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Most iconic NBA numbers: #33 – Larry Bird, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Scottie Pippen

Boston Celtics Larry Bird up against the Los Angeles Lakers Kareem Abdul Jabbar in Game 5 of the 1987 NBA Finals
Image: Boston Celtics' Larry Bird up against the Los Angeles Lakers' Kareem Abdul Jabbar in Game 5 of the 1987 NBA Finals

Thanks to the achievements of the players who wore them, certain NBA jersey numbers have become synonymous with championship wins, MVP victories and spectacular scoring feats.

With the 2019-20 NBA season on hold for the foreseeable future, it is an opportune moment to explore a selection of the NBA's most iconic numbers.

In the second feature in our series, we take at look at three iconic NBA players who wore No 33.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar receives a pass during the NBA Finals

LeBron James has four MVPs to his name. Michael Jordan won five. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was named MVP a record six times.

Over a 20-year career, Abdul-Jabbar won six NBA championships (one with the Milwaukee Bucks, five with the Los Angeles Lakers) and was named an All-Star 19 times (an NBA record). He won Finals MVPs 14 seasons apart (1971 and 1985) and was named on the All-NBA first team on 10 occasions.

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A member of the NBA 35th and 50th Anniversary All-Time teams, he retired from the game in 1989 as the owner of eight playoff records and seven All-Star records.

Listed at a towering 7ft 2in, Abdul-Jabbar brought agility and grace to the center position, a role traditionally associated with power moves and hulking size. His trademark shot, the Sky Hook, was the realisation of his unique skillset, a fluid, sweeping shot that became the NBA's most consistent and effective weapons. No one could duplicate it and no defender could stop it.

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Relive the moment Los Angeles Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar overtook Wilt Chamberlain to become the NBA's all-time leader scorer

Abdul-Jabbar left the NBA in 1989 as the game's all-time leading scorer with 38,387 points (24.6 PPG), 17,440 rebounds (11.2 RPG), 3,189 blocks (third-best in NBA history) from a 1,560-game career.

Unlike the players that ruled the game after his prime, Abdul-Jabbar's dominance was not universally lauded until the tail-end of his career. His relationship with the press throughout the 1970s contributed to that. He protected his privacy and avoided interviews whenever possible. As a result, he was portrayed as distant and aloof - despite making a hilarious cameo in the movie 'Airplane'.

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Watch Kareem Abdul-Jabbar make his NBA debut for the Milwaukee Bucks in 1969

The popularity of the 'Showtime' Lakers and their five championships in the 1980s caused perceptions to shift. Late in his playing days Abdul-Jabbar began to open up, and as his career wound to a close, fans, players and coaches expressed their admiration for his accomplishments. During his final season, he was honoured by every team in the league when the Lakers came to town.

After retiring, Abdul-Jabbar told the Orange County Register: "The 80s made up for all the abuse I took during the 70s. I outlived all my critics. By the time I retired, everybody saw me as a venerable institution. Things do change."

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Pat Riley, who coached Abdul-Jabbar for eight seasons in Los Angeles, once said in a toast recounted in Sports Illustrated: "Why judge anymore? When a man has broken records, won championships, endured tremendous criticism and responsibility, why judge? Let's toast him as the greatest player ever."

Larry Bird

Larry Bird fires a jump shot during the NBA Finals

For 13 seasons with the Boston Celtics, Larry Bird combined elite scoring and otherworldly passing with relentless drive and hustle. Above all, he was known as an astonishing clutch performer who thrived on pressure, as well as a top-level trash-talker.

Bird's late-game heroics ranged from reverse lay-ups, buzzer-beaters and long-range bombs over multiple defenders. His confidence level was so high he would dare defenders to stop him after telling them exactly what he was going to do.

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Check out the 10 best plays from Larry Bird's illustrious 13-year NBA career

"[Bird] said, 'I'm going to get it right here and I'm going to shoot it right in your face,'" recalled former All-Star Xavier McDaniel. "And he came out right about that exact spot and shot a shot right in my face. And he was like, 'I didn't mean to leave two seconds on the clock.' He wanted to shoot it at zero seconds on the clock."

With Bird as the centrepiece of an experienced, deep roster that also included mainstays Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, the Celtics won three NBA titles (1981, 1984, 1986) and reached the Finals on two further occasions (1985 and 1987), losing out to the Los Angeles Lakers.

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The Celtics-Lakers rivalry in the 1980s, with Bird and Magic Johnson the headline stars, elevated NBA basketball into a global sport. In the years that followed, Michael Jordan would take the game to even higher levels of popularity.

Bird became only the third player to win three consecutive NBA MVP awards (he joined legends Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain in that particular club). He was a 12-time All-Star, a two-time NBA Finals MVP and a nine-time member of the All-NBA first team. He averaged 24.6 points, 10.0 rebounds and 6.4 assists for his career.

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Relive the action from the 1988 All-Star Weekend as Larry Bird completed a hat-trick of victories in the 3-Point Contest

"Larry Bird has helped define the way a generation of basketball fans has come to view and appreciate the NBA," said then-commissioner David Stern when Bird retired, after capturing a gold medal with the original Dream Team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Scottie Pippen

Scottie Pippen claims a rebound against the Utah Jazz
Image: Scottie Pippen claims a rebound against the Utah Jazz

The 'Robin' to Michael Jordan's 'Batman', Pippen was once described by journalist Sam Smith - who covered the Chicago Bulls throughout the 1990s - as "the ultimate supporting player, the perfect complement".

A seven-time All-Star, Pippen was a vital component of the Bulls' six NBA championship wins in the 1990s. He was also a two-time gold medal winner with the Olympic Dream Team in 1992 and in 1996 and an eight-time member of the NBA All-Defensive first team (1992-1999).

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Relive the most memorable moments of Scottie Pippen's tenure with the Chicago Bulls

When Jordan retired following the Bulls first 'three-peat' in 1993, Pippen proved he could lead a team too, leading the Bulls to 55 regular season wins, finishing third in MVP voting and winning the MVP award at the 1994 All-Star Game.

Ignore Pippen's career stats - averages of 16.1 points, 6.4 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game do not reflect the astonishing versatility of his game. Pippen orchestrated the offense like a point guard, rebounded like a power forward, scored like a shooting guard and defended on the perimeter like few others.

Jordan's Last Dance on Sky Q from April 20
Jordan's Last Dance on Sky Q from April 20

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In Game 1 of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals, he dominated the game despite scoring just four points. He forced Indiana Pacers' point guard Mark Jackson into seven turnovers and recorded seven rebounds, seven assists and four steals as the Bulls scrapped to a 85-79 win, drawing high praise from team-mate Steve Kerr.

"It's amazing to see how good Scottie is," said Kerr. "He shot 1-for-9 and scored four points and totally dominated the game. That's what makes him one of the greatest players ever. He doesn't have to score a point and he can control the whole game."

Scottie Pippen throws down a dunk for the Bulls
Image: Scottie Pippen throws down a dunk for the Bulls

Pippen's all-around game became the prototype for generation of forwards who came into the NBA during the Bulls dynasty. "Scottie wasn't a one-dimensional guy. He plays both end of the court and he's a team player. I just saw some of my talent relating to Scottie," Tracy McGrady once told Hoop magazine.

In the same article, Kevin Garnett added: "Scottie was definitely [someone who] I sat back and watched. For him to be so tall with long arms, and agile, I saw that as an example, definitely."

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