The Most Timeless

NBA plays

Historic NBA games and plays, ranked by YouTube views

T-mac’s 13 points in 35 seconds is the greatest-ever human feat to transpire on a basketball court.

And by greatest-ever, we mean people still watch clips of this moment, thirteen years later, marveling at its glory.

This idea facinates us: from the vault of all NBA clips, what has stood the test of time? Do Jordan highlights dominate the ‘85 - ‘96 era, overshadowing whatever feats accomplished by Bird or Magic? Do people still watch Reggie Miller’s 8 points in 9 seconds? Or Big Shot Rob’s many game-winners?

Using view counts from YouTube (provided by Google News Lab), we aggregated hundreds of thousands of videos by game and player in order to rank historic NBA moments by present-day popularity. First, let’s look at what’s viewed from the oughts.

Most-viewed: 2000 - 2009

#1T-mac’s 13 points in 33 seconds (Dec 9, 2004 - 27M views)

#2Kobe scores 81 (Jan 22, 2006 - 22M views)

#3Jordan ball fakes (Apr 7, 2003 – 9.4M views)

#4Fisher’s 0.4 second game-winner (May 13, 2004 – 7.8M views)

#5Iverson steps over Lue (Jun 6, 2001 – 6M views)

There, it’s settled: T-mac at #1. The rest of the data checks out too: Fisher’s game-winner at #4. Here’s the rest of the top 100 in a fully explorable chart with accompaying videos.

Most of these plays are already legendary, hard-coded into our brain’s NBA memory vault. But some are new to us, finding a second life on YouTube.

It’s worth watching #8 Wade’s Dunk on Varejao and #10 Nate Robinson blocks Yao. Let’s move onto the ‘90s, arguably the most divisive era for debating timelessness.

Most-viewed: 1990 - 1999

#1Jordan’s last 3 minutes as a Bull (Jun 14, 1998 - 35M views)

#2Jordan blocks Shaq in first meeting (Jan 12, 1993 - 12M views)

#3Shaq brings down the backboard (Apr 23, 1993 – 11M views)

#4Jordan’s eyes-closed free-throw (Nov 23, 1991 – 6.5M views)

#5Jordan’s “Flu Game” (Jun 11, 1997 – 6.5M views)

It's not that suprising to see Jordan’s historic moment at #1. It has more views than any other NBA moment in our dataset (i.e., it's #1, all-time, at 35M views). But the rest of the top 5 have much to be desired. The #2 play, a Jordan block on Shaq, is more symbolic than impresive. And we’re very disappointed to see Reggie’s 8 points in 9 seconds outside the top 5 (it’s #6).

More than half of the plays are Jordan highlights. Yes, the G.O.A.T. should understandly be popular on YouTube, yet we were hoping for more Barkley, Malone, or Olajuwon. It’s criminal that there’s only one Ewing highlight, and it’s him on the receiving end of a Jordan dunk (maybe rings, for historical relevance, truly do matter?)

Finally, let’s examine the ‘80s, an era with so many great moments that they were enshrined with names (i.e., “The Shot”)

Most-viewed: 1980 - 1989

#1The Shot (May 7, 1989 - 5.8M views)

#2Jordan scores 63 (Apr 20, 1986 - 3.2M views)

#3Bird steals pass for game-winner (May 26, 1987 – 2M views)

#4Bird scores 60 vs. Hawks (Mar 12, 1985 – 1.8M views)

#5Jordan’s first 40-point game (Nov 13, 1984 – 1.2M views)

Unsurprisingly, 3 of the top 5 are Jordan. Bird at #3 is satisfying, especially given the historic significance of the steal (1987 conf. playoffs, game 5).

In our research for this project, we dug up experts’ lists of top 10 plays from the ‘80s. They pointed to moments such as Ralph Sampson’s game-winner (#26), Tree Bites Man (#31), or The Sleepy Floyd Game (#42), not Jordan’s first 40-point game (#5).

That’s not to discount Jordan’s accomplishments, but we worry that other, non-Jordan feats are being overshadowed by our present-day obsession with the G.O.A.T. (or perhaps we can blame Nike’s marketing engine, which keeps him in the cultural zeitgeist).

We barely found any videos in our top 100 from pre-Jordan era (‘80 - ‘84). And we wonder how fans will remember the impact of Dr. J, Kareem, or Larry Bird when basketball history begins in 1985.

We appreciate Google Newslab for collaborating on this project and providing data to complete the analysis. The full version, all data 1980 - 2017, is here. Each graphic is also fully embeddable; just click the “embed this” link.