The Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) has provided basketball fanatics and NBA fans with some of the most entertaining, talented, and passionate athletes the world has ever seen. My top-five for the ACC all-time list are each unique in their playing styles and basketball stories, but they all have one thing in common.
Each inspired players from later generations to make names for themselves in the league and set precedents unimaginable in the game of basketball. Please enjoy my personal favorite and all-time ACC alma maters ever to grace professional basketball.
#5: Billy Cunningham (UNC)
After spending three years under the wing of new college coach Dean Smith, Cunningham was well-prepared for the NBA draft. In that time, Smith took Cunningham from a clumsy, skinny bag-of-bones to a stand-out athlete. For this athleticism, Cunningham would later become known as the “Kangaroo Kid.”
He took a role as a sixth man for the 76ers but played well enough to make the NBA All-Rookie Team. Then, in 1968, he won his first ring as a part of the 1967 championship team led by Wilt Chamberlain.
Because of Chamberlain’s retirement in 1968, and the injury of Luke Jackson, Cunningham became the 76ers’ franchise player. He took advantage of his new spotlight, averaging 24.8 points per game and 12.8 rebounds that season.
Cunningham continued to make impressive strides in the NBA for four more seasons, in which he averaged 22.1 points and eight rebounds per game. The four-time All-Star’s jersey was hung in the rafters to be retired in 1976, commemorating him for nine outstanding seasons with the 76ers.
Cunningham joined up with the 76ers once again less than a year after retirement, this time as head coach.
In his first year, he took the 76ers to his first playoff appearance, leading them to a four-game sweep against the Knicks. However, they eventually lost in the second round to the Washington Bullets.
Over his eight-year career as head coach, Cunningham led his team to playoff appearances every year, finally winning his only championship as a head coach in 1983. That’s not all; he also reached the 300 and 400-win mark faster than any NBA coach in history. To this day, Cunningham is the winningest coach in 76ers’ franchise history.
After stepping down as head coach of the 76ers, Cunningham spent a number of years as a commentator at CBS for both NBA and NCAA Men’s Basketball. Then, in 1988, he became a minority owner of the Miami Heat franchise expansion but later sold his stake in 1994.
For his collegiate and professional basketball achievements, Cunningham was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1986. He was also named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history (1996) and recognized as part of the 50 Anniversary men’s basketball team honoring the 50 best players in ACC history (2002).
#4: Vince Carter (UNC)
As the only player in NBA history to have a career spanning four different decades, Vince Carter has made his mark on NBA fans worldwide. His shooting ability and freakish talent, allowing him to put down seemingly impossible dunks, earned himself the nickname “Vinsanity” over his 22-year career.
After the Warriors originally drafted him, Carter was traded to the newly-founded Toronto Raptors. With that, Toronto had severe holes to fill, and their inability to, so far was hurting the franchise.
His legendary rookie season earned him Rookie-of-the-Year honors, after averaging 18.3 points per game and putting up countless highlight-reel worthy dunks. With them came another nickname – “Air Canada.”
Carter soared in his second season, averaging a career-high 25.7 points and lifted the Raptors to their first playoff win. His outstanding sophomore season earned him his first All-Star selection, where he put on a show at the most memorable dunk contest in NBA history.
Carter continued to improve every year, becoming a fan favorite in Toronto and making a name for himself worldwide. However, after signing a $94 million contract in 2001, he started struggling with career-threatening injuries to his knee and hamstrings.
His reputation and relationship with the franchise became bleak, as he struggled to find common ground with his injuries. Then began his journey with trades that would last the rest of his career.
For the next 20 years, the eight-time All-Star would play for the Nets, Magic, Suns, Mavericks, Grizzlies, Kings, and Hawks. Although his reputation as a fragile player followed him throughout his career, he pushed through the noise and focused on being the best he could be.
Carter signed a shoe deal with Puma before his rookie season but quickly backed out after complaining his feet hurt while playing in their shoes.
He later signed a contract with Nike, beginning a relationship with the company that lasted his entire career. In commemoration of Carter’s 22-year career in the league, Nike re-released their first signature shoe collaboration, the Shox BB4. He has also been a part of business deals with big-name companies such as Wilson, Gatorade, EA Sports, and T-Mobile.
Following his retirement in 2020, ESPN announced they signed a multi-year deal with Carter to serve as an analyst for both the NBA and college basketball beginning in the fall of 2020.
Carter decided to use his resources to make a change in his community after being drafted. In 1998, he established the Embassy of Hope Foundation, which takes pride in “Believing in Your Dreams.”
The slogan is meant to encompass Carter’s own path to success while encouraging the less fortunate youth and their families to believe in their dreams no matter what.
Through his foundation, Carter hosts charity galas, basketball camps, food drives, and pink marathons. He also provides scholarships, doing it all to give hope to this country’s less fortunate.
In the time since, Carter has expanded his foundation to reach as many families as possible. His foundation currently assists families in New Jersey, Florida, and Ontario – all places he’s played in his career.
Carter’s efforts to improve the quality of life for youth and their families have brought him recognition from all over the country. The Children’s Home Society recognized him as the 2000 Child Advocate of the Year. In Vince’s home state, in 2007, he also received the Florida Point of Light Award from Gov. Charlie Crist.
Even still, Carter is nineteenth on the NBA all-time scoring list with 25,728 career points, sixth on the all-time 3-point scoring list with 2,290, and third on the all-time games played list, passing Dirk at 1,523 games played. His ability to overcome injury and adversity, while also putting himself in the record books, makes him a fantastic leader for prospect players to look up to.
#3: Chris Paul (Wake Forest)
After a record-breaking season with Wake Forest and securing 2004 ACC Rookie of the Year, Chris Paul declared for the draft. He was taken with the fourth overall pick by the New Orleans Hornets.
Paul finished his rookie season leading his class in points, assists, steals, and double-doubles. He also became the second rookie in NBA history to lead the entire league in steals. After outperforming every rookie in the league, he was named Rookie of the Year, only one vote shy of a unanimous decision.
Paul was selected for his first of what would become ten NBA All-Star appearances in 2007. From there, his rise to stardom set off. Paul led his team to playoff appearances nearly every year while setting NBA records. One such record was consecutive games with a steal – Chris Paul had 106.
In his career, Paul has played for the Clippers, Rockets, and Thunder, the latter of which he currently plays for after being involved in one of the most talked-about trades in the 2019 offseason.
His defensive genius is only given more merit by his altogether nine First and Second All-Defensive Team selections. With that, it’s no surprise Chris Paul is considered one of the best leaders in the NBA. Just look at what he has done with OKC.
His wisdom and basketball IQ provide powerful guidance to new players standing where he once stood.
After being drafted in 2005, Paul signed a four-year $2.4 million contract with Nike. He was later hand-picked by Michael Jordan to represent his personal brand, and today is currently working on his twelfth signature Jordan shoe.
Paul is also nationally recognized for his iconic commercials with State Farm. The company is known to go a more comedic route with their commercials. Paul seems to be the perfect accomplice to Alfonso Riberio, who hilariously acts as the “new Chris Paul.”
Growing up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Paul was very close to his family. In 2005, Paul and his family founded the CP3 Foundation in honor of his late grandfather.
The foundation’s purpose is to level the playing field in education, sports, and life, therefore providing resources to strengthen communities. Paul later expressed his appreciation for his family’s efforts, officially renaming his non-profit the Chris Paul Family Foundation.
In celebration of 14 years of service to the community, Paul and his family began offering scholarships at his alma mater. In 2019, Paul’s foundation launched a Leadership Alliance to support marginalized students and organizations across the country.
Paul also makes a lot of effort to safeguard the players’ happiness while keeping the game of basketball in mind. In 2009, he took a position on the executive committee with the National Basketball Players Association.
There, he helped make tough decisions on issues regarding player and leadership misconduct, social justice, and misrepresentation within the league. The NBPA went on to elect Paul as president in 2013.
His efforts as president were seen most recently when he helped players express their grief for the injustices happening to African Americans. Knowing something must be done, he pushed for a short NBA lockout inside the bubble.
Paul’s jersey was retired in 2005 for his historical years at Wake Forest. He went on to become a ten-time All-Star and nine-time NBA All-Team selection and NBA All-Defensive selection. Paul will continue to make strides as a leader and player in the league for years to come.
#2: Tim Duncan (Wake Forest)
Duncan is considered by most to be the greatest player at the power forward position of all time. He was selected as the Spurs’ first overall pick in 1997, following an outstanding career at Wake Forest. He would remain with the Spurs for the extent of his 19-year career, building an impressive resume from the jump.
Duncan started his career having one of the best rookie seasons in the book. In 82 regular-season games, Duncan averaged 21.1 points and 11.9 rebounds. His rookie performance earned him Rookie of the Year honors after he had been Rookie of the Month all season long.
He gained a lot of respect from many of his superiors in the league like Charles Barkley and many coaches who voted him into the All-Star game that season. He was also respected greatly by his coach Greg Popovich and fellow teammate David Robinson for his work ethic and calm demeanor.
“He’s the real thing. I’m proud of his attitude and effort. He gives all the extra effort and work and wants to become a better player,” said Robinson about his partner in crime and fellow “Twin Tower.”
Duncan continued to average double-doubles for the next 12 seasons as leader of the Spurs organization, earning four NBA rings, three finals MVPs, two NBA MVPs, and a plethora of All-Star, First-Team, and All-Defensive selections.
He continued to dominate the league defensively even after switching to center, winning one more championship before retiring in 2016.
Three years after retiring, Duncan returned to the organization as an assistant coach alongside his former coach Greg Popovich. He served as a fantastic leader with much experience. Duncan later served as head coach after he took over when Popovich was out for personal health reasons. He led the Spurs to a 104-103 win against the Hornets after coaching them through a legendary comeback.
In 2013, Duncan used his passion for cars to open a vehicle customization shop. The BlackJack Speed Shop is located in San Antonio, Texas, just a few miles away from the Spurs’ practice facility. There, he can escape the league’s chaos and live a simple life.
“This is just a different world, and I think that’s the fun part about it because I play with control and precision on the court, but out there, it’s different playing with my cars,” he says. “I’m not really a flashy guy anywhere else—I don’t dress flashy or anything else—but I like to keep my cars nice, and I like to customize them. I can do things a little flashier and a little faster, and with a little bit more thought. This is kind of the release part of basketball.”
In 2001, Duncan started the Tim Duncan Foundation for the sole purpose of fundraising for other non-profit organizations. He has been most dedicated to youth programs, health, and research. His donations go to organizations located in South Texas, North Carolina, and his home in the Virgin Islands.
Duncan was named ACC Male Athlete of the Year and Naismith College Player of the Year for his performance as a college athlete. He was later named to the ACC 50th Anniversary Men’s basketball team honoring the 50 greatest players in ACC history in 2002. Additionally, he was named one of the “100 greatest Professional Basketball Players of the 20th Century,” the youngest player on that list.
He was rightfully named to 15 All-Star teams, All-Teams, and All-Defensive teams over the extent of his professional career. In doing so, he became one of four players to collect All-NBA First Team honors in their first eight seasons. He was also the only player to earn All-NBA and All-Defensive honors in his first 13 seasons.
#1: Micheal Jordan (UNC)
While I only intended to evaluate the best out of the ACC, Michael Jordan is also arguably the greatest athlete to ever step foot on an NBA court. And that’s a statement supported by the NBA itself.
“By acclamation, Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time. Although a summary of his basketball career and influence on the game inevitably fails to do it justice, as a phenomenal athlete with a unique combination of fundamental soundness, grace, speed, power, artistry, improvisational ability, and an unquenchable competitive desire, Jordan single-handedly redefined the NBA superstar.”
Jordan entered the league as an unprecedented rookie sensation, moving and dunking with acrobatics none had ever seen from a player so young. He wasn’t picked first in the 1984 draft because both teams before him desperately needed a center. ESPN attests that the Blazers, who had the second pick, had the worst draft pick in North American professional sports history.
In his first year with the Bulls, Jordan averaged 28.2 points per game, shooting 51.1 percent from the field. He transformed a team that won only 35 percent of their games into a playoff-contending team.
Jordan returned for his third year to have one of the most prolific scoring seasons in NBA history. He became the only player, other than Wilt Chamberlain, to put up 3,000 points in one season. His performance on the defensive end was no less impressive. He also became the first player to record 200 steals and 100 blocked shots on the season.
Jordan continued to dominate the league, outscoring his counterparts with his eyes set on an NBA title. It wouldn’t be until 1991 that he won his first NBA championship.
In his first finals appearance, Jordan won his first Finals MVP Award after an outstanding performance. That was the start of the Bulls’ monopoly within the NBA. They then went on their first of two three-peats prior to Jordan’s short retirement from 1993-1994.
Jordan came back to the league in 1995, performing like he never left. A struggling Bulls franchise made a crucial addition with Dennis Rodman, completing the trio the NBA never thought they needed.
The Bulls went on to dominate the league, finishing with the best regular-season record in NBA history. Jordan led the league in scoring that year. His efforts won the league, All-Star, and finals MVP titles after winning his fourth career championship and recording only the second MVP sweep in history.
He continued to lead the league in scoring while driving the Bulls to two more consecutive championships. Jordan won his last finals MVP award after putting up the most climatic game-winning shot of his career. He retired with six NBA rings and the most entertaining and emotional career in NBA history.
Although his basketball career made Jordan famous, it was his business ventures that made him rich.
His first five-year deal with Nike racked up $500,000 annually. Now, as a stand-alone business, the Jordan Brand brings in about $3.1 billion a year in revenue. He was able to build a rookie shoe deal into an empire forever remembered as a staple in American culture.
Jordan partially owned the Washington Wizards and later the Charlotte Hornets, putting his basketball knowledge to use after retirement. In 2010, he took majority control of the Hornets in a deal valued at about $175 million. He still owns a majority of the organization to this day.
Another thing on Jordan’s list? He joined forces with long-time friend Derek Jeter, becoming a member of the investor group that bought the Miami Marlins. More recently, he announced the start of a new NASCAR team. He has since announced the driver will be Bubba Wallace.
After his second retirement from 1999-2001, Jordan returned with the Washington Wizards, who he was partial owner of at the time. Jordan’s intentions were to play in honor of the lives lost in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He went on to donate his full salary to relief efforts.
He was part of the Make-A-Wish foundation as a player, granting hundreds of wishes himself for over three decades. His donations have continued over the years to nonprofits like the Boys and Girls Club, the Jackie Robinson Foundation, and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Jordan will also donate his full multi-million dollar share of the Netflix documentary, “The Last Dance,” to various charities in Charlotte and Chicago.
In October 2019, the first Novant Health Michael Jordan Family Clinic opened to help underprivileged members of the Charlotte community. In light of COVID-19, they have stopped their usual operations to help those with respiratory issues. Most recently, he guaranteed to pay the salaries of arena workers laid off because of the coronavirus stoppage.
If I were to list each of Michael Jordan’s accomplishments, the list would be longer than this entire story. Here is a brief overview:
Over his career, Jordan held the title of Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. He won five NBA MVP awards and six finals MVP awards to accompany his six NBA titles and ten different scoring titles. He also holds 10 All-NBA First teams and nine All-NBA Defensive First Teams. In addition to 14 NBA All-Star appearances and three All-Star MVP awards, he also holds a spot on the 50th anniversary All-Time Team.
Michael Jordan holds the number one spot in my book, but not just because of his basketball accomplishments. His integrity and passion for helping others, and wisdom concerning people, sets him apart from anyone else. He holds a spot in the game of basketball that no one could ever dream of taking. He will always have the respect of millions both inside and outside of the basketball community, and a place in my heart as the greatest of all time.
If you didn’t catch my “All-Time ACC Honorable Mentions” story, check it out here!