North Carolina is the birthplace of many famous faces, from comedian Zach Galifianakis to “American Idol” star Clay Aiken, but did you know that this is also the home state of many of the best athletes of all time? That’s who we’re celebrating today: the 10 biggest sports stars from North Carolina. These incredible athletes come from various sports, and many of them have done amazing things during their careers, and it all started within the state lines of North Carolina.
Many athletes were raised in North Carolina, but to choose the top 10, we at 24/7 Tempo consulted many sources, including ESPN and Bleacher Report. We also looked at local websites and publications, such as NCpedia and NC State News, among others to look at athletic records and general notoriety. There are some heavy hitters on this list, so read on and enjoy. (Click to read about the most talked-about corruption scandals in sports history.)
One of the biggest sports stars from North Carolina wasn’t born in North Carolina. Instead, he was actually born in New York City in 1963. However, Michael Jordan and his family moved to North Carolina when he was just 5 years old, so he often calls The Tar Heel State home. Once he was in North Carolina, he went to Emsley A. Laney High School in Wilmington. It was there that he really fell in love with sports, as he played basketball, football, and baseball.
Funny enough, he was first told that he was too short to play basketball. However, he wouldn’t take no for an answer, and soon, after a lot of practice and a growth spurt, he made the team and was making 40 points per game. He continued to excel in basketball throughout high school. When he graduated, he continued to amaze while playing at the college level at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. While there, he also majored in cultural geography because he one day dreamed of being a meteorologist if basketball didn’t work out.
Michael Jordan later went pro and became one of the best NBA players of all time. He spent most of his career with the Chicago Bulls and helped them win six championships. Just a few of his many other accomplishments include:
- Six-time NBA Finals MVP
- Five-time NBA Most Valuable Player
- NBA Rookie of the Year
- 1988 Defensive Player of the Year
- Three-time NBA steals leader
Jordan became a household name as he starred in commercials, gave the world Air Jordan shoes, and even starred in several films, including the beloved movie Space Jam. He’s still known as the most famous and most profitable basketball player of all time.
Another of the biggest sports stars from North Carolina is NBA legend James Worthy, who was born in Gastonia, North Carolina. He was a superstar right out of the gate when he started playing basketball at Ashbrook High School. While there, he scored over 21 points per game and led his team to a championship. Later, he attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he continued to impress as a Tar Heel and even made the cover of Sports Illustrated. He was so good that he chose not to complete his senior year and instead made himself eligible for the NBA draft in 1979.
Worthy played all of his professional career for the Los Angeles Lakers. He started off scoring more than 13 points per game, and he continued to dominate as the years went on. By the 1989 season, he was scoring over 21 points per game. He shocked the basketball world when he retired in 1991 due to injuries and because he said he was worn down after all of the efforts he made on the court during all those years. He had many accolades during his career, including:
- Three-time NBA Champion
- NBA Finals MVP
- Seven-time NBA All-Star
- Member of the NBA anniversary team
After retirement, he continued to be a big fan of the Lakers, and he even co-hosted a pre-and post-game show after each Lakers game for a while. He also worked on the coaching staff in 2015.
Even if you don’t know much about racing or NASCAR, chances are good that you know the name Dale Earnhardt. In addition to being one of the most famous racers, he is also one of the biggest sports stars from North Carolina. He was born in Kannapolis, North Carolina, as Ralph Dale Earnhardt into a racing family. His dad, Ralph, was also a driver who saw great success and won a NASCAR Sportsman Championship in 1956. Dale was so in love with the sport that the rumor is that at age 12, he snuck into his dad’s car and almost won a professional race. He was obsessed with driving and dropped out of school to pursue his dreams with his father as his teacher.
Dale started his professional career in 1975 when he competed in the 1975 World 600, and he never looked back. Almost every year after that, he competed and often won many races. Some of his many accolades include:
- 1979 Winston Cup Series Rookie of the Year
- Motorsports Hall of Fame Inductee
- NASCAR Hall of Fame
- First place in many NASCAR Cup Series races
Sadly, Earnhardt passed away during a race in 2001 after he made contact with two cars and then collided with a wall head-on. It’s a tragedy, though he died doing what he loved. His legacy lives on until this day, and his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., continues to carry on the family name while being a NASCAR star.
Chris Paul is one of the best NBA players who is still playing as of the time of this writing. He’s a great veteran player who was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, before moving to Lewisville, North Carolina, with his brother. NBA players and announcers call him “CP3,” and the reason goes all the way back to his childhood. It’s because he, his father, and his brother all have the initials C.P. His dad taught him and his brother how to play basketball, and then Paul continued to play when he attended West Forsyth High School in Clemmons, North Carolina.
He started to make a name for himself in junior year when he was scoring 25 points per game. Then, he continued to play basketball in college at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Chris Paul started his professional career in 2005, playing for the New Orleans Hornets, but that was just the first of many teams. Since then, he’s also played for the L.A. Clippers, Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder, Phoenix Suns, and currently, the Golden State Warriors. Though he has yet to bring a team to win the championship, he is a very celebrated player. A selection of his many accolades include:
- 12 NBA All-Star Game appearances
- NBA Rookie of the Year
- Five-time assists leader
- Six-time steals leader
He’s one of the greatest NBA players to ever be born in North Carolina, and he still has many years left to shine.
One of the best NFL players from North Carolina is Julius Peppers. He was born in Wilson, North Carolina, and spent most of his childhood being raised in Bailey, North Carolina. While there, he started playing football when he attended Southern Nash High School in Bailey. By the time he was a senior, he was already six-foot-five. During school, he played defensive lineman and running back and was so good that he was considered to be one of the most dangerous defensive linemen in the whole state. He stayed in North Carolina and attended college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he continued his NFL career. It’s worth noting that although he did not choose to play it professionally, Peppers was also on the basketball team and was quite good.
As a professional, he played as a member of the Carolina Panthers, Chicago Bears, and the Green Bay Packers. During his career, he gained many awards, including:
- Nine-time Pro-Bowl selection
- NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year (2002)
- Four-time First-Team All-Pro
During his career, he also had over 100 sacks, the second most forced fumbles in NFL history, and he had the second most blocked kicks in NFL history. He ended his career in 2019 with 716 total tackles.
Most fans and experts will agree that Stephen Curry is one of the best NBA players in the game today and is certainly one of the biggest sports stars from North Carolina. While he wasn’t born in North Carolina, he was raised there for most of his young life, and his name is often synonymous with the state. The reason why he moved around is because his father, Dell Curry, was also an NBA star. Dad spent most of his career playing for the Charlotte Hornets, and so he lived in the area. Steph Curry attended Charlotte Christian School and played basketball there.
Steph Curry is also famous for playing basketball at Davidson College, where he was amazed from day one and helped the team get their first NCAA win since 1969. Since he joined the NBA in 2009, he’s played for the Golden State Warriors and has led them to win four championships. He’s especially well known for his three-point shooting and often makes shots from incredible distances. His many accolades include:
- Two-time NBA scoring champion
- Nine-time NBA All-Star
- Two-time NBA Most Valuable Player
- NBA Steals Leader (2016)
Curry continues to play at a high level every year. Even though he’s still in the NBA and still has many years to play, he’s considered by many to be one of the best players in history.
Daniel Jones is an up-and-coming NFL player who will one day be considered one of the biggest sports stars from North Carolina. He was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, and attended high school at Charlotte Latin School, where he scored 98 touchdowns. He attended Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. In his sophomore year, he became the starting quarterback. He did pretty well and even won Most Valuable Player during the 2019 Senior Bowl.
In 2019, Jones was drafted by the New York Giants, where he was the backup to veteran quarterback Eli Manning. Later in the season, he played as the starting QB. He’s played the role on and off in the seasons since. Overall, he does pretty well. He has a touchdown-to-interception record of 62-40. So far, he has 12,512 passing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns. Only time will tell what Daniel Jones will do but if he continues to excel, he could have a long and successful career ahead.
Another player that many in the NBA are excited about is Zion Williamson, who was born in Salisbury, North Carolina. His father played football, and his mother was a sprinter, so it wasn’t hard for Zion to become interested in sports, too. After his parent’s divorce, he moved to South Carolina, but he returned when he was recruited by Duke to play college basketball. He began impressing with his scoring ability right off of the bat. During his college career, he won ACC Athlete of the Year and ACC Player of the Year.
In 2019, Zion was drafted by the New Orleans Pelicans, where he still currently plays. During his 2021 season, he tied the record for longest streak of 20 points or more per game with 50 percent shooting. Zion has dealt with some injuries during the years and has missed a lot of games, but he’s still a dominant force on the court. Most recently, he returned from injury during a game on November 29, 2023, where he scored 33 points, and had six steals, eight rebounds, and three steals. It shows that the future is bright.
John Wall is another one of the best NBA players from North Carolina, and he was born there in 1990. He had a bit of a tough childhood with the incarceration and death of his father, issues with his brother, and a mother who had to work several jobs to make ends meet. It was tough, and Wall often acted out as a child. Still, he attended Garner Magnet High School in Garner, North Carolina, and then Word of God Christian Academy. He played basketball at both, and during the process, he reformed his attitude for the better. He then played college basketball at the University of Kentucky.
Since he joined the NBA in 2010, Wall has played for the Washington Wizards, Houston Rockets, and Los Angeles Clippers. He’s done pretty well and is considered to be one of the better players in the NBA, but he does deal with injuries that often take him out of the game. He’s had surgery on both knees, among other operations. However, he’s also known as one of the NBA’s fastest players to play the game, and he is a five-time NBA All-Star, among other accolades.
In addition to being one of the biggest sports stars from North Carolina, Bruce Matthews is also considered to be one of the most highly versatile players to ever grace the NFL. He was born in Raleigh, North Carolina. His father, Clay Matthews Sr, was a defensive lineman for the NFL team, the San Francisco 49ers, so football was in his blood. His family moved to California when he was young, and he played football there as he grew up. From the beginning, people could tell that Bruce would do well on both the defensive and offensive sides of the ball and that would define his career.
Once he got to the NFL, he did a little bit of everything. He played many games in the positions of right guard, left guard, center, right tackle, left tackle, and as the snapper for punters and field goal attempts. Bruce Matthews is a man who definitely loved the sport, and when he retired in 2001, he had played more games than any other player who wasn’t a punter or kicker. He never missed a game because of an injury, which is a feat in itself. Some of his various accolades include:
- 14-time Pro-Bowl Selection
- Bart Starr Award winner
- Seven-time First-team All-Pro
- Spot in the Texas Sports Hall of Fame
After he retired from playing, Matthews continued in the NFL as a coach. He was an offensive assistant for the Houston Texans and an offensive line coach for the Tennessee Titans. (For more football content, read about the most popular NFL head coaches.)