Basketball’s Mount Rushmore: There Is Only One Correct Answer

While impossible to conclude, but fun to debate, the discussion of who should be placed on basketball’s Mount Rushmore continues to be a hot-button topic.  While LeBron James is credited with starting the fire, it is the rest of the basketball fanatics who are relentless with adding the fuel.  But let’s examine the who and the why of this topic to determine a few bullet points of reference.  To begin, it must be established that to be on Rushmore you have to have the impeccable credentials that are worthy of be considered the greatest of all-time.  Not just top ten caliber which gets you into the VIP room, you have to have a placard with your name on it at the head table.  With that said, who are the candidates worthy of a seat?

In the case of LeBron James, his list consist of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Oscar Robertson.  By most accounts, LeBron’s four is solid and can be argued only to a certain degree.  The glaring omission is LBJ did not include any of the greatest centers in league history, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.  But can you fault him for this?  Think about his selections for a minute.  Each one of the guys chosen was a highly versatile player who is actually reflected in the game that LeBron displays of himself.  And if you listen to most people who give their own personal opinion of the topic, their list typically mirrors something about themselves.  Kobe Bryant has Michael, Magic, Larry, and Bill Russell.  Julius Erving has a different take: 

“I got Jerry West and Oscar Robertson in the back court – that ain’t changing. I got Elgin Baylor in the front court with Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell.  That’s my team, so that’s my Mount Rushmore. Y’all can decide whether it’s four or five [players], or whatever. But I’ve been claiming that five for 45-years plus.”

So is there a right answer?  Is there even a majority vote to claim a possible consensus?  Absolutely not.  The opinions will always vary depending on who you ask and the time you ask them.  To throw even more gasoline on the fire, I will throw in my take on who I believe deserves to be chiseled in granite.

Without question, the only player that makes 95% of just about everyone’s list is Michael Jordan.  There is not much that is needed to be said concerning the greatest player in the history of the game (no matter what Dr. J says).  But after #23 is where the debate begins.  My personal view pertaining to the game of basketball is not one that is defined by the categories that most use.  Championships, MVP’s, and statistics are all tangible assets that make up approximately 90% of the argument.  However there are certain elements that I believe push a player’s greatness over the top that cannot be measured by looking in a book.  Jordan’s determination, Russell’s intelligence, Wilt’s intimidation, and Magic’s leadership are all qualities that cannot be defined.  Which in a sentence describes “my” Mount Rushmore.

Wilton Norman Chamberlain is the most dominate force to have ever entered the National Basketball Association.  Call it what you want, measure it how you like, what more can be said about a man who forced the game to change its rules because of “him.”  But despite his dominance, many will be quick to point out his lack of championships which is the sole argument as to why he is not Rushmore worthy.  Winning two titles, compared to that of his cohorts, is considered lackluster at best when making an argument for the greatest player of all time.  But hold on a second. Statistically, there is not one player in the history of the NBA that holds even half of a match to the Big Dipper.  From averaging 50 points per game during the 1961-62 season, being the league’s all-time career leader in rebounds per game (22.89), having the two highest field goal percentage seasons of all-time (68% and 73%), averaging 48.5 minutes per game (1961-62) when only 48 minutes per game are available, and most impressive never ever fouling out in his entire career.  Sure, numbers don’t always tell the story, but in the case of Wilt, I’m sorry, THEY DO!  In regards to his absence of titles, one must take into account that Chamberlain lost four game sevens to the next player on my list.  Had it not been for him we could very well be talking of Wilt as the G.O.A.T. and not Michael. 

Winning 11 championships in 13 seasons and claiming five league MVP awards says all one would need to know about Bill Russell’s qualifications to be on the mountain right?  To some Mr. Russell is the beneficiary of playing on “stacked” teams during the decade of the 1960’s with the Boston Celtics.  To those who view it from this angle, I ask that you flip the perspective and take a look from the other end.  Bill Russell did indeed have “Hall of Fame” teammates, but did one ever stop to think that it was HE who helped to get them there versus the other way around?  You see Bob Cousy is certainly one of the greatest guards in league history, however, Russell won five championships without him.  John Havlicek is in the conversation as one of the top 20 players to ever play the game;  Russell won five championships without him.  He won multiple championships without every one of his teammates (except Sam Jones, whom he won one without, but Jones was a backup for his first four seasons).

Consider this, the 1955 Celtics had Cousy, Bill Sharman, Frank Ramsey, and Ed McCauley, FOUR hall of famers that were also coached by the legendary Red Auerbach.  They were 36-36 and finished in 3rd place in the division.  The next season, they went 39-33.  The season after that, Russell joined (and only played 48 games due to the Olympics), and they went 44-28 and won the championship. After his last title, Russell and Sam Jones retired.  The Celtics drafted Jo Jo White (future hall of famer) to replace Jones, while Hank Finkel replaced Russell.  The Celtics missed the playoffs.  

To me the argument made as to why Bill Russell shouldn’t belong on Mount Rushmore is not totally foreign but perhaps misinformed.  Many look to the record books and point out that his numbers don’t exactly stack up to Wilt, but the key to this is that the only numbers that mattered to Russell were in the win column.  It speaks volumes that in the most statistically dominated year in NBA history (1961-62) that with Wilt Chamberlain who averaged 50 points per game and Oscar Robertson who averaged an iconic triple-double that it was Bill Russell who was chosen as league MVP.  How could this happen?  Until the 1979-80 season, the players actually voted for the Most Valuable Player, and in this case selecting Russell which tells me all I need to know.

The last spot on “my” Mount Rushmore belongs to the finger-pointing, high-fiving, no-look passing Showtime King.  Simply put, no other nickname in the history of sports in more fitting than “Magic” for a player who embodied the passion for the game like Earvin Johnson.  Magic was more than just a basketball player, he was a true entertainer.  In what is often forgotten about in today’s society of sport, entertainment is what this is supposed to be about.  With five NBA championships, three league MVP’s, and a video resume that could challenge the highlight reels of anyone in the history of the game, Johnson epitomized what a floor leader truly is.  Compared to the other worthy candidates on this list, sometimes its the kid with the most likable personality and spunk that gets you to the front of the class. Magic was my favorite player growing up and still gives me goosebumps when watching old highlights of the showtime Lakers.  For years and years I waited for the next Magic, only to have a small glimpse in the form of Penny Hardaway who unfortunately fell short due to injury.  There is a reason why greatness is often never duplicated, its because it “is” true greatness.

So why didn’t Larry Bird, or Oscar Robertson, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar make “my” list?  It’s the same reason that was mentioned earlier, its a personal preference.  I admire winners, big time personalities, and I am a nerd when it comes to stats.  Therefore ‘my” Rushmore is majestic and I feel comfortable in any argument to defend my point of view.  But there is one final piece that was actually the original question of what started this debate. Is LeBron James considered to be on the brink of Rushmore status?

There is no doubt that LeBron is well on his way to basketball’s land of supremacy with the current resume that he bolsters.  With only two championships, many will categorize him in the “not enough” group.  However, his four MVP awards already have him in a class of players who are on the Rushmore short list.  If he captures the award this season, which would be the fifth time on only six years, there may need to be a contingency plan put into place for mountain construction.  But does this seal the deal, absolutely not. Although it does open up the conversation even more and will undoubtedly present the challenge of who would actually have to come down, maybe the one thing to consider is that the players who are on this monument are ultimately responsible for keeping others in the conversation off of it. 

So to answer the question of who is correct in their assessment of Basketball's Mount Rushmore…you are! There will never be a consensus answer, and it shouldn't be. 

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