Who Played the Most NBA Seasons Before Reaching the NBA Finals for the First Time?
Not every NBA player is lucky enough to win a championship. Bill Russell and the Celtics kept a lot of great teams and players from doing so in the 1950s and 1960s, as did Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the 1980s, as did Michael Jordan in the 1990s, and so on and so forth. But there are also those that never even got the chance to play in the NBA Finals. And we’re talking about some all-time greats here. George Gervin. Bernard King. Artis Gilmore. David Thompson. Dominique Wilkins. Chris Webber. Grant Hill. Steve Nash. Vince Carter. Trust me, I could keep going.
And then there are those that waited and waited and waited until the dream of playing in the NBA Finals finally happened. Look at Chris Paul, easily one of the greatest pure point guards of all time. After years of disappointment in the NBA playoffs, he finally reached the NBA Finals in his 16th season. Take Juwan Howard. It took him 17 years and eight different teams before he reached the title series, finally doing so in 2011 with the Miami Heat.
But there are two players, Kevin Willis and Tree Rollins, who actually waited even longer, 18 seasons to be exact, before getting their chance to play in the NBA Finals. And Rollins didn’t even play a single minute when he got there.
Kevin Willis only got as far as the conference finals once in his first 17 seasons
So before we get into the long path Willis took to the NBA Finals, we do need to clear something up. Willis was taken in the famed 1984 NBA draft and was technically in the league for parts of 22 seasons. However, as he missed the entire 1988-89 campaign with a knee injury, that does not go on his record as an official season, which is why Vince Carter is listed as the only person to play 22 NBA seasons with Willis, Robert Parish, Kevin Garnett, and Dirk Nowitzki right behind with 21. Just wanted to get that out there.
Either way, Willis still waited a long time to make his first NBA Finals appearance and could only get even as far as the conference finals once in his first 17 seasons. In nine full seasons with the Atlanta Hawks, he reached the Eastern Conference semifinals on four occasions, only reaching a seventh game once in 1988 against the Boston Celtics.
Willis missed out on the postseason while with the Miami Heat and Golden State Warriors but returned to the postseason in 1997 with the Houston Rockets, who he helped reach the Western Conference Finals, where they lost in six games to the Utah Jazz. The following year, the second and final season of his first run in Houston ended in the first round, also at the hands of the Jazz.
In 2000, Willis lost in the first round as a member of the Raptors. In 2001, he missed out on the postseason with the Nuggets and also missed out in 2002 back with the Rockets. But then it finally happened.
Willis appeared in his first NBA Finals in 2003, his 18th season, and helped the Spurs to a championship
Ahead of the 2002-03 season, officially his 18th in the NBA, Willis joined the San Antonio Spurs as the backup power forward to Tim Duncan. He appeared in 71 games that year, making six starts, and averaged 4.2 points and 3.2 rebounds in just under 12 minutes per game.
The Spurs finished the regular season with a 60-22 record, good for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, and then knocked off the Phoenix Suns, LA Lakers, and Dallas Mavericks in the playoffs. Willis actually didn’t see the floor in the Spurs’ NBA Finals Game 1 victory over the New Jersey Nets, but on June 6, 2003, at 40 years and 10 months old, he finally played his first NBA Finals game, a Game 2 loss.
Willis appeared in each of the next four games and just as they had in each of their previous three series, the Spurs won the NBA Finals 4-2, which is just cute as can be as Willis wore No. 42 for the vast majority of his career.
Tree Rollins also reached his first NBA Finals in his 18th season but didn’t play a single minute for the Orlando Magic in their loss to the Houston Rockets
As for Rollins, it also took him 18 seasons to reach his first NBA Finals.
Drafted ahead of the 1977-78 campaign, the seven-footer spent the first 11 seasons of his career with the Hawks, teaming with Willis for the final four. Like Willis, he only got as far as the Eastern Conference semis, but he got to a seventh game twice, the aforementioned series against the Celtics in 1988 and also in 1979 against the then-Washington Bullets.
Rollins then spent two seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers, losing to Jordan’s Bulls in the first round in 1989 and then to Charles Barkley’s Philadelphia 76ers in the first round in 1990. He joined the Detroit Pistons following their second title win but again lost to Jordan in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals. As a member of the Rockets, he lost in the 1993 Western Conference semis to the Seattle Supersonics.
In 1993, ahead of his 17th season in the league, Rollins joined the Orlando Magic as a backup center to Shaquille O’Neal and also served as an assistant coach. The Magic were swept in the first round of the 1994 playoffs by the Indiana Pacers but got their revenge the following year, defeating Reggie Miller & Co. in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals, setting up an NBA Finals matchup with the Rockets.
After 18 years, Rollins had finally made it to the NBA Finals but didn’t play a single minute in the Rocket’s four-game sweep. But as he was on the roster, it still technically counts. The final appearance of his playing career was in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference