1996)
Closest call: 1979. The Spurs had a 3-1 lead over the Washington Bullets in the Eastern Conference Finals, but couldn’t close it out. Gervin never played in the Finals.
Teams: Philadelphia 76ers, 1996-2006; 76ers/Denver Nuggets, 2007; Nuggets, 2008-09; Memphis Grizzlies/Philadelphia 76ers, 2010
Honors : MVP (2001); Rookie of the Year (1997); three-time All-NBA first team; four-time NBA scoring leader; 11-time NBA All-Star
Closest call: 2001. Iverson led the 76ers to the Finals, but they lost to the Lakers. He scored 48 points in a Game 1 victory, and then scored 23-35-35-37 in the next four losses.
Teams: Utah Jazz, 1985-2003; Los Angeles Lakers, 2004
Honors : Hall of Fame (2010); two-time MVP (1997, 1999); 11-time All-NBA first team; 14-time All-Star; one of 50 greatest players (1996)
Closest call: Reached back-to-back NBA Finals in 1997-98, but lost both in six games to the Bulls. In ’98, the Jazz were on the verge of forcing a Game 7, but Michael Jordan hit a shot at the buzzer for an 87-86 series-clinching victory in Game 6.
Teams: Atlanta Hawks, 1970-74; New Orleans Jazz, 1975-79; Utah Jazz/Boston Celtics, 1980
Honors: Hall of Fame (1987); two-time All-NBA first team; five-time All-Star; one of 50 greatest players (1996)
Closest call: 1980. Relegated to a contributing role, he helped the Celtics reach the Eastern Conference Finals.
Teams: Indiana Pacers, 1987-05
Honors: Five-time NBA All-Star; three-time All-NBA third team; retired as all-time leader in 3-pointers (2,560) that has since been broken; scored 25,279 points
Closest call: 2000. Led the Pacers to the Finals, but they lost to the Lakers in six games. Miller scored 33 and 25 points in Games 3 and 5 victories. He averaged 24.3 points for the series.
Teams: Utah Jazz, 1984-03
Honors: Hall of Fame (2009); six-time All-NBA second team; 10-time All-Star; one of 50 greatest players (1996)
Closest call: Reached back-to-back NBA Finals in 1997-98, but lost both in six games to the Bulls. In ’97, he hit a memorable 3-pointer at the buzzer to lift the Jazz past the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Finals for their first trip the Finals.
Years: 1982-99 (played overseas in 1995-96 and 1997-98)
Teams: Atlanta Hawks, 1982-93; Hawks/Los Angeles Clippers, 1994; Boston Celtics, 1995; San Antonio Spurs, 1997; Orlando Magic, 1999
Honors : Hall of Fame (2006); All-NBA first team (1986); nine-time NBA All-Star; two-time slam dunk champion
Closest call: 1988. Wilkins and the Hawks had a classic seven-game series against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals, falling in Game 7 by two points.
So how much does winning a championship go toward defining an NBA career?
Certainly it will be a theme played out — and maybe beaten into the ground — over the course of the best-of-seven series. Dirk Detractors will ignore all those All-Star efforts and his 2007 MVP award to say he’s never won the Larry O’Brien Trophy. LeBron Loathers will overlook back-to-back MVP awards until he slips one of those gaudy rings onto his finger.
Is neither of them as worthy of praise as role-playing Robert Horry with his seven titles?
Depending on the outcome of one more series, will the reputation of either James or Nowitzki continue to be diminished as they’re forced to stand outside the velvet rope of the “Champions Club” with Sir Charles?
Hey look, Jud Buecher’s in here! And Bill Wennington! And Speedy Claxton!