The NBA’s True Mount Rushmore
by Jack M Silverstein (@readjack)
LeBron James’ prediction that he will one day be part of an “NBA Mount Rushmore” has, not surprisingly, stirred up debate over the NBA’s greatest players. LeBron’s pre-LeBron Rushmore was Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Oscar Robertson. Kobe Bryant’s list is the same as LeBron’s though with Bill Russell in place of Oscar Robertson. Walt Frazier honored Jordan, Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Dwight Howard dropped an all centers edition with Russell, Kareem, Shaquille O’Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon.
The lists go on.
Like all of today’s basketball debates, this one has grown hard-fought, generational and ideological. One of the debate’s primary issues is that its an unfair comparison. When Mount Rushmore selections were finalized in August 1925, the U.S. had 29 presidents including the sitting Calvin Coolidge.
On the other hand, the NBA honored its 50 best players in 1997, omitted several greats (Dominique Wilkins, Bob McAdoo, Dennis Rodman, Dennis Johnson…) and has since added players such as LeBron, Tim Duncan, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, as well as a host of players who were in their NBA infancy in the spring of ’97, such as Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Jason Kidd and Steve Nash.
The bigger issue with the debate is that the mindset behind the creation of Mount Rushmore is not being taken into account. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt were not chosen because they were “the four greatest presidents.” They were chosen, according to designer Gutzon Borglum, “to commemorate the founding, growth, preservation and development of the United States.”
Borglum added: “They symbolize the principles of liberty and freedom on which the nation was founded.”
It was Borglum who convinced South Dakota historian and project conceiver Doane Robinson to use presidents rather than figures of South Dakota history (such as Lewis and Clark or Buffalo Bill), thus imbuing the monument with greater importance and hence broader appeal.
Additionally, consider the four presidents who were chosen. A 1925 list of the “greatest presidents” could have easily included John Adams (a founding father in countless respects), John Madison (“Father of the Constitution” and co-writer of the Federalist Papers), Ulysses S. Grant (led the Union army to victory) and John Quincy Adams (followed his presidency as the country’s 8th secretary of state).
Instead the selections were Washington (1st president), Jefferson (author of the Declaration of Independence), Lincoln (unifier of the Union) and Roosevelt (symbol of American western expansion and the future of the country).
Thus the four chosen presidents are actually presidential representatives who symbolize American history and American myth, the four through whom Borglum and others used to tell the country’s history from 1789 to 1925.
Bringing that back to the NBA, we want four players who are equal parts great players and mythic figures through whom the game’s history can be told and future be seen.
(Before we continue, I do think it’s worth mentioning the oddness of using Mount Rushmore for this task of determining NBA greatness, considering that the first thing either Washington or Jefferson would have done if introduced to any of the following four players is try to buy them.
It is also worth noting that the designer Borglum was a former high-ranking Klansman who retained a lifelong membership in the organization. John Adams never owning slaves probably didn’t score him any Borglum-Rushmore points.)
Okay then. Here are my four.
BILL RUSSELL as GEORGE WASHINGTON
Washington was honored largely because he was the country’s first president. It’s an important distinction. Russell was not the league’s first superstar — that honor goes to George Mikan, followed by Bob Cousy and then Bob Pettit.
But putting those guys on the NBA Rushmore would be like using Christopher Columbus or John Smith or Nathaniel Bacon to represent the region’s early days. Starting with the presidents made sense for Borglum — that’s really when the country was born — and starting with the league’s first modern and first black superstar makes sense for the same reason.
Russell shared the superstar spotlight with players such as Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson and Jerry West. However his leadership and team achievements put him over the top historically of those four. He won 11 NBA championships in 13 seasons and would have been named Finals MVP of the bulk of them had the award existed before 1969, his final season.
He coached the final two championship teams as a player-coach, the first championship-winning player-coach and the league’s first African-American coach. He was an all-star in all but his rookie season. He led the NBA in rebounding five times, finished second five times, and finished third three times. In eight seasons from 1958 to 1965 he won five MVP awards and never finished lower than third in the voting.
WILT CHAMBERLAIN as THOMAS JEFFERSON
Just as Washington and Jefferson share the responsibility of representing the country’s early days, so to do Russell and Chamberlain share the load as the league’s most important early superstars. It’s an imperfect comparison, of course — I matched Russell & Washington because they came before Wilt & TJ, but the better pairings are probably Chamberlain & Washington (flashier stats — 100 points, 1st president — and physically overpowering — Wilt was 7’1 while Washington was a military leader) along with Russell & Jefferson (more crucial all-around contributions to the league’s/nation’s launch, more cerebral, more lasting success, deeper legacy).
Regardless of how you pair them off, the point stands that Wilt Chamberlain has to be here. Remember, part of what makes Russell so special is that he beat Wilt, so you know Wilt had to be a goddamn menace. The man entered the league in 1959-60, won Rookie of the Year and MVP and led the league in points and rebounds per game.
He was an all-star in 13 of his 14 seasons, won four MVPs, two championships and one Finals MVP. He led the league in scoring his first seven seasons and won 11 rebounding titles. He scored a still league-record 100 points in a game and owns five of the top 10 scoring games of all-time.
In fact, only four players in league history have multiple 60-point games: Elgin Baylor did it four times, Kobe and Jordan five times, Wilt 32 times.
You can say what you want about Wilt loading up on stats in a less imposing era, but if its an era good enough from which to laud Bill Russell, it’s an era good enough for Wilt to dominate. He’s like Barry Bonds on steroids: What’s important is not that Bonds probably took steroids — it’s that he was AMAZING on them, and way way better than everyone else.
That’s how I feel about Wilt’s time in the NBA.
MICHAEL JORDAN as ABRAHAM LINCOLN
When Borglum and co. were selecting their presidents, the first two choices were Washington and Lincoln. Those were the ones that would get people excited about the project and give it the support it needed for completion.
In 1925, Lincoln was the unequivocal superstar president. And in 2014, no basketball player in the game’s history sits higher than Jordan. He is the one man who everybody puts on the list. And he makes it no matter the criteria: he’s on the “top 4” list and on the “historical significance” list and on the “individual talent” list and on the “best team player” list and on the “best offensive talent” list and on the “best defensive talent” list.
He’s Michael Jordan. I can stop, right?
LEBRON JAMES as THEODORE ROOSEVELT
Now that we have our top three of Russell, Chamberlain, Jordan, it’s time to select number four. And here I am going to ask that we wait until LeBron James retires to make the final selection. If he falls off the table, then honestly, I’m not sure who we put on. Maybe Mikan if you want to honor the earlier part of the league. Maybe Kareem for excellence, dominance, longevity and cultural relevance. If we could do a split statue of half Magic’s face and half Bird’s face, that might work.
But assuming he continues on his current trajectory, there is no player who sums up the modern game and the league’s future like LeBron James.
Like Russell, Wilt and Jordan, LeBron combines greatness with myth, substance with image, dominance with historical relevance. In the seven seasons since 2006-07 (what would have been his senior year of college), he has won two championships, four conference championships, four MVPs and two Finals MVPs. He’s been 1st team all-NBA six times, 1st team all-defense five times and won a scoring title. He’s led the league in modern stats such as P.E.R. (six straight) and win shares (five straight). All told he has played 11 seasons, made 10 all-star games, started 9 and won two ASG MVPs.
He is also one of three U.S. players to play in three Olympics (with Carmelo Anthony and David Robinson) and needs one more Olympics to go down in history as Team USA’s unquestioned G.O.A.T.
In an interesting statistical achievement unmatched by any of his historical peers, he has improved his field goal percentage for seven consecutive seasons, from .476 in 2007 to .484, .489, .503, .510 in his first year in Miami, .531, .565, .577.
Gripe if you want, but soon there will be no denying it: LeBron James is the NBA’s Teddy Roosevelt.
*** May 25, 2015 UPDATE ***
Kudos to nba.com for creating a make-your-own-NBA-Rushmore.