For 20 incredible seasons, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar proved he is one of the greatest ballers to ever set foot on the court. His two full decades of play place him in a rare category of athlete who could sustain greatness for so long in a sport noted for wearing down players’ bodies.
Abdul-Jabbar didn’t fade away quietly. The 7-foot-2 center kept putting up highlight-reel performances throughout his career. Over 1,560 games he scored 38,387 points with the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers. Now, the 72-year-old writes, acts, and commentates on sports and politics.
Who can match a career like that? A handful of NBA greats come close, and two players even exceed Abdul-Jabbar’s high standard in some respects.
Tim Duncan, 19 seasons
Similar to Kawhi Leonard today, Tim Duncan was noted for his low-key demeanor during his 19-season NBA tenure. This contrasted curiously with his explosive play as a power forward. Just as the NBA began transitioning to stacked power teams, the San Antonio legend led far less flashy Spurs squads to five NBA Finals titles, which included two Finals MVP titles for himself.
While the current generation of players switches teams repeatedly, Tim stuck with the Spurs for his entire playing career. And he’s not done yet, as he recently signed on as assistant coach to Gregg Popovich.
John Stockton, 19 seasons
One of the best point guards of all time, John Stockton played every single one of his 1,504 games with the Utah Jazz. He was instrumental in helping take the Jazz to the playoffs each year. His talent was on an all-time scale: 15,806 assists and 3,265 steals are two categories where he is ahead of the nearest record book competition by massive margins.
Kobe Bryant, 20 seasons
All of these players with long NBA careers land on the shortlist of the greatest NBA stars ever. But Kobe Bryant still stands apart. When a new star rises, he gets compared to a list of names you can count on one hand, and the Lakers legend is on it.
Bryant holds five championship titles. Two Finals MVPs. One League MVP. Two scoring champ titles. 12 All-Defense nods. While his age certainly showed in his final days as a pro, Kobe put a magnificent bow on his legacy: 60 points in his final game (against the Utah Jazz).
Dirk Nowitzki, 21 seasons
Dirk Nowitzki had a rare combination of talents as an NBA player. At a glance, he’s a hulk. Seven feet of muscle set on broad shoulders. Yet he moved with the grace of a smaller player, capable of bobbing and weaving to force open unexpected passing opportunities and shooting lanes.
The power forward received the 2007 overall MVP title. He was instrumental in dismantling the supercharged 2011 Miami Heat in an incredible Finals upset. These feats occurred in the back half of his career, proving that experience can add up to great things for a healthy player.
Vince Carter, preparing for his 22nd season
If you want to talk about dunking in the NBA, it won’t be long before the conversation turns to Vince Carter. After making his way into the NBA in 1998, he developed an uncommon ability to fly over opponents and crush dunk after dunk. His 2000 Dunk Contest appearance is the stuff of legends.
Even as the metagame of NBA-level play shifted to heavily favor creating space for three-point attempts, Carter adapted. He put in hard off-season hours to develop an effective perimeter shooting style that kept him relevant. So relevant that he’ll play with the Atlanta Hawks next season for a record-setting 22nd year as an NBA player.