The best all-time dual football and basketball players

By Eric Moreno | Posted 5/30/2017

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The NBA Finals tip off this week as NFL OTAs are in full swing. The two sports, basketball and football, have always had a parallel and often symbiotic relationship. There is a long tradition of athletes playing and excelling in both sports.

There are close to two dozen current NBA and NFL players – including Matt Barnes, Nate Robinson (currently playing in Europe), Jimmy Graham and Vincent Jackson – that starred in both sports, including the current, reigning best basketball player on the planet, LeBron James.

“The thing that I miss most of all is the competition,” said James in 2009. “Just the physical play. Scoring touchdowns was the best for me. I grew up playing football, and I always loved just going out and competing.”

In recent years, James has said he dreams of one day playing a game in the NFL and has cited the toughness he cultivated during those years starring as a wide receiver St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School (Akron, Ohio) as part of the reason for his success. The King earned the attentions of Urban Meyer and Notre Dame before ultimately deciding his future lay in hoops.

While he is currently the most visible one, James is hardly the only player to have excelled on the gridiron and hard court. Here are some of the best to have ever played the games:

  • Antonio Gates. Now an all-world tight end for the Los Angeles Chargers, Antonio Gates took an unusual route to pro football immortality. Gates is one of the rare breed who did not play a down of football in college and yet has found immeasurable success in the NFL. Spending his entire career with the Bolts since being signed as an undrafted free agent out of Kent State in 2003, Gates has been named to eight Pro Bowls and to the NFL's All-Decade Team for the 2000s. His uncanny mix of athleticism and size have redefined the position. “Being 260 pounds, moving well and running the court got me noticed,” he said. He redshirted one season as a football player for Michigan State and then-head coach Nick Saban. Ultimately, he ended up at Kent State where he led the Golden Flashes to the 2002 NCAA Tournament.
  • Tony Gonzalez. Similarly to his long-time division rival, Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez also used unprecedented athleticism to help redefine the position of tight end in pro football. While starring for the Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons, Gonzalez earned 14 trips to the Pro Bowl and was also named to the NFL's All-Decade Team for the 2000s. Before all of that, Gonzalez was a multi-sport star. At Huntington Beach High School (Calif.), Gonzalez lettered in football, basketball and baseball before ultimately earning a scholarship to Cal. He played both sports until his junior year, earning All-Pac 10 honors as a tight end and helping to lead the Golden Bears to the Sweet Sixteen round of that year's NCAA Tournament. His skills hoops never faded and he even took part in some NBA Summer League action in 2002. “It was fun. I had a great time,” he said. “I was a little nervous at first, but once you go up and down [the court], it's basketball.”
  • John Havlicek. "Hondo" was one of the greatest winners in NBA history, taking home eight NBA Championships during his 17 seasons with the Boston Celtics. He was all-state in both football and basketball for his high school in Bridgeport, Ohio. “Where I grew up, you played football, basketball and baseball,” he said. “Those were the three major sports that everyone played regardless.” Even though Havlicek did not play football while attending Ohio State, his skills on the field in Ohio were legendary enough for him to be drafted by the Cleveland Browns in 1962. He was the last receiver to be cut during the preseason. Even though he was invited back to camp for years afterward, he decided to solely focus on basketball. A member of the NBA's 35th and 50th Anniversary Teams, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1984.
  • Allen Iverson. The Answer was long regarded as one of the toughest players in the NBA over the course of his 14 seasons playing for the Philadelphia 76ers, Denver Nuggets, Detroit Pistons and Memphis Grizzlies. He was the NBA's MVP in 2001 when he led the Sixers to the NBA Finals and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016. Before all of that though, Iverson was a star quarterback for the Bethel High School (Hampton, Va.).  He led both his basketball and football teams to state titles and was on his way to Notre Dame (“I loved those gold helmets,” he said.) before a well-publicized off-the-field incident derailed that opportunity. While he enjoyed a sensational basketball career, one can't help but wonder how things might have turned out for him had he pursued football.
  • Donovan McNabb. Few quarterbacks could match the success that Syracuse's Donovan McNabb put up in the early 2000s. Drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1999, McNabb would lead the team to five NFC East titles, five berths in the NFC Championship (including four in a row from 2001-2004) and a trip to Super Bowl XXXIX. Upon retiring after the 2011 season, McNabb was inducted into the Eagles Hall of Fame and had his No. 5 jersey retired by the team. Before all of that though, McNabb was an all-conference point guard for the Orange.  He walked-on to the school's hoops team and was a key reserve for the 1996 team that made it all the way to the NCAA championship game. "For us to go to the Final Four and then to make it to the national championship was shocking to a lot people,’’ he said.
  • Terrell Owens. No matter what you think of the mercurial Owens off the field, there is no denying he was one of the most gifted athletes to play pro football in the 2000s. The braggadocios T.O. played 15 years in the NFL after being drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in 1996 out of the Tennessee-Chattanooga. In the NFL, Owens would be named to six Pro Bowls and would end up ranked second all-time in receiving yards and third all-time in touchdowns. While playing for the Mocs, Owens starred not just on the football field and on the track (he was the anchor of the school's 4x100 relay team at the NCAA Championships), but on the hardwood, where he helped lead the school to an NCAA Tournament berth in 1995. He has regularly competed in celebrity basketball games over the years. “I can go one on one against anybody,” he said. “As far as the success rate, who knows?”
  • Julius Peppers. One of the most dominant pass rushers in the NFL for over a decade, Peppers' unique size, speed, and power combination – unsurprisingly – made him a dominant power forward in basketball. In pro football, playing for the Carolina Panthers, Chicago Bears, and Green Bay Packers, Peppers has gone to nine Pro Bowls, was named Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2002 and Defensive Player of the Year in 2004. When he helped lead the Panthers to a berth in Super Bowl XXXVIII, he became just the second player in history (after McNabb) to compete for a Super Bowl and in the NCAA Final Four. He did so by starring for the Tar Heels, where he counts legendary head coach Dean Smith as a great influence on him. “I used to see Coach Smith all the time,” he said. “He used to always hang around the practices, even though he wasn't the coach. He was the greatest coach of all-time in college basketball, and we learned so many things from him off the court.”
  • Pat Riley. While best known today as a championship winning head coach and executive for the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks and Miami Heat, Riley was also an outstanding athlete. While at Kentucky, he was named first team All-SEC and helped lead his team to the NCAA Finals in 1966. He was drafted by the then-San Diego Rockets of the NBA in 1967 and also by the Dallas Cowboys, even though he had not played football since high school. “I was a quarterback in high school and I was a very good quarterback,” he said. “Back then, they had a theory that basketball players could make very good defensive backs. So I actually considered playing in the NFL.” 
  • Charlie Ward. One of the great “what ifs” in sports history is the football career of 1993 Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward. While leading his Florida State Seminoles to a national championship in 1993, Ward garnered an entire trophy case-worth of honors, including the Walter Camp, Johnny Unitas, Davey O'Brien, Sullivan, and Chic Harley Awards. “I was good at all types of ball growing up,” he said. “I loved playing and I loved competition.” He decided to forgo entering the NFL Draft to pursue a career in the NBA, playing 12 seasons with the New York Knicks (whom he started for in the 1999 NBA Finals), San Antonio Spurs, and Houston Rockets. He did make his return to football by becoming a high school coach after retiring from basketball.
  • Dwyane Wade. LeBron James' former running mate with the Miami Heat also has a background as a stellar high school football player. D-Wade simultaneously starred both in basketball and as a wide receiver at Harold L. Richards High School in Oak Lawn, IL (“I played [in] high school,” he said. “I think I felt I was better than really what I probably was.”). Wade, considered one of the best athletes in the NBA, quit playing in 11th grade before attending Marquette University. He discovered that, despite his clearly evident skills in football, his passion was truly basketball. It has clearly worked out considerably well for him, as Wade – now in his first season with the Chicago Bulls – has been a 12-time All-Star, a three-time NBA Champion and won Olympic Gold in 2008.


SEE ALSO: Athletic directors and coaches need to work together to allow athletes to play multiple sports

Video: Antonio Gates playing in the NCAA Tournament