Basketball is one of the most popular games in the world. The game’s storied past has a way of enshrining its elite players like no other, elevating them from legends on the court to legends in pop culture.

In that regard, three players stand above the rest.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

The progenitor of the “skyhook,” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was one of the most well-rounded players ever. During his 20-year career, Abdul-Jabbar won 6 NBA Championships with the Los Angeles Lakers, was awarded league MVP a record 6 times and received induction into the basketball Hall-of-Fame.

In addition to his on-court accomplishments, Abdul-Jabbar is beloved for his political activism. A Muslim convert, he protested against the Vietnam War and discrimination against African-Americans. 

Michael Jordan

While Abdul-Jabbar dominated the 80’s, Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls owned the 90’s. The Hall-of-Famer led the NBA in scoring 10 times during his career en route to winning 6 NBA Championships and 5 league MVP awards. Many consider him the greatest player of all time.

Off the court, Jordan’s legacy continues to grow. His partnership with Nike produced one of the most lucrative endorsement deals of all time, and his Jordan brand is known all over the world. He even starred in the 1996 movie Space Jam.

Lebron James

However, for today’s fans, Jordan’s greatness is exceeded by Lebron James. Coming straight out of high school, he almost single-handedly willed his Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals before departing for Miami, where he won 3 straight NBA Championships. Later, he returned to the Cavaliers to bring a championship to Cleveland.

James’s combination of size and athleticism makes him one of the most athletic and unguardable players in the history of basketball. In addition to his 4 championships, he was also selected as league MVP 4 times. 

Off the court, James is a philanthropist and cultural icon. He has protested against police brutality and discrimination against African Americans. James even created a school for underprivileged youth in Ohio, where he offers a full college scholarship to any student that graduates. His legacy has extended far beyond the game of basketball and society as a whole is better for it.