What’s the NBA’s Most Exclusive Club? Well, let’s first consider this question in the context of other sports. The Club should honor specific, noteworthy achievements, and have very few members. The Club of Golf Grand Slam Champions might qualify: a purist would argue that the only member is Bobby Jones, but with four straight Grand Slam Championships across two years, Tiger Woods might also be considered a member.
But we do know of one high-achievement club with only one member, and it’s very likely that it will contain only one until June of 2013: the Basketball Triple Gold Club. Who’s the member? Well, that’s the trivia question…but, first, we should describe the Basketball Triple Gold Club.
The Basketball Triple Gold Club consists of people who have won all three of basketball’s most prestigious tournaments: the NBA Championship, the Olympic Gold Medal, and the FIBA Basketball World Cup. It’s modeled on the Hockey Triple Gold Club, which features the winners of the Stanley Cup, the Olympic Gold Medal, and the IIHF World Championship. There are 25 members of the Hockey Triple Gold Club: nine Canadians, eight Russians, six Swedes, and two Czechs, and the hockey world does take it very seriously.
But the Hockey Triple Gold Club has a large, and unavoidable, element of bogusness to it: the IIHF World Championship resembles college basketball’s NIT more than anything else. It’s held annually, and it is held at the same time as the Stanley Cup playoffs. As a result, it features mostly players who couldn’t make the NHL, or whose teams missed the playoffs, and occasionally a few stars whose teams got knocked out in the first round. Players whose teams perennially go deep in the NHL playoffs are unlikely to ever participate in the IIHF World Championship, so there’s a large element of luck involved in even playing in the tournament.
The Basketball Triple Gold Club is not nearly as inherently suspect: the FIBA World Cup is held quadrennially, and doesn’t conflict with the NBA season. The world’s best could, if they wanted to, show up every fourth year to play for their country. And, typically, unless the players are Americans, they do. However, in 1998 NBA players were barred from playing in the FIBA World Cup due to that season’s NBA lockout, and in 2002 a number of NBA stars skipped the FIBA World Championships. The shocking sixth-place finish of the US in 2002 and its bronze medal in the 2004 games reinvigorated America’s commitment to international basketball, and it’s possible that the FIBA World Cup will attain the stature in basketball that the World Cup does in soccer. Barring injury, no top soccer player would miss the FIFA World Cup, and no top European player would miss the UEFA European Championship.
OK, enough suspense: who’s the guy? The sole member of the Basketball Triple Gold Club is Shaquille O’Neal, and, yes, that noise you hear in the background is Kobe Bryant‘s teeth gnashing. O’Neal won the 1994 FIBA World Championship, four NBA Championships, and an Olympic Gold Medal in 1996. Kobe has five NBA championships and an Olympic Gold from 2008, but has never been on a FIBA World Cup champion.
So who’s likely to join Shaq? The only possibility at the Olympic Games this year is Pau Gasol. Gasol has a FIBA World Championship (2006), and two NBA titles (2009, 2010, Lakers). The only other NBA/FIBA champions are Peja Stojakovic of Serbia (FIBA champions, 2002) and, recently, the Dallas Mavs (NBA champions, 2011), Lamar Odom (World Cup, 2010; NBA Champion, 2009, 2010), and Chauncey Billups (World Cup, 2010; NBA Champion, 2004). But Peja has retired and Serbia didn’t qualify for the Olympics this year, Billups is unable to play until December with a torn Achilles and Odom wasn’t named to the Olympic team.
Shaq might get company before too long, though. The US are heavy favorites in London, and if they do bring home the gold five members of the team will have both FIBA World Championships (from 2010) and Olympic Gold Medals — Kevin Love, Kevin Durant, Tyson Chandler, Russell Westbrook and Andre Iguodala; and the smart money is that an NBA title is in the future for at least some of these young and rising stars. So Shaq might have company as early as June of 2013.
The next opportunity will be at the FIBA World Cup of 2014, and a number of the game’s greatest could have a shot then, if they want it: Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, (for the latter three, Gold Medal 2008, NBA Championship 2012), to name four. Manu Ginobli has a Gold Medal (2004) and three NBA Championships (2003, 2005, 2007) to his credit, and so long as he plays Argentina has a live chance. He turn 37 in 2014, however, and has been a professional since 1995.