Chances are, if you grew up playing basketball in some capacity, you’re familiar with the rules of the game 21. My first time playing, I was not. Mainly because I didn’t understand the concept of tipping the ball back in—any buckets I drained were usually zeroed out within moments. Nobody told me what to do. Nobody spared me the embarrassment. Part of the beauty of the game is that it’s you against the world, a showcase for the arsenal of shots, fakes, and (in my case) fancy turnovers at your disposal.
Given that the game is so different from traditional 5-on-5 basketball, an important question arises: who is the greatest 21 player of all time? Is it just MJ, hands down the GOAT? What about the other Goat, street hoops legend Earl Manigault, famed for snatching quarters from the tops of backboards? Perhaps the greatest 21 player of all time isn’t even a basketball player; maybe, for some reason, it’s Charlie Adam, currently a reserve player for Stoke City FC in the Barclays Premier League.
The ScoreBoredSports hoops-loving staff asks this question in the heat of the playoffs, while our minds are most finely attuned to the rhythms of Dr. Naismith’s beautiful game.
Antoine Poutine’s pick: Allen Iverson
My candidate is the absolute embodiment of three of what I believe are the game of 21’s most crucial aspects.
Shot Making: If you can’t put the ball in the basket, there’s little hope of staying competitive for very long. Knockout versions of the game might even get you bounced altogether. So a great 21 player needs to be able to get past his man and create a shot, but also make the damn thing. AI, the Answer, is pound-for-pound the greatest shot-maker in the history of basketball.
Stealing the ball: If you don’t have the ball in 21, you can’t win the game. Getting it back is priority number one if you’ve lost it. There also aren’t any team-defense concepts out there, no wrinkles, no zone. Just rip the damn ball from your man. AI is the NBA single-game playoff record holder for steals with 10 (!) against the Orlando Magic in 1999. He’s 12th all-time in career steals in the NBA.
Me against the World: Nobody better embodies what’s at the core of 21, which is to prove yourself on your own merits. No practice, no team, no teammates. Just your game. Allen Iverson is the purest gamer in basketball’s history, for better and worse. It doesn’t make him the all-time greatest player, but perhaps the one best suited for the brutal gauntlet that is 21.
Bruno Tysh’s pick: Kevin Durant
He can literally do it all. He has the size and skill perfect for the iso play of 21.
Offense: KD excels at creating his own shot. He can use his dribble to either get off a clean jumper or just straight power to the basket. I don’t see many defenders with the size and speed to guard him effectively.
Defense: The length is the key here. That wingspan allows him to stay a step back while still being all over you. Durant also has the foot speed to recover and make a play at the rim. Dude will swat some shots.
Tip ins: This ends the conversation. If any opponent misses then Durant will be right there for the tip in. Guy is tall and can jump out the gym, so good luck. Only way to beat KD could be to never miss. Ever.
Alex Jag’s pick: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Before LeBron, before Jordan, before Magic, there was Kareem (and before ’71 there was Lew, but it’s kind of confusing).
Offense: Two words: Sky hook. If you watch the above video you can see that that shit is damn near unstoppable. How in the hell do you defend something like that? Kareem was a beast with the ball in his hand. He could drive the ball down the court and once he did he would use his 7’2″ frame to create space and just go up over the top of you and drop the ball in the net. With either hand! Try to tell me anyone else on this list could defend that.
Defense: The key here is Kareem’s shot blocking ability. Any one of these other guys who try to put the ball up are going to be in for a rude awakening. Kareem had the height and the jumping ability to send that basketball right back in their face. He was the NBA blocks leader four times and was selected to eleven All-NBA defensive teams.
Tip ins: This one relates to his defensive abilities. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a tall, big body that barely had to try to get himself up to the rim. This game would just be too easy for him. Plus, he was great in Airplane!
Phred Brown’s Pick: Reggie Miller
These are the things you need to win a game of 21: great shooting, even better free throw shooting, a little bit of height and a sharp tongue. For these reasons, I believe Reggie Miller would be the greatest threat in a game of 21.
Offense: By the time someone steps out to play D, he’s already hit a three. With his great free throw shooting, be prepared watch him run the table. The post-up, mid range game is not much of a factor in 21. If you are winning 21, you’re either a big man living off the tip-in or a good outside shooter. Reggie Miller being one of the best in the latter category.
Defense: Miller is long enough to grab an errant rebound and all he needs is one. And seeing as there are many guys behind you waiting to play defense, incredible stopping ability isn’t needed. Reggie is better off hanging outside the lane and looking for steals or rebounds.
X factor: He can talk some good trash all while hitting shots.
Did we leave out your favorite baller? And don’t say Air Bud. Drop your non-canine thoughts in the comments below.