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Membership in the Icons Club Requires More Than Just On-Court Greatness

Being elite gets you a seat at the table. But popularity is what gets you a lifetime pass. A handful of players had all the NBA bona fides to qualify for Icon status, but for one reason or another didn’t end up in the club.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For decades, the NBA has been a star’s league. But even among the stars, there’s an exclusive club. Russell and Dr. J. Bird and Magic. Jordan. Kobe. They’re all part of a select group that paved the way for the NBA superstar of today. And in Icons Club: The Evolution of the NBA Superstar, Hall of Fame reporter Jackie MacMullan explains how some even shared secrets with each other along the way.

Here’s an excerpt from Episode 6, which looks at why some stars—such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Isiah Thomas—could be luminaries, even Hall of Famers, but for one reason or another, not Icons.

Over the past five episodes, we’ve gotten to know a number of the NBA’s most iconic players.

  • There’s Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, the founders of the club.
  • Julius Erving, who raised the ceiling for showmanship on the court—and mentorship off it.
  • Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, who opened the country’s eyes to basketball stardom, and then passed the torch …
  • … to Michael Jordan, who utilized his extraordinary success to craft a billion-dollar image.

In different ways, these players were the faces of the NBA during their careers, and left an indelible imprint on the game.

But there were also some exceptional players who didn’t end up as clear Club members, for one reason or another. Which raises a question: What’s the criteria for this Club anyway?

The most obvious prerequisite is exceptional basketball ability. As Charles Barkley noted, there’s no room for “bus riders”—only “bus drivers”—at the table, no matter how many titles you’ve won. So, apologies, Robert Horry. While we truly admire your Big Shot Bob mojo and the seven rings that it generated, we simply can’t reserve a spot for you. We’ve already offered spots to your championship teammates—Hakeem, Clyde, Shaq, Kobe, and Duncan.

Now, once in the Club, if you’d like a preferred seat at the head of this coveted table, a ledger of social justice, player empowerment, or charitable endeavors would be strongly recommended. So would a gregarious personality, one that not only endears you to your fellow members, but to the fickle, discerning public that often influences who belongs, and who doesn’t.

It seems zany, doesn’t it, that fans have a hand in deciding the legacies of the all-time greats? But, like all clubs since the beginning of time, inclusion often comes down to a primitive premise: the popularity contest.

There are three prongs at work here.

First, do your peers like you? That’s a critical element. Players know better than anyone who is genuine, and who isn’t. And believe me, in NBA circles, that kind of intel travels at warp speed.

Second, does the media connect with you? There have been many exceptional players who battled with the fourth estate, to the detriment of their reputation and their “brand.”

And then, finally, what’s your public perception? Do fans naturally gravitate toward or away from you? Do you come off as authentic? Controversial? Do you care?

Oh, and there’s one more thing: You have to want to be in The Club. You’d be surprised by the number of giants of the game who have decided to take a pass.