So for the record, there are no actual Mount Rushmores for sports. There’s no baseball Rushmore, with Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron chiseled into some rock ledge. And there’s no mountain with Johnny Unitas next to Jim Brown. So any discussion of the Mount Rushmore of any sport is purely hypothetical, as are many sports debates.
Still, that hasn’t prevented some heated rhetoric this past week over exactly that topic in basketball. More specifically, who exactly should be on the completely fictitious Mount Rushmore of American basketball. The argument escalated when today’s top star LeBron James said his statues would include Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Oscar Robinson , which is a pretty nice list and reflective of his generational perspective on the game and its history. For all his effectiveness, someone like George Mikan doesn’t resonate with today’s athletic megastar. And for all practical purposes, LeBron’s list is also a roadmap to the league’s relevance, four stars that helped make the game what it is today. In his comments, LeBron also said that he, for sure, will be one of the four best to ever play the game. I’m not sure who that knocks off the mountain, but I’m guessing Oscar Robinson shouldn’t make long range plans. Perhaps it’s brazen, or some might suggest, arrogant to carve yourself in sporting aristocracy, but we are talking about LeBron James here, not, say, JR Smith. And in some way, his self-confidence is both honest and reflective of his job, where most of America expects that very greatness from him each and every night.
Clearly, more than a few took offense to LeBron’s analysis, for predictable reasons. Any short list is more notable for those left off than those put on. So the debate on Wilt Chamberlin, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Julius Erving, and Kobe Bryant would make easy talk radio fodder. And since few of these players would ever compete against each other in their respective prime, comparing the lot would be like deciding which snowflake is the whitest. It’s just impossible.
That didn’t stop NBA legend Bill Russell from expressing his, well, thanks, to LeBron for leaving him off the list. In a conversation with Turner’s Craig Sager, allegedly the 80 year old Celtics icon Russell reminded James that he won more championships than he has fingers, something that LeBron will never do given the current state of the league, and that basketball is a team game, not some place where divas fight for individual accolades. If that’s not the textbook definition of backhanded compliment, then I don’t know what is. I’m not sure if Russell deemed himself Rushmore worthy or not, but I can assure you he won’t visit the one James built.
This argument of sorts, which is silly beyond words, reminds us of a few constructs when it comes to sports. First, it will always be impossible to compare athletes from different generations, something Derek Jeter fans should remember over the course of this next, way-to-drawn-out season. Hypothetical matchups are just that, hypothetical. And people exist in the context of their lives and times. So even if Otto Graham was great in his day, he wouldn’t make a current NFL roster. Which leads to my second, and often overlooked point. For my money, whenever you compare athletes from years past to those of today, I’ll almost always, always take the current incarnation. In the sporting life, athletes get bigger, faster, stronger. It happens because of better training, better nutrition, and good old fashioned evolution. Sports are open to more people from more diverse backgrounds. And the fiscal incentive makes greatness that much more important. So when anyone says they’d take Jerry West as their starting guard on today’s roster, I’d ask them if they’ve watched a game in, say, the last decade. And realize we don’t have these kinds of conversations in sports like track, where the numbers remind us how much faster people are today than fifty years ago, where today’s high school stars would medal in past Olympics. It’s not so crystal in sports like basketball, where the numbers don’t tell the entire story.
That’s why LeBron is right, or as right as anyone can be. He likely will be on that fake Mount Rushmore. But it should be crafted in Play-Doh, not stone, since he too will be displaced someday by someone bigger and faster and stronger and just more evolved. That’s how it works, at least when it comes to the very real debate over a very hypothetical idea.
Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.