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The NBA’s Multi-Sport Athletes

LeBron James could have been a pro football player, but he’s not the only multi-sport athlete in NBA history.

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In show business, the ultimate achievement is the EGOT – earning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony over the course of one’s career. The idea is that to be considered truly great, one must be universally excellent in one’s field, and in Hollywood (or Broadway), that extends beyond just being good at one thing. A truly legendary talent is great across the board, which is why fewer than 20 human beings have ever accomplished the EGOT. It’s a big deal.

Athletics work a little bit differently, but everybody grew up with that kid who was literally the best in school at every sport possible. He was the quarterback, point guard and pitcher and dominated in all three sports. Truth be told, there are probably quite a few professional athletes who grew up like that before having to decide on one sport or another as their go-to game.

This list looks at men who, at some point, were able to remain competitive and reasonably dominant in more than one sport, achieving some athletic iteration of the EGOT. In fact, some of them were so good that they saw almost as much success in other sports as they did the NBA:

#5 – Danny Ainge – Baseball – In today’s sports world, a story like this would be a huge deal, but for a few years in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Ainge actually played college basketball at BYU and partial seasons for the Toronto Blue Jays. He hit .220 in his pro baseball career, but after a huge March Madness in 1981, he was drafted by the Boston Celtics, who bought out his contract with the Jays so he could play pro hoops. His career as a basketball player is well-documented, including the two rings he won in the mid-’80s.

#4 – LeBron James – Football – James was an all-state wide receiver at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s his sophomore and junior years of high school, and had he not quit football to focus solely on hoops his senior year, he definitely would’ve continued the trend and likely would’ve went on to play college football. Ohio State and Notre Dame recruited him to play for their football teams, but everyone knew he wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to play in the NBA. Still, there were scouts who truly believed he was an NFL talent. Despite that, and considering the fact he’s the most physically gifted basketball player alive, we can probably agree he made the right decision.

#3 – Michael Jordan – Baseball – His Airness gets a lot of flak for dabbling in pro baseball in the mid-’90s, but the fact is he saw a reasonable level of success playing AA baseball despite not having played competitively since high school. He was in his 30s when he jumped sports, which makes the switch even more impressive. While the numbers weren’t great—127 games, .202 BA and 51 RBI—the attempt was credible, and they went a long way in proving Jordan’s prowess as an all-around athlete.

#2 – Charlie Ward – Football, Baseball – It rarely happens, but after winning the 1993 Heisman Trophy as a quarterback at Florida State, Ward was not drafted by any NFL team. After having made it clear he would not play in the NFL if he wasn’t selected in the first round, teams passed on him as a liability later in that ’94 draft. He was, however, drafted by the New York Knicks in the second round of the NBA draft that year, so hoops is the way he went. His career, spent mostly in New York, was a relatively productive one, but his abilities in football (and baseball—he didn’t play in college, but the Milwaukee Brewers drafted him anyway in 1993) make him one of the better all-around athletes ever.

#1 – Wilt Chamberlain – Track, Volleyball – Chamberlain’s scholarship to the University of Kansas wasn’t just for basketball; it was for track and field as well. He set Pennsylvania high school records for the shot put and 100-meter hurdles, and he also won three straight Big Eight high jump titles. After his basketball career was done, he played five years for the Seattle Smashers of the International Volleyball Association, where he dominated just as well as he did in basketball.

Honorable Mention:

Tim Duncan – Swimming– Long before arguably the greatest power forward of all time decided he wanted to play basketball, he dreamed of becoming an Olympic swimmer. As a teenager he swam pretty impressively in the 50, 100 and 400 meter freestyle events and had realistic aspirations of appearing in the 1992 Olympics to represent the Virgin Islands. However, when Hurricane Hugo destroyed the island’s lone pool he turned to basketball and the rest is, as they say, history.

Hakeem Olajuwon – Soccer – Growing up in Nigeria, Olajuwon was a top goalkeeping prospect and actually never even picked up a basketball until he was 15 years old. It’s been said his skills as a goalie translated directly to his skills as a top defender and shot-blocker. In any event, “The Dream” was very good at one sport before even considering taking up the one that would earn him millions of dollars and two championship rings.

John Lucas – Tennis – Lucas was an All-American tennis player while at the University of Maryland, and he competed in a handful of Grand Prix tennis tournaments in the ’70s. He played well enough to eventually find himself ranked as high as 579 in the world. Once he was drafted to play in the NBA, however, he focused solely on basketball, where he had a respectable career playing for the Houston Rockets and several other teams.

Scott Burrell – Baseball – The Seattle Mariners drafted Burrell as their first-round pick right out of high school with the hopes of developing him into a pitcher. But he stuck with hoops, had a great college career at UConn, then a long NBA career that was admittedly a little bit less than spectacular. Despite that, he’s the only athlete in history to have been drafted in the first round by two of the four major American sports leagues.

Dave DeBusschere – Baseball – The Knicks’ Hall of Famer played two short seasons as a pitcher for the Chicago White Sox. He pitched a shutout once and ended up with a career ERA of 2.90. Eventually, though, he had to make a call between the two sports, and basketball, thankfully, ended up the big winner.

John Havlicek – Football – In 1962, the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Browns both drafted Havlicek, but after flirting with the football side of things as a wide-out in Browns camp, he decided to focus on basketball, for which he eventually ended up in the Hall of Fame.

Pat Riley – Football – While Riley was a first-round pick of the San Diego Rockets back in 1967, he also was an 11th round pick by the Dallas Cowboys that same year, though he obviously made the right decision by sticking with the sport he ultimately chose.

You don’t see a whole lot of multi-sport athletes anymore because in order to make it to the highest level professionally in anything, you’ve got to really commit to the one at a really early age. That’s sort of what makes LeBron James’ versatility so incredible. That sort of all-encompassing athletic ability just doesn’t come along very often, at least not on a level where a player would be good enough to play in two or more professional leagues.

The other problem is basketball doesn’t really lend itself well to other sports. The season is placed in a part of the year that interferes with pretty much everything else, and the specific skills that basketball players use are pretty different from the ones used in baseball and football.

Still, it’s fun to imagine what could’ve happened had some of these guys taken other career paths. Maybe they wouldn’t have amounted to much in a different sport, or maybe they would’ve been too great and too competitive to fail. Plus, I think we’d all love to have LeBron James on our fantasy football teams.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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