Would Mount Rushmore have ever happened if the presidents themselves had been asked to choose the four worthiest heads? LeBron James was asked what four players he thought should be carved on the NBA’s version of Mount Rushmore, and the players, fans, and media haven’t shut up since.
During an upbeat All-Star break interview with NBA TV’s Steve Smith, the King casually reeled of his picks. “Easy three,” James replied, “that we talk about in our league is Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and you got Magic Johnson.”
Who would be the fourth head? LeBron threw in Oscar Robertson, but also said “I’m going to be one of the top four to ever play this game for sure.”
I have no idea how they selected the four presidential heads for Mount Rushmore, but considering they had thirty presidents to choose from when the idea was conceived in 1925—29 if you eliminate, who was in office at the time—they did a pretty god job narrowing it down to four. With professional basketball, it’s a little tougher. You’ve got at least as many candidates compressed into about a fifty-year span and a lot of potential ego-clashing.
On Tuesday, Bill Russell, who just turned eighty, chimed in. “Hey, thank you for leaving me off your Mount Rushmore,” he shot back. “I’m glad you did. Basketball is a team game. It’s not for individual honors. I won back-to-back state championships in high school, back-to-back NCAA championships in college, I won an NBA championship my first year in the league, an NBA championship in my last year, and nine in between. That, Mr. James, is etched in stone.”
But Russell failed to address two important questions. First, if basketball is a team game and not for individual honors, why did he mention all the championships that “I” won? Second, what four heads would Russell himself have chosen—or rather, what other three since we must assume he would include himself?
Possibly wishing to avoid the wrath of Russell, Kobe Bryant said that after the great Celtics center, his Rushmore would be “Magic, Bird, Michael …but it’s impossible to do four. C’mon man.” Kevin Durant, along with LeBron the leading candidate in today’s game for being immortalized in stone, went with Jordan, Magic, Bird and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Before long, the players began putting variations on their Rushmores. The Indiana Pacers Roy Hibbert picked his own “Mount Rushmore of Bigs,” naming four centers—Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, and himself . Perhaps not coincidentally, they are all former Georgetown Hoyas. Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors picked four shooters: Reggie Miller, Ray Allen, Steve Kerr, and, in an endearing gesture, his father Dell.
Luckily for Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Teddy R., there weren’t any statistics like shooting percentage and rebounds to consider. With basketball players, there’s not only a swarm of statistics that can be called into the debate but the less easily definable category of “intangibles.” What do we even mean by the greatest? The player we consider to be the “best”—and by best, the leader in individual categories or team player?—or “most historically important”?
I think most observers would agree that Michael Jordan is all of the above. A tremendous player on both sides of the ball and a five-time MVP with six championship rings, he also blazed a new trail as the marketing kind of his era. Just to make it easy, let’s go ahead and reserve a space on the Mount for Michael.
Then, let’s agree that current players—more specifically LeBron James and Kevin Durant—have to wait until their careers can be seen in a rear view mirror before we consider them for canonization.
So, if we define the modern era as the rise of the Boston Celtics in the late 1950s and the coming of Michael Jordan, who’s most worthy?
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson make a handsome pair of bookends. (We’re using “handsome” in the broadest possible sense when speaking of Bird.) They were friends, college rivals, winner of three MVP awards apiece, multi-skilled and outstanding on both offense and defense, and their entrance into the NBA in 1979 touched off a new era of prosperity for the league.
Myself, I wouldn’t take either over Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who like Jordan, has six championship rings but was named MVP six times. And for good measure, he’s the all-time scoring leader in the NBA.
What about the credentials of Mr. Russell’s favorite player. Bill Russell? Russell’s individual stats aren’t all that impressive, some of them anyway. He averaged just 15.1 points/game, but he also averaged a whopping 22.5 rebounds per contest, leading the league five times. And, as he was so quick to remind King James, basketball is a team sport, and Russell is the greatest team sports winner in American history with 11 NBA championships in 15 seasons. And though the game is a team sport I’m sure Russell didn’t stash his five MVP trophies in the attic.
But if Russell was indignant over LeBron’s selections, it might have been generous of him to put in a word for his own greatest rival. Wilt Chamberlain won “only” two championships—he had the misfortune to be at his peak with Philadelphia in the 1960s at a time when the Boston Celtics had not only Bill Russell but a roster loaded with Hall of Famers, including Sam Jones, Bob Cousy, John Havlicek.
But there is no questioning The Stilt’s individual achievements. There are great scorers in the Basketball Hall of Fame, and great rebounders, but no combination like Wilt, who led the NBA in scoring seven times and in rebounding eleven times. Over 16 seasons Chamberlains averaged—that’s averaged—31.1 points and 22 rebounds per game. We don’t know how many shots he blocked, but he blocked so many that the league started counting them for everyone.
Yes, Russell’s Celtics won the most head-to-head meeting with Chamberlain’s San Francisco Warriors and Philadelphia 76ers, but does anyone really doubt that the Celtics have won the same number of titles had Chamberlain been their center? There’s no denying Chamberlain’s impact. His 100-point game in 1962 is probably the single most remarkable achievement in NBA history, drawing attention to a game at a time when the NBA was struggling to nail down a national television contract.
Let’s start our Mount Rushmore with Chamberlain and Russell, then invite Michael Jordan. Who should the fourth head be? Take your pick: Oscar Robertson, Magic, Bird, Kareem, Durant or James. Anyone you like.