Who’s the greatest basketball player to ever come out of Detroit? We took that question literally today. This top 10 countdown only deals with ball players who came straight from the source, born in the Motor City itself.
To establish a sense of boundary, we’re using basketball-reference.com’s listings for Detroit birthplace. Inkster, Romulus, Royal Oak, Birmingham, Hamtramck – they’ll have to wait their turn. Maybe we’ll even crank out a Top 2 NBA Players From Southfield list at some point in the future. But today it’s all about Detroit proper. So without further ado: here’s Detroit Sports Nation’s rundown of the 10 greatest Detroit-born players in basketball history.
10. Johnny Davis
Credentials: 9,710 career points, member of 1977 NBA Champion (Portland Trail Blazers)
Murray-Wright’s Johnny Davis served as a rock solid combo guard for a quartet of teams over the course of his 10-year NBA career. Davis entered the league in 1976, working behind the likes of Lionel Hollins and Dave Twardzek as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers. As a rookie appearing in the ’77 Finals, Davis erupted for 18 points in a crucial Game 3 victory (see video above).
Beyond his first-year Finals glory, Davis saw his peak come as a member of the Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks, where he was eventually given the keys to each respective squad and responded admirably, averaging 17 a night in his last season as a Pacer then posting consistent averages of 12 and 6 in Atlanta. Since his playing days, Davis has kept himself busy by serving on the coaching staff of several NBA teams, most recently as an assistant for the Toronto Raptors in 2013.
9. John Brisker
John Brisker is a walking ABA folktale. Stories of fist fights, wild threats, potential gun duels, and opposing teams enlisting boxers masquerading as security guards litter accounts of Brisker’s playing days. However, strictly regarding the on-court product, Brisker could play. His peak came in the early 70’s as a member of the ABA’s Pittsburgh franchise, where he averaged over 21 ppg for three consecutive seasons. By 1975, Brisker was on his way out of professional basketball and in ’78, he went missing after embarking on a trip to Uganda, never to be seen again.
8. Terry Tyler
Credentials: 8,868 career points, 4,675 career rebounds, 1,342 career blocks
Terry Tyler was a Detroiter through and through. Born in the Motor City, graduate of Northwestern High, four years under Dick Vitale at the University of Detroit, capped off by seven seasons as a Detroit Piston. Tyler’s primary on-court impact came on the defensive end, where he was an above average rebounder and a riveting shot blocker for someone standing at an under-sized 6-foot-7. In fact, Terry is the second leading shot-blocker in Pistons history, trailing only Ben Wallace.
Tyler also holds the distinction of having possibly completed the most basic dunk in the history of the Slam Dunk Competition.
7. Jalen Rose
Credentials: 13-year NBA career, 13,220 career points, .355% career 3-point shooter, member of Michigan’s Fab Five
Jalen Rose is one of the best players in NBA history to have never been named to an All-Star team. A fixture on the dominant Detroit Southwestern teams of the early 90’s that also featured future pros Voshon Lenard and Howard Eisley, Rose established large-scale notoriety as a member of UM’s Fab Five before leaving for the NBA after his junior year. His pro career yielded an underwhelming opening act, but Jalen soon earned his stripes as a member of the championship contending Indiana Pacers squads of the late 90’s and early 2000’s.
Rose’s production fully peaked once being acquired by the Chicago Bulls in 2002. There, he averaged nearly 24 points per game in the latter portion of the ’02 campaign before reloading to the tune of averages of 22, 5, & 5 in ’03. Likely doomed by his team’s poor overall record, Rose was left off the 2003 NBA All-Star roster in favor of the likes of Brad Miller and Michael Jordan, much to Bulls GM Jerry Krause’s chagrin.
6. Ralph Simpson
One of countless big-time basketball players to emerge from Detroit Pershing, Ralph Simpson grew up playing neighborhood ball with the smooth scorer topping our list. After teaming up with Spencer Haywood and winning a high school state title in ’67 (scoring 43 in the final), Simpson took his talents to East Lansing, where he averaged 29 points and 10 rebounds per game as a sophomore at Michigan State.
Simpson parlayed his college excellence into a pro contract with the ABA’s Denver Rockets, where he averaged 27.5 points per game in just his second season. He made the transition to the NBA as a member of the Detroit Pistons in 1976, but his productivity quickly dropped in subsequent campaigns.
Unfortunately, there is very little footage of Simpson in action, as YouTube searches for “Ralph Simpson” mostly result in Ralph Wiggum highlights.
5. Dan Roundfield
Credentials: 3-time NBA All-Star, 5-time NBA All-Defensive Team, Career averages: 14.3 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 1.2 bpg
A product of the now-defunct Chadsey High School in Detroit, Dan Roundfield carved out an impressive NBA career through hard work and professionalism. Dr. Rounds was a monster on the glass, averaging double digit rebounds in six of his twelve NBA seasons. In his 1980 All-Star Game debut, he nearly earned himself game MVP honors after erupting for 18 points and 13 rebounds off the bench. Roundfield spent the majority of his NBA prime as a member of the Atlanta Hawks, but remained productive all the way until his retirement as a member of the Washington Bullets.
Fun fact: In 1986, Roundfield ignited one of the most improbable comebacks in NBA playoff history, as the Bullets erased a 17-point deficit with barely three minutes remaining, culminating in a game-winning Dudley Bradley three at the buzzer. Roundfield scored 9 of Washington’s 18 consecutive points to close the contest (see video above).
4. Chris Webber
Credentials: Career averages of 20.7 points and 9.8 rebounds, 5-time All-Star, 5-time All-NBA
A walking highlight reel in high school, college, and the NBA, Chris Webber’s career was a proverbial roller coaster of emotion. After an early NBA run marred by injury and controversy, C-Webb found his home in Sacramento in 1998. There, alongside the likes of Vlade Divac, Mike Bibby, and Doug Christie, Webber turned Sacramento in a basketball hotbed, peaking in a controversial game 7 WCF loss at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers in 2002.
Webber’s position on this list is cemented by his unique blend of skills, including above-the-rim athleticism and impressive finesse around the basket. His court vision from the post position is regarded as some of the best basketball has ever seen.
3. Mel Daniels
Credentials: Career averages of 18.4 ppg, and 14.9 rpg, 7-time ABA All-Star, 2-time ABA MVP, three-time ABA Champion, Hall of Famer
This is where things get tricky. Pershing’s Mel Daniels absolutely dominated his competition throughout the late 60’s and early 70’s, regularly averaging over 20 points and 15 rebounds per contest. He was named Most Valuable Player twice and led his team to the promised land on three separate occasions. The catch? Daniels played virtually his entire professional career in the ABA.
Undoubtedly, Daniels has been oftentimes overlooked for having not spent his prime in the NBA. But as many ABA alum’s NBA success would suggest, not to mention the ABA’s 79-76 advantage in interleague clashes, the association with the red, white, and blue basketball was no walk in the park. No matter how you slice it, Daniels was dominant.
2. Dave DeBusschere
Credentials: 8-time All-Star, Six All-Defensive Team appearances, 14,053 career points, 11.0 career rebound average, Hall of Famer
Perhaps no player on this list better represents the city of Detroit’s blue collar ethos than Austin Catholic grad and University of Detroit alum Dave DeBusschere. A member of the NBA’s All-Defensive Team in each of the first six years of the award’s existence, DeBusschere pushed and scrapped his way all the way to the top.
Renown for his two-way play, DeBusschere’s career was perhaps best summed up by rival Bill Bridges: “There’s not one other guy in this league who gives the 100 percent DeBusschere does, every night, every game of the season, at both ends of the court.” DeBusschere would eventually parlay that hard work into two NBA championships as a member of the New York Knicks.
Oh, and did we mention that he coached the Detroit Pistons at the ripe old age of 24? That’s right, just three seasons into his NBA career, and shortly after retiring from his Major League Baseball career (yeah, he played both), Dave DeBusschere was named player/coach of his hometown NBA club. We’re not sure if that should affect his rating as a player but still, we don’t plan on seeing Josh Smith juggle a major league baseball career and a head coaching gig any time soon.
1. George Gervin
Credentials: 26,595 career points, 4-time scoring champion, 12-time All-Star, Hall of Famer
A graduate of Martin Luther King High School, Gervin’s pro career almost never came to be, having been dismissed from Eastern Michigan’s basketball squad after an on-court altercation. Gervin’s pro career began in earnest, earning $500/month while averaging 40 points a night for the EBL’s Pontiac Chaparrals. A chance discovery by ABA scout Johnny “Red” Kerr changed Gervin’s life overnight.
After little more than a year as a member of Julius Erving’s Virginia Squires, Gervin was dealt to the San Antonio Spurs in 1974. The Iceman then proceeded to go on a scoring binge that would not cease until the mid-80’s. While Gervin led the Spurs to three Conference Finals appearances, his most famous NBA exploit may have been his 63-point explosion on the final day of the regular season, overtaking David Thompson as the league’s scoring champion by mere hundredths of a point. As if that wasn’t enough, Ice also once went toe-to-toe with basketball magician Pete Maravich in a game of H.O.R.S.E., on national television.
In all, Gervin’s penchant for putting the basketball into the hoop at a legendarily effective & high volume, in large thanks to his smooth array of finger-rolls and precise mid-range jumpers, has affirmed the Iceman’s status as the basketball King of Detroit.
Basically-Born-in-Detroit-But-Not-Specifically-Detroit Honorable Mentions: Rudy Tomjanovich (Hamtramck), Steve Smith (Highland Park), John Long (Romulus)