Wilt Chamberlain, of the Philadelphia Warriors, shoots over Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics in 1960. The rivalry between the two players helped boost interest in the NBA. (AP)

The National Basketball Association (NBA), whose 2018-2019 season started Tuesday, is a big deal. The NBA has 30 teams spread across the United States and Canada. Its superstars — such as LeBron James, Stephen Curry and James Harden — are international celebrities.

The NBA, however, was not always such a big, successful league. In its first season (1946-1947), the NBA, known as the Basketball Association of America, or BAA, had 11 teams including such unfamiliar names as the Providence Steamrollers and Pittsburgh Ironmen.

Slowly, the league grew with the help of certain star players. Some of the players who helped grow the NBA you may know, but others you may not.

George Mikan: Not fast or a great leaper, Mikan was an unlikely superstar. He even wore glasses! But Mikan was big — 6-foot-10, 245 pounds — at a time when NBA players were not as big as they are today. He was a rugged scorer and rebounder who led the Minneapolis Lakers (later the Los Angeles Lakers) to five NBA championships in six years (1949 to 1954). Mikan was the league’s first big star and put the NBA on the map.

Wilt and Russ: Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell were the best big men in the NBA during the late 1950s and 1960s. The rivalry between these athletic giants got lots of fans interested in the pro game.

Chamberlain was a physical phenomenon. At 7-foot-1 and 275 pounds, he was almost unstoppable. Chamberlain scored a record 100 points during a game in 1962 and averaged more than 50 points a game during the 1961-1962 season.


Chamberlain holds up a sign showing the number of points he scored in a 1962 game against the New York Knickerbockers. (PAUL VATHIS/AP)

While Chamberlain collected individual honors, Russell collected championship rings. Led by Russell’s rebounding and shot-blocking skills, the Boston Celtics won an unbelievable 11 NBA championships in 13 seasons (1957 to 1969). Chamberlain’s teams managed to win only two championships.

Bird and Magic: The season Larry Bird and Earvin “Magic” Johnson joined the NBA, in 1979-1980, the NBA Finals could be seen only on television by tape delay late at night. The league had fallen on hard times.

But Bird and Johnson brought the NBA back with their flare for passing and team play. They dominated the decade of the 1980s with Bird’s Celtics winning three NBA championships and Johnson’s Lakers winning five. Their teams met in three memorable NBA Finals that were shown on prime-time TV.

Michael Jordan: Even the youngest basketball fans know this name. With his highflying dunks, Jordan led his Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships and became a worldwide salesman for such products as Gatorade, McDonald’s and, of course, Nike’s Air Jordan basketball shoes.

Jordan, and others, helped make the NBA what it is today — a very big deal.