It’s the 75th anniversary of the NBA, and the league has released a list of the 75 greatest players of all time in celebration. The Athletic is releasing a countdown series of their own of these 75 players, and number 43 on that list is Portland Trail Blazers legend, Clyde Drexler.
Athletic writer John Hollinger lays out three versions of Drexler, starting with “the forgotten man of the Jordan era.” Hollinger paints a picture of a superstar — one of the best to ever play the game of basketball — who lived in the shadow of Michael Jordan.
Jordan hung ominously over Drexler’s entire career … starting with the day Jordan was drafted. Then add that Drexler played in the era of great centers and physicality and spent virtually his entire career off the mainstream radar in Portland, Ore., and it adds up to a great career that never felt appreciated, either in its time or in retrospect. Around every corner, Jordan’s awesomeness played a part.
One version of the Drexler story is as a spectacular witness to history. One of the most amazing things about his career is that he is the Forrest Gump of his basketball era. Pick virtually any landmark moment in basketball history from 1983 to 1996, and Drexler is never far away,
The second version of Drexler as told by Hollinger is “The Glide”, a nickname the 6’6” guard earned because of the grace and ease at which he dunked the basketball.
Despite his aerial artistry, Drexler never won a dunk contest, partly because his jams were more graceful, Bob Beamon-esque broad jumps through the air than explosive throw-downs, and partly because his entries were inevitably judged against Jordan’s (or Dominique Wilkins’) in ways that, say Spud Webb’s, were not. For instance, Drexler’s best dunk contest effort was perhaps this inside-spin 360 that he dropped over the rim in 1988, hugely underrated in difficulty but not one to make the crowd gasp.
In games, however, his full-speed transition jams were breathtaking. I’m not sure any player in history regularly took off further from the rim before soaring in for a jam. Check out this broad jump for instance. (Also, RIP Mike McGee.) While we’re here, Drexler also caught a body or two in college. They called that team Phi Slama Jama for a reason, folks.
The videos Hollinger linked in the snippet above are a blast from the past and worth a watch — a reminder to how skilled Drexler truly was. The nickname “The Glide” wasn’t for nothing. The final version of Drexler described in the article talks about the “what ifs”. What if he’d been drafted by another team, played in another era, or simply hadn’t played in a time with Jordan. Hollinger also poses the question, what if Clyde had played with Jordan instead of against him. The Trail Blazers infamously skipped over Jordan during his draft because they already had Drexler. But what if they’d played the two players together, a la CJ McCollum and Norman Powell — two players with similar skill sets, who should play the same position, but one has shifted to a different spot instead to play in the same lineup.
For that matter, what if Drexler could have played Robin instead of Batman? Portland taking Bowie over Jordan is the all-time draft what-if, of course, but how about turning that on its head for a minute: What if Chicago, picking fifth, had taken Drexler and not Sidney Green with the fifth pick in 1983?
Or for that matter, what if Utah had taken him at No. 7 instead of Thurl Bailey, pairing him on the wing with John Stockton and Karl Malone? Or Detroit at No. 8 instead of Antoine Carr?
Drexler seemingly had multiple pathways to being part of a dynasty — whether with Jordan, Stockton-to-Malone or the Bad Boys. Instead, after inexplicably lasting until the 14th pick (after such luminaries as Russell Cross and Ennis Whatley), he became the best player on a very good but not quite great Portland team.
The piece goes on to discuss just how skilled Drexler was, and how far apart he was from his competition but how that was easily overshadowed by everything else surrounding the era in which he played, and that really, his skill set didn’t fit that era as well as the one before or after he played in the NBA.
Drexler retired as one of only three players in history with 20,000 points, 6,000 assists and 6,000 rebounds. Only three players have joined that club since. Michael Jordan isn’t one of them.
While Drexler finds himself in the middle of the pack in the Athletic’s top 75 countdown, he remains one of the most talented and beloved players to ever wear a Portland Trail Blazers jersey.