One of them stood 7-foot-1 and spent the whole of his career conjuring numbers that make that one appear minuscule.
One of them could take four random guys from any random playground and contend for the NBA championship.
One of them helped spread the religion of a winter sport into regions of the country that only know winter from what they see on TV.
One of them is the most important figure in the history of American sports.
Had The Sporting News endeavored to create a Mount Rushmore of sports figures covering the entire United States, it’s obvious Jackie Robinson would be on there, and one could make a strong case for any one of Wayne Gretzky, LeBron James or Wilt Chamberlain. But when the panels of various staff members assembled to debate the specific cities in which they were eligible for our 13-part TSN Rushmore series, none made the cut.
In a way, they were too good for their own good.
James spent four seasons in Miami that all ended with the Heat in the NBA Finals, two of them with championships, which matches the total for the Dolphins in their entire 56 years of existence and the Marlins in their 29 years and tripled the Heat’s total title haul. Even though his four seasons included more playoff game appearances than Alonzo Mourning in his 11 years in Miami, our panel concluded that James belonged more to NBA Nation than to South Florida and chose Zo instead.
Gretzky might have made the cut in Los Angeles, where he won one MVP award and two scoring titles, but he lost out in part because of LA’s love of the Lakers and in part because he did not bring the Stanley Cup to “the Coast”. The most significant element of the argument for Gretzky was how the geography of hockey changed following his arrival in LA in 1988, and at least in part because of it. The NHL since has expanded by 11 teams, a 52 percent increase that is the largest in established North American team sports, including eight teams in the south and west that have embraced the sport since Gretzky showed cold was cool.
He impacted the nation more so than LA, and it’s LA’s Rushmore.
Chamberlain’s dominance was taken for granted, as it so often was during his career and his lifetime. He led the NBA in scoring four times while playing in Philadelphia for the Warriors and 76ers, with averages that still seem almost cartoonish in scope: 37.6 points as a rookie, then 38.4 and finally 50.4 in his third season – THAT’S RIGHT 50 POINTS A GAME – and 33.5 after he returned as a 76er. Oh, and he led in rebounding six times while playing in Philly, never with fewer than 20 per game.
With the Sixers in the 1966-67 season, he averaged 24.1 points, 24.2 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game, and the team finished 68-13 then rolled through three straight playoff series while dropping just four games.
He did not make our Philadelphia four, even though he grew up in the city, in part because his spectacular career was shared with San Francisco and Los Angeles.
And then there is the case of Robinson, whose impact could not be confined to the city of New York or the borough of Brooklyn. Robinson was a magnificent baseball player who won both the Rookie of the Year and MVP awards, who earned MVP votes in eight of his 10 seasons, and All-Star recognition seven times. His Dodgers won the 1955 World Series and five more National League pennants.
He belongs to the nation, though, because he showed what it ought to be, what it could be if segregation ceased to be standard in particular regions of the country, in corporate America, education, politics and Hollywood. There is a good reason baseball chose to retire his No. 42 across the sport in 1997, a singular honor that should remain that way no matter how many times one hears this suggestion made for others who’ve been extraordinary.
This is a better place since Jackie was introduced to America.
Not all that it could be, but better than it was.
Should The Sporting News ever assemble a national Rushmore – yes, we already have one for presidents but this is strictly for athletes – he should be the first carved into that figurative mountain. And maybe it should be a literal one.