The Kevin Bacon Game for Sports: Connect Any Two Athletes That Played in the NBA, NFL, NHL, or MLB

Experiments in multimedia journalism.
Oct. 20 2013 11:55 PM

Six Degrees of Kevin Garnett

Connect any two NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLB athletes in history—even if they played different sports.

Six Degrees of
Kevin Garnett

Enter two professional basketball, baseball, hockey, or football players.

Finding connection...

Last Roster Updates — Football: 10/10/13; Hockey: 10/10/13; Basketball: 8/15/13; Baseball: 8/15/13. Connection exists if two players played on the same team in the same season. Created by @BenBlatt, Slate

One time, in college, I managed to play in a pickup basketball game against the Harlem Globetrotters. My stat line was not very impressive: four steals (against me), three blocks (against me), and two hoops (that we quickly bought at a sports shop once the Globetrotters unexpectedly accepted our challenge). In that game, I had the honor of playing against a 7-foot-7 fellow nicknamed “Tiny.” The human giant, in turn, had played with a Globetrotter named “Moose,” who went to North Korea with Dennis Rodman, who was on the 1999 Dallas Mavericks with Bruno Sundov, who played on the 2003 Cleveland Cavaliers with LeBron James. Yes, thanks to my pickup nonstardom, I'm now only four degrees of separation from LeBron James. (Unfortunately, using the same logic, I'm three degrees away from Kim Jong-un.)

All this self-centered small-worlding got me thinking about connectedness and the world of sports. If someone who has never set foot on (or even near) an NBA court is within four steps of the greatest basketball player of our generation, how connected is the rest of the league? What about the players who played in the NBA decades ago? Or those who have played professional sports in another league?

To answer this question, I built a tool to find the shortest possible connections between 50,000-plus professional baseball, basketball, football, and hockey players. (Special thanks to the amazing Sports-Reference family of sites for the thorough databases for each sport.) Two athletes are considered “connected” if they played for the same team during the same season, although due to trades and injuries it’s possible that certain “connected” athletes never shared a field of play. You can play around with the widget at the top of the page to figure out the shortest path between (almost) every pair of North American pro athletes. These athletes include: more than 4,000 basketball players, including those who played on all NBA, BAA, and ABA teams, dating back to the 1940s; more than 23,000 football players dating back to classic NFL teams of the 1920s, such as the Frankford Yellow Jackets; just under 18,000 baseball players, from the 1870s to the present day; and more than 7,000 hockey players, from the WHA and NHL, dating back to the late 1910s.

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While each game has a different historical time span, the number of “degrees” needed to cover the four major pro sports is still remarkably similar. It takes at most nine steps to connect any two men who’ve ever played professional baseball via common teammates, 10 to connect any two football players, nine for basketball, and eight for hockey. Focusing on the present era, it takes just three steps to connect any current NBA, MLB, NFL, or NHL player to any other current player in the same league. In baseball, you can use one of these three-step chains to link two of the season's best rookies.

Gerrit Cole played on the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates with ...
Jonathan Sanchez
who played on the 2009 San Francisco Giants with ...
Juan Uribe
who played on the 2013 Los Angeles Dodgers with ...
Yasiel Puig

Within each league, some players—journeymen athletes who’ve played on many teams with many different teammates—can be linked to other athletes even more readily. Kicker Billy Cundiff, who’s played for six different NFL franchises over 12 seasons, is an average of just 1.9 degrees from all other current players, earning him the title “Kevin Bacon of the NFL”—the player with the shortest average distance to his pro football contemporaries.

What’s even more remarkable is that it’s possible to connect players who didn’t even play the same sport. Cross-sport athletes like Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson are exceedingly rare, and some combinations of sports are hardly seen at all. Of these 81 athletes, all but one—Bud Grant—played baseball as one of his two pro careers, proving either that the stars of the diamond are athletic enough to master other sports or that anyone athletic enough to play basketball or football can also handle baseball.* Hockey is the opposite, as there has been just one pro hockey player who played another sport at the highest level: Jim Riley, who played in the NHL and in Major League Baseball in the 1910s and 1920s.

Adding multisport athletes adds some surprising twists to the network. It turns out that sometimes the fastest way to link players from two different sports is to go through a third sport. You can link up Tom Brady and Kevin Garnett, for instance, by going from the NFL to MLB before coming back to the NBA:

Tom Brady played on the 2000 New England Patriots with …
Chad Eaton
, who played on the 2004 Dallas Cowboys with …
Drew Henson
, who played on the 2002 New York Yankees with …
Raul Mondesi
, who played on the 2002 Toronto Blue Jays with …
Mark Hendrickson
, who played on the 1998-99 New Jersey Nets with...
Mark Davis
, who played on the 1995-96 Minnesota Timberwolves with …
Kevin Garnett

Voila—two legends of Boston sports, just six degrees apart.

Thanks to this handful of multisport athletes, no more than 12 degrees is ever needed to make one of the more than 2 billion possible connections between any two athletes from baseball, football, or basketball. An example of one of those 12-step chains:

Ben Dvorak played on the 1921 Minneapolis Marines with ...
Rube Ursella
, who played on the 1929 Minneapolis Red Jackets with ...
Bob Lundell
, who played on the 1930 Staten Island Stapletons with ...
Ken Strong
, who played on the 1947 New York Giants with ...
Frank Reagan
, who played on the 1951 Philadelphia Eagles with ...
Bud Grant
, who played on the 1949-50 Minneapolis Lakers with ...
Slater Martin
, who played on the 1956-57 New York Knicks with ...
Richie Guerin
, who played on the 1968-69 Atlanta Hawks with ...
Lou Hudson
, who played on the 1977-78 Los Angeles Lakers with ...
James Edwards
, who played on the 1992-93 Los Angeles Lakers with ...
Elden Campbell
, who played on the 2004-05 Detroit Pistons with ...
Carlos Delfino
, who played on the 2012-13 Houston Rockets with ...
Terrence Jones

Once you add in hockey players, the chains can get much longer. Since there’s only one man, Jim Riley, who’s able to serve as a cross-sport connection, it can take up to 16 degrees to connect a hockey player to anyone who ever played in the NBA, MLB, or NFL—see this chain linking Jamie Devane to Dion Waiters.

“Twelve Degrees of Separation” or “16 Degrees of Separation” is not quite as catchy as six, but it's still amazing that you can connect any two athletes who played in any of the major sports over 140 years. If you buy my original logic that I'm only four degrees away from LeBron, and we know that LeBron is no more than 12 degrees from any other player in the history of baseball, basketball, or football, does that make me at most 16 degrees from any pro? Possibly, although considering I haven't seen daylight since I started coding this project, it’s probably more accurate to say I’m living a life as far away as humanly possible from that of a professional athlete.

Update, Oct. 25: Since first posting this story, it has come to my attention that there is in fact one player who played professional hockey and professional baseball. Thanks to Jim Riley, it is now possible to connect every player from all four major sports. The maximum number of degrees needed to connect any two non-hockey players is 12. The maximum number of degrees once you start including players is 16. The piece has been updated to reflect these changes. Our database of athletes is also being updated regularly to fix errors and omissions.

Correction, Oct. 28, 2013: This article originally stated that there were 20 multisport athletes in the “Six Degrees of Kevin Garnett” database. Further research has uncovered a total of 81 multisport athletes. (Return.)

Ben Blatt is a Slate staff writer and co-author of I Don't Care if We Never Get Back. Follow him on Twitter. Email him at ben.blatt@slate.com.