SMALL-TIME HOOPS, BIG-TIME DREAMS: THE GREATEST DIVISION II PLAYERS OF ALL-TIME

Being a U.Va. fan, I know to never overlook small college basketball.  Somehow I’m going to relate this to HBCU and Division II players who have found success in the league — so I ask your patience.

All-universe 7-foot-4 center Ralph Sampson and his heralded Virginia squad took to Hawaii for a tune-up contest against then-NAIA team Chaminade on December 23, 1982. The Cavaliers were the consensus No. 1 team in the country and had just beaten Georgetown in the “game of the decade.” 

What followed was possibly the most unpredictable 40 minutes of basketball ever played. The result: a 77-72 loss that shocked the entire world.

Chaminade accomplished the unthinkable.

Ever hear of the Maui Invitational? Yeah, that’s because of this game.

Now, recall back to March Madness this past season: U.Va was the overall No. 1 seed going up against the worst No. 16 seed in the tournament, UMBC. The University of Maryland Baltimore County went into the game with the doomed outlook of no 16 seed ever topping the top dog. Well, in typical U.Va fashion, I’m sick to my stomach typing the rest.

UMBC 74-54.

Small schools never get the love they deserve. Their players have found success in the NBA. It’s only recently—with the recent influx of foreign athletes to the pros—that we’ve seen D-II and HBCU players thin out of the NBA ranks.

It wasn’t until researching this topic that I discovered the abundant talent smaller schools have blessed the NBA with. Without some of these guys, the NBA as we know it wouldn’t exist.

With that in mind, here are our top 5 players from Division II and HBCU’s.

First, Honorable Mentions:

Charles Oakley
Virginia Union University

VUU legend. Bodyguard/legbreaker for not one, but TWO members of the Dream Team, not to mention Vince Carter. All-time on-court and off-court badass—ask Tyrone Hill.

A star at Virginia Union, he took home the honors of D-II Player of the Year in 1985 where he averaged 24.3 points and 17.3 rebounds per game. A bruiser on the low block, Oakley finished his NBA career with 12,417 points, 12,205 rebounds, and a scowl and a right hook that scared your ancestors.

So why isn’t he in our top five?

Rebounding is KEY for NBA teams, but how many of you are putting Draymond Green in your top 10 of current players? You don’t see Michael Cage making anyone’s list of all-time greats, do you? (Though his Jheri might make that list.)

Exactly. If we’re being honest, Oak was never a centerpiece. His sophomore season with the Bulls, he marveled with 14.5 points and 13.1 rebounds per contest. He never got back to that level, however, for his entire 19-year career.

(That 19-year career is why I put respect on his name.) 

He was dominant in the post: best believe you had second thoughts about driving the lane when he was in the same zip code. Just ask MSG about his dominating presence—it took nearly the entire security staff to escort him out of the arena in the 2017 brawl that had Knicks Owner James Dolan was spooked.

Just leaving him out of my top 5 has me looking over my shoulder—sorry, Oak—but I have to be honest here.


Phil Jackson
University of North Dakota

Phil starred at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks—the same place, ironically, that Virginia Union won their 2005 NCAA men’s basketball title—from 1964-1967, and led his team to third and fourth-place finishes in the NCAA tournaments in 1965 and 1966.

Hampered by knee and back injuries, Jackson played in in the NBA for 12 seasons with the Knicks and Nets, where he won championships in 1970 and ’73 and served with distinction as a key role player.

We all know Phil for his coaching career, amassing 1,155 career wins with 11 championships. He had a key role in the careers of at least five of the greatest players ever to play the game. Not only did he win on the court, he was in a relationship with Jeannie Buss — who happened to be his boss — while she was paying him to coach. What a legend.


As we speak, he’s probably in a sandbox somewhere finding Zen. Having had to deal with MJ, Dennis Rodman, Shaq, Kobe, Metta World Peace, Melo, and James Dolan, I don’t blame him.

And now, the Top 5:

No. 5:

Avery Johnson
Southern University

Hear me out. 

Avery Johnson has thrived at everything he’s done in basketball.
As a player, coach, and analyst, he’s surpassed every possible expectation.

As a (generously listed) 5’ 11” point guard from Southern University, he’s been a star at the college level, a starting point guard on an NBA champion, and a coach whose team made the NBA Finals. 

He started alongside David Robinson and Tim Duncan. He coached Dirk Nowitzki through an MVP season. He was the fastest coach to 50 wins in NBA history. What more could the guy do?

At Southern University, Johnson averaged 12 assists per game as a senior—an NCAA record. In the NBA, he was the steady hand that helped form the Spurs dynasty we know today.

If you’re a Knicks fan, I’m sorry — really sorry. Johnson’s ‘99 game winning jumper sealed the deal for the Spurs championship win over the Knickerbockers and was the highlight of his 16-year NBA career.

His coaching resume speaks volumes as well. He led the Dallas Mavericks to three-straight playoff appearances from 2004-08 and named the NBA coach of the year during the 05-06 season, and now coaches at the University of Alabama, where his 2017 squad was ranked in the AP top 25 for the first time since 2011.

No. 4:

George Gervin
Eastern Michigan

The Iceman. The “Jelly” king.

Kyrie Irving, Jamal Crawford and Kemba Walker all owe Ice a debt for that gorgeous finger roll. As a sophomore at then-DII Eastern Michigan, Gervin averaged 29.5 points a game, but an off-court incident forced him into playing semi-pro ball before signing with the Virginia Squires of the ABA.

Gervin spent one year in Virginia alongside Julius Erving in what had to be the coolest frontcourt of all time. Erving went to New York, and Ice became a star in his own right when the Squires ownership sold him to San Antonio as a way of paying off its debts—this was the ABA, after all.

There were questions about whether the ABA’s best were as good as the NBA’s best when the NBA absorbed the Spurs, Nets, Nuggets, and Pacers in 1976. All Ice did was go out and lead the league in scoring in four of his first six NBA seasons.

A guaranteed bucket, Gervin’s career average of 26.2 points per game and 407 consecutive games scoring in double figures ranks him amongst the NBA elite in the record books.

A member of the Hall of Fame, the Iceman was a five-time All-NBA First Team Selection and a nine-time NBA all-star. Any way you look at it, he was a true unstoppable force.

No. 3-

Earl Monroe
Winston-Salem State University

He was Magic before Earvin Johnson.
He was the Pearl to all the white sportswriters.
And he was Black Jesus to everybody else.

It’s hard to quantify how cool Earl Monroe was in basketball terms, but we have to try.

I was an ESPN Classic guy. Especially when it came to old basketball highlights.
In the era where most players dribbled with their head down and the ball in front of them, Earl’s game was light-years ahead of his time. Whether it was dribbling behind his back, an over-under move attacking the basket or a euro-step in the lane, The Pearl reined king.

And those were just the televised games: Earl’s legend as a playground god might even surpass his Hall of Fame professional career.

The Black Jesus nickname even trickled down to Hollywood where Spike Lee named the Jesus Shuttlesworth character in He Got Game after him. As a collegian, he starred at Winston-Salem State, where he won a DII championship in 1967. Going 2nd overall in 1967 to the then-Baltimore Bullets, he went on to become a Hall of Famer in the NBA, playing 13 seasons with career averages of 18.8 points and 3.9 assists per game. 

His last season was Magic and Bird’s first.

Imagine what Earl would’ve done today in the era of three-point bombs, YouTube highlights, and Twitter beefs.

No. 2-

Scottie Pippen
Central Arkansas

No doubt Scottie deserves to be the No. 1 player on this list, but he’s not.
Do I really need to tell you who Scottie Pippen is?

Now one of the more famous athletes in any sport, he showed up at Central Arkansas in 1984, standing 6’3” and lacking the size he needed to propel his prospects for the top-tier universities.

By his senior year, however, Pippen had grown to 6’7,” averaging 23.6 points and 10 rebounds per contest. Whatever they served this man to eat, fix me a plate.

In the 1987 draft, Seattle picked him at No. 5, then shipped him and a first-rounder to Chicago for Olden Polynice, a first-round pick, and a second-round pick. Think the Sonics ever wanted that one back?

The rest, of course, is history.

Career averages of 16.1 points and 6.4 rebounds per game; six NBA championships with Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson, seven All-Star and 10 NBA All-Defensive Team selections on his resume. A starring role on the greatest basketball team ever assembled: the 1992 Olympic “Dream Team.”

A god in the basketball community.
No. 1 on everyone else’s lists, No. 2 on mine.

No. 1:

Ben Wallace
Virginia Union University

VSU, I promise I have love for you. But when it comes to basketball legacies, Union has you beat.

I’m going to keep this player’s biopic brief, because he took something dear to my heart in 2004.

This man is the reason Kobe isn’t tied with Michael, never to be forgiven.

The Fro was seen everywhere in Detroit’s Palace. Kids, grown men, it didn’t matter. Ben Wallace’s legacy is setting the precedent for small-time hoops star turned big-time NBA talent. 

As most of you know, Big Ben is a product of Virginia Union University, where he led VUU to the 1996 Final Four and a 28-3 record. As an NBA champion and four-time defensive player of the year, Ben accumulated 1,000 rebounds, 100 blocks and 100 steals in four consecutive seasons from 2001-2004 — the only player EVER to do that.

Not Kareem. Not Olajuwon.
Not David Robinson or Tim Duncan.
Not Patrick Ewing.
Not Moses Malone.
Ben Wallace, from Virginia Union University.

He’s also known to pack quite a punch, but I digress.
Between him and Oakley, them Union boys had the league shook.

To me and my generation Wallace isn’t No.1 because he was the best, but he was the most iconic.

From small-time to big-time, Wallace embodied the heart and soul it takes to play Division II hoops. The glamor and excitement isn’t there like their counterparts in Division I. There may be nights where the only people in the stands are the custodians and paramedics — even mom sent the “play hard tonight baby, can’t make this one” text.

But Wallace embodied the drive and focus it takes for Division II players to push through and achieve their dreams.

Now we’ve come back to the Freedom Classic: our annual battle between Virginia State and Virginia Union.

Is there another Ben Wallace ready to shine at this year’s Freedom Classic?
There’s only one way to find out: join us in Petersburg on January 19th and see for yourself!