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Sports Illustrated’s 75 Most Iconic NBA Covers

Sports Illustrated’s 75 Most Iconic NBA Covers

Publish date:

Oct 12, 2021

In celebration of the league’s 75th anniversary, we ranked our most memorable cover photos throughout the years.

Sports Illustrated and the NBA have grown up together—the pro basketball league is celebrating its 75th anniversary, while SI has been around for 67 years. That’s not to say there weren’t growing pains: The first NBA cover didn’t come until 1956, and there were only a handful in the early days. But as time went on, we evolved and so did the league. Since the 1970s, pro hoops has become a bigger and bigger part of America’s sporting fabric, not to mention a mainstay on SI’s most coveted piece of real estate. 

So we present our 75 most iconic NBA covers—with an eye towards 75 more years of memorable images. 

Sports Illustrated’s Most Iconic NBA CoversCountdown from No. 75 to the most memorable cover image in SI’s history.

75. March 6, 1976Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated

Bob McAdooOne of the game’s criminally underrated offensive threats, Mac posed for this just before finishing his third straight 30-ppg season.

74. Feb. 24, 1969Walter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated

Billy CunninghamOnce every couple of months in the 1960s, SI was good for a strangely lit noirish cover. And they were all pretty cool.

73. May 7, 1984Jerry Wachter/Sports Illustrated

Bernard KingWho knows what King could have done with healthier knees? In this series, he averaged 42.6 points per game against the nascent Bad Boys.

72. Oct. 29, 2012Peter Read Miller/Sports Illustrated

Steve Nash and Dwight HowardWe didn’t say 75 best. We said 75 most memorable. And this one will live with us forever as the punch line when we’re struggling to come up with a cover line: How about, Now this is going to be fun?

71. Feb. 23, 2015Robert Seale/Sports Illustrated

James HardenIn which we offered readers a chance to get up close and personal with the most famous facial hair in the game.

70. April 29, 1996Peter Read Miller/Sports Illustrated

David RobinsonThe NBA’s most pious superstar at peak piety.

69. Feb. 13, 1967George Long/Sports Illustrated

Rick BarryFine use of the Bay Bridge, and a reminder that Barry and Jimmy Chitwood were never seen in the same room together.

68. Dec. 12, 1988John Biever/Sports Illustrated

Charles BarkleyIt’s easy to imagine what’s running through Chuck’s head here: Come on, Gminski, that cut is turrble.

67. May 31, 1999John W. McDonough/Sports Illustrated

Tim DuncanA perfect marriage of picture and words, as the Big Fundamental knocked off Showtime 2.0.

66. June 16, 1986John Iacono/Sports Illustrated

Kevin McHaleFew shots have ever encapsulated a player’s game better than this, as McHale makes an unorthodox low-post move (while screaming as if he’d been shivved in the hamstring with a makeshift blade).

65. Feb. 20, 2012Heinz Kluetmeier/Sports Illustrated

Jeremy LinPossibly the first—and hopefully the last—hashtag on an SI cover. Still, it was undoubtedly a moment. A week later Lin would become the rare athlete to appear on consecutive nonplayoff covers.

64. Nov. 6, 1989Manny Millan and Theo Westenberger/Sports Illustrated

Joe DumarsComing off an NBA title, Dumars proved us wrong in the 1989–90 season, as his Pistons again stopped the Bulls in the ’90 conference finals en route to a title. Things went downhill—for Joe, the Bad Boys and everyone else—from there.

63. Nov. 18, 1991Theo Westenberger/Sports Illustrated

Magic JohnsonThe second Johnson cover to simply say MAGIC, this one came out after his announcement that he was retiring after contracting HIV.

62. Oct. 28, 2002John W. McDonough/Sports Illustrated

Yao MingAn easy pun, but an incredibly effective one. The 7′ 6″ center’s impact on the league was as hard to measure as his frame.

61. Dec. 15, 1980Andy Hayt/Sports Illustrated

Lloyd FreeThe notorious gunner, perfectly caught mid-gun. A year later he changed his name to World B. Free. Also could have gone with Leeroy Jenkins, but World B. works, too.

60. Oct. 24, 2004Michael O’Neill/Sports Illustrated

Shaquille O’NealThe Big Aristotle (or more like the Big Archimedes, amirite?) took his talents to South Beach and celebrated with a dip in a hotel pool.

59. May 8, 1978Manny Millan/Sports Illustrated

Elvin HayesIf you’re wondering why there’s a Bullets player in a road jersey trailing the play behind Big E, it’s not a Bullets player. It’s San Antonio’s Mike Gale, and because some of the Spurs’ luggage got lost he had to play in an inside-out Washington jersey.

58. Oct. 31, 1983Peter Read Miller/Sports Illustrated

Ralph SampsonNot the most vaunted Sampson cover (that would be the fife-and-drum photo with Mark Aguirre and Albert King when he was in college), but still a nice shot of one of the most anticipated rookies in league history.

57. May 24, 1982Peter Read Miller/Sports Illustrated

Magic Johnson and Michael CooperSometimes the cover lines write themselves.

56. Jan. 9, 1956Hy Peskin/Sports Illustrated

Bob CousyThe first SI NBA cover. Notice how Cousy runs a Fort Wayne Piston defender perfectly off a ball screen—set by another Fort Wayne Piston defender. 

55. May 6, 2013Kwaku Alston/Sports Illustrated

Jason CollinsThen 34, the longtime center made history as the first openly gay athlete in a major men’s professional sport.

54. Oct. 23, 1967Donald Moss/Sports Illustrated

NBA PreviewHow did the SI staff spend the Summer of Love? Apparently listening to a ton of Jefferson Airplane, “experimenting” with stuff in the break room and workshopping this cover concept.

53. May 16, 2011Greg Nelson/Sports Illustrated

Mavs-Lakers If you ever meet photo editor Marguerite Schropp-Lucarelli, be sure to ask her about her love of photos taken between legs.

52. Oct. 27, 1969Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated

Lew AlcindorTwo years before he changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the 22-year-old was a Bucks rookie with a lot to say. And then, as now, it all commanded our attention.

51. April 6, 2015Greg Nelson for Sports Illustrated

Russell WestbrookHeads up!

50. Feb. 19, 2001Heinz Kluetmeier/Sports Illustrated

Sacramento KingsYes, there was actually a time when the Kings were good and everyone loved rooting for them. Except, apparently, NBA referees.

49. June 8, 1998John Biever/Sports Illustrated

Michael Jordan and Scottie PippenKinda looks like it could be a movie poster.

48. June 27, 1987Peter Read Miller/Sports Illustrated

Kareem Abdul-JabbarA rare gatefold cover—open up the stark image of Kareem and you see the ball falling to earth alongside the word SLAM!

47. Oct. 25, 1976Irving Penn (Photo by SI Cover/Sports Illustrated)

Dave Cowens and Julius ErvingFun fact: The only player to be featured on the cover while playing in the ABA was Erving, who did it twice before this merger shot.

46. Jan. 20, 1958Hy Peskin/Sports Illustrated

All-Star PreviewOne of the first times SI used strobes to light an indoor sporting event. NBA covers from SI’s early days, rare though they are, now serve as striking reminders of how different the game looked.

45. Oct. 15, 1973Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated

Nate ArchibaldTiny indeed did it all in 1972–73, leading the league in scoring (34.0 ppg), assists (11.4 ppg) and knockouts of future Trail Blazers coaches (1). (That’s Rick Adelman collapsing in a heap.)

44. April 12, 1965Robert Huntzinger/Sports Illustrated

Wilt ChamberlainFirst-person pieces were prevalent in the 1960s. In this one, Wilt begins his soul-baring diatribe against the game by writing, “Oh, man, this is going to be better than psychiatry.”

43. Nov. 12, 1973Heinz Kluetmeier/Sports Illustrated

Pete MaravichAtlanta teammate Lou Hudson (23) recognized filthy moves when he saw them.

42. April 8, 2019Greg Nelson/Sports Illustrated

Giannis AntetokounmpoNotice how many Spurs are cowering in fear. Can’t imagine Pop was pleased.

41. Feb. 18, 1991Theo Westenberger/Sports Illustrated

The Original Dream TeamTake that, Isiah! Take that, Angola!

40. Dec. 23, 1968James Drake/Sports Illustrated

Bill RussellA portrait that perfectly captures the solemnity of one of the most thoughtful men to play the game, who had just led the Celtics to the title as a player-coach.

39. August 4, 1969George Long/Sports Illustrated

Bill RussellAfter a second straight title as player-coach, Russell decided to leave the game and hit the links (possibly in the same yellow turtleneck he wore in his Sportsperson of the Year cover).

38. Nov. 11, 1996Peter Read Miller/Sports Illustrated

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, George MikanThree generations of Lakers big men. Mikan, who looked like he could still dominate a game in the paint, deserves massive respect for offering free tickets to the gun show at age 72.

37. Oct. 20, 1980Lane Stewart/Sports Illustrated

Paul WestphalMeteorological jokes rarely land (50% chance of apathy, with an indifferent front moving in from the West), but when they do, they’re great. Alas, Westphal lasted one ho-hum year in Seattle.

36. Oct. 25, 1971James Drake/Sports Illustrated

Gus JohnsonHis nickname was Honeycomb, but there wasn’t much sweet about Johnson’s game. The original backboard breaker, here he gets rough with his accountant. [Taps earpiece.] I’m sorry, here he gets rough with Hall of Famer Dave DeBusschere.

35. Nov. 1, 1999Walter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated

Phil JacksonJackson-as-a-seer is nice, but check out the detail in the crystal ball: Shaq blissfully carrying Kobe.

34. May 26, 1986John W. McDonough/Sports Illustrated

Akeem OlajuwonNo truth to the rumor that the H Olajuwon added to his first name stood for, “Hey, did I ever tell you about the time I posterized a living legend?”

33. July 2, 2012Gregory Heisler/Sports Illustrated

LeBron JamesOf the many posed LeBron covers, the one that accompanied his first title with the Heat stands out for its great cover line (courtesy of former boss Chris Stone).

32. Oct. 15, 1979Peter Read Miller/Sports Illustrated

Bill WaltonSadly (?) for Bill—who, despite being seven feet tall and very rich, appears to be wearing a suit he bought off the rack—SI didn’t have its Fashionable 50 list in 1979. 

31. May 27, 1996Chuck Solomon/Sports Illustrated

Phil JacksonIt’s a powerful image, with Jackson appearing to tell the best player ever what to do and MJ appearing to comply. Is that what’s actually happening? Maybe. If not, it’s still a fine representation of how the Bulls rode Big Chief Triangle’s system to six titles.

30. June 23, 2014Greg Nelson for Sports Illustrated

Kawhi LeonardHas there ever been a better coming-out party than the Claw’s at the 2014 Finals?

29. June 12, 2000John W. McDonough/Sports Illustrated

Kobe BryantHe’s been on several covers smiling warmly, but nothing captured the essence of the Mamba like this feral scream.

28. April 24, 1967Walter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated

Rick BarryPeople forget how explosive Barry was. After averaging 35.6 points per game in the regular season—the most ever at the time by anyone but Wilt Chamberlain—Barry put up 40.8 in the 1967 Finals.

27. Nov. 1, 1982Manny Millan/Sports Illustrated

Moses MalonePhilly fans flocked behind the recently-acquired Moses like he was Rocky Balboa. He rewarded their faith with a title in his first season, KO’ing the Lakers in four.

26. Oct. 16, 1972Walter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated

Wilt ChamberlainSomething about the way the Big Dipper is crouching suggests that he’s futilely doing his best to contort himself in such a way that he’ll fit his entire body in the frame. But he still looks graceful.

25. May 2, 2016LEBRECHTMEDIA/Sports Illustrated

Craig SagerShown seven months before he died of cancer, the colorful courtside legend wore a surprisingly conservative outfit for his shoot.

24. May 31, 1982Heinz Kluetmeier/Sports Illustrated

Julius ErvingFor a guy who took a lot of highlight-bait shots, the Doctor was brutally efficient. The season this photo was taken, 1981–82, Erving shot 54.6% from the floor. His when in doubt, just dunk it mantra surely helped.

23. April 16, 1973Peter Carry/Sports Illustrated

Earl MonroeEarl was some pearl, indeed. The smile on his face conveys the sense of effortlessness that oozed from his game.

22. April 28, 1980Walter Iooss Jr. /Sports Illustrated

Larry BirdBut that release point. 

21. June 25, 2001Walter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated

Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe BryantThat they would dominate was not in doubt. The only question was, for how long?

20. July 26, 2004Photo by SI Cover /Sports Illustrated

Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’NealAnswer: three years.

19. Oct. 31, 1977James Drake/Sports Illustrated

Maurice LucasSome pictures are worth 1,000 words. For this one, four suffice: Maurice Lucas was baaaaad.

18. April 29, 1968George Long/Sports Illustrated

Elgin Baylor and Jerry WestFridays at 8 on ABC, It’s Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside! Yes, before Lethal Weapon and before Miami Vice, the original mismatched buddy duo ran rampant in L.A.

17. May 20, 1985Manny Millan/Sports Illustrated

Patrick EwingPictured: some of the best shorts in NBA history. Not pictured: the frozen envelope.

16. Jan. 30, 1995Chuck Solomon /Sports Illustrated

Derrick ColemanSorry, D.C., but this perfectly captures a lot of what was wrong with the NBA during an era that didn’t always feature aesthetically pleasing ball.

15. June 13, 2011Greg Nelson/Sports Illustrated

Dirk NowitzkiDirk’s one-legged fadeaway is on any short list of the most iconic shots the game has ever seen. 

14. June 26, 1995David Walberg/Sports Illustrated

Kevin GarnettO.K., so he technically wasn’t in the league yet. It’s amazing how there’s the tiniest hint of that imposing scowl in this babyfaced kid’s visage.

13. May 3, 1999Walter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated

Kevin GarnettDid someone say imposing?

12. Dec. 10, 1984Manny Millan/Sports Illustrated

Michael JordanAny number of Jordan covers could have made the list (he’s been on 50, including an unprecedented three in a row in 1998). But this one truly resonates—and not just with us. MJ used it as the basis of a colorway for an Air Jordan release in 2018.

11. June 1, 2015Greg Nelson/Sports Illustrated

LeBron JamesThis beautifully lit dunk (when you see lighting like that, you’re probably looking at a Greg Nelson picture) made for a great cover. The full frame is even more spectacular as all five Hawks are in the frame, equally defenseless.

10. Jan. 28, 2002Stephen Wilkes/Sports Illustrated

Jason KiddHow do you get an authentic-looking New York City skyline in the background? Take your subject to a rooftop in Jersey and shoot him there.

9. Feb. 28, 2000Walter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated

Vince CarterLast seen as a 43-year-old Hawks reserve two years ago, VC could throw it down at the turn of the century.

8. June 8, 1987Manny Millan/Sports Illustrated

Larry BirdBird had a couple of aw shucks, I’m just a Hick from French Lick covers, but don’t let them fool you. He was lethal when he needed to be.

7. June 25, 2012Greg Nelson/Sports Illustrated

LeBron JamesPurportedly James’s favorite SI cover of himself—ironic, given that Serge Ibaka blocked the shot.

6. Nov. 5, 1990Theo Westenberger/Sports Illustrated

Bill LaimbeerProps to the big Bad Boy for leaning into his image as the game’s preeminent whiner.

5. April 23, 2001Gerard Rancinan/Sports Illustrated

Allen IversonRoses? We’re in here talking about roses? One of Gary Smith’s best stories (which is saying something), framed as a love story, illustrated by a bouquet-bearing Answer. Brilliant.

4. Dec. 28, 1987Walter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated

Michael JordanOne of the coolest overhead photos you’ll see. It was posed, by the way. You can tell by the fact that MJ is holding the ball so you can see the signature on it. His.

3. May 29, 1995John W. McDonough/Sports Illustrated

Dennis RodmanBefore he cozied up the North Korean government, Dennis Rodman was just a nice man who liked birds.

2. Nov. 10, 1997Richard Corman/Sports Illustrated

Grant HillThe best posed cover we’ve ever done. The only way it could have been better would have been to shoot it on an actual Detroit street instead of in a studio.

1. May 11, 1998Walter Iooss Jr./Sports Illustrated

BullsWhat do you get when the best team on the planet gives almost-unfettered access to one of the finest photographers who’s ever uncapped a lens? Our best NBA cover. In the words of the shooter, Walter Iooss Jr., “There’s no other like it.” He would know.

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