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Almost lifers — stars who played their entire career for a single NBA franchise until their last season

As it turns out, all five guys probably would've been better off just retiring as icons of their original teams.
Charlotte Hornets guard Tony Parker

Tony Parker

For many NBA stars, playing for a single franchise their entire career is a dream come true. There have been several players who lived the dream over the decades, with the best of them including Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Bill Russell.

The list could have had a handful more if certain legends had just retired a year earlier. But as fate had it, they opted to play one more season for a different team that drafted them for some reason. Let's take a look at them.

Tony Parker

What he meant to his original franchise

Parker is one of the foundational pieces of the San Antonio Spurs dynasty, helping the organization win four championships and earning a Finals MVP in one instance. Since he was a Gregg Popovich favorite, many expected Parker would retire with the franchise that took a flyer with him in the 2001 draft.

Why he changed teams 

Tony made the bitter decision to leave the Spurs in the 2018 offseason after rushing through his recovery period from a quadricep injury in the prior season, and then finding out that he would be the third-string point guard for the team in the 2018-19 campaign should he stay. Parker opted to head east and sign with Charlotte Hornets to play for Michael Jordan; alongside fellow Frenchman Nicolas Batum.

How it turned out for him

Despite signing a two-year contract, the 6-foot-2 retired after just one season with the Hornets, where he played just 17.9 minutes a game. It seemed that Parker and the Spurs quickly buried the hatchet as the organization retired his jersey several months into his retirement.

Karl Malone

What he meant to his original franchise

Malone helped the Utah Jazz become a perennial playoff contender after his entry to the league in the 1985 draft. Fun fact - Utah never missed the playoffs during his tenure with the franchise, even reaching two consecutive Finals in two consecutive Finals from 1997 to 1998. 

The Mailman could have been a unanimous choice for the best player ever to wear the Utah Jazz uniform. The only reason his star partner John Stockton has a case for that distinction is that Malone left the franchise in 2003.

Why he changed teams 

The superstar power forward is often mentioned in the discussion of the best ringless players. He tried to change that in the 2003-04 season by joining a star-studded Los Angeles Lakers team.

How it turned out for him

At 40 years old, Malone turned in an impressive, albeit injury-plagued, campaign for the Purple and Gold. The team failed to give the Hall of Famer an elusive championship, falling to the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 Finals. Furthermore, he engaged in an infamous feud with Kobe Bryant

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Malone retired the following campaign after being courted by a few teams, including the team that turned out to be that season's champs - the Spurs.

Hakeem Olajuwon

What he meant to his original franchise

The Houston Rockets have two championship banners in the rafters thanks to Olajuwon. A lot of stars have repped the Rockets franchise, but there is no doubt that "The Dream" is the greatest among them. 

Through 17 seasons in Houston, he displayed his loyalty to the team even when it failed to surround him with a solid supporting cast earlier in his career and accused him of faking a hamstring injury before the 1992-93 campaign. It's difficult to imagine Olajuwon in another jersey, but that happened in 2001.

Why he changed teams

Although the Rockets wanted the versatile big man to stick around in 2001, he wanted no part of a rebuild centered around Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley. Consequently, the team sent him to the Toronto Raptors for draft picks.

How it turned out for him

Toronto was one of the East's promising teams in the 2001-02 season as it featured Vince Carter. Unfortunately, the highflyer sustained a knee injury in the middle of the campaign, resulting in a first-round exit in the playoffs. Olajuwon also suffered a back injury that led to his decision to retire from playing.

George Gervin

What he meant to his original franchise 

Gervin began repping the Spurs while the team was still playing the American Basketball Association. After the ABA-NBA merger in 1976, the Iceman finally had the chance to play in the NBA. What ensued was nine straight All-Star seasons for the high-scoring wing. Before David Robinson and Tim Duncan put the Spurs on the map, Gervin was the franchise's first superstar.

Why he changed teams

In his last season (1984-85) in San Antonio, 32-year-old Gervin still averaged 21.2 points per game. However, the possibility of being relegated to the bench by new Spurs coach Cotton Fitzsimmons led to an unhappy Gervin. The four-time scoring champ missed multiple preseason workouts, resulting in a trade to the Jordan-led Chicago Bulls.

How it turned out for him

While the Bulls thought they were getting a player who could provide additional scoring punch, the move actually angered Jordan. Apparently, Gervin played a role in the freezeout game - the 1985 All-Star Game that saw several of the Association's stars attempt to ice All-Star debutant Jordan out of the match to teach him a lesson. 

Ultimately, MJ broke his foot three games into the 1985-86 campaign and played just seven games, while Gervin retired from the NBA after the season, realizing he couldn't keep up with the young stars anymore.

Dave Cowens

What he meant to his original franchise

Cowens helped usher in a new era for the Boston Celtics after Russell hung up his shoes in 1969. The 6-foot-9 center teamed up with John Havlicek and JoJo White to lead the Celts to two title runs in the 1970s. The hotheaded big man retired following the 1979-80 season, citing declining health as the reason.

Why he changed teams

Cowens felt the desire to play again in 1982. But he wanted to suit up for a different team, as Boston was already set at frontcourt with Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish. The organization acquiesced to his request and sent him to the Milwaukee Bucks.

How it turned out for him

Playing for 40 games for the Bucks, Cowens averaged a respectable 8.1 points and 6.9 rebounds per game in the 1982-83 campaign. Unfortunately, the injury bug still followed him to Milwaukee, preventing him from playing in the playoffs. Perhaps he should've stayed retired so he could be a Celtics lifer.

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