Bill Russell had the perfect response to being left off of LeBron James’ NBA “Mount Rushmore.” Hopefully, Larry Bird has a clever quip saved up for being left off of ours.
“The Hick from French Lick” was the last cut from NESN.com’s Mount Rushmore, as voted on by members of the digital staff. This fearsome foursome is by no means definitive — it’s impossible to narrow down six-plus decades of history in four faces — but at least it includes the winningest player in league history. That’s more than James’ list could say.
This one is a no-brainer, not just for six NBA championships, five league Most Valuable Player awards, six NBA Finals MVPs, 14 All-Star Game appearances and three All-Star MVPs. More than any single player, Jordan was responsible for making the NBA a global brand and, in the process, making himself arguably the world’s most famous human being. He filled, then built on, the void left by as Magic Johnson and Bird, who deserve a good deal of credit for laying the foundation for Jordan’s explosion. Even after his underwhelming second comeback with the Washington Wizards, Jordan maintained a career scoring average above 30 points per game, and his popularity still makes millions of dollars for Nike to this day.
The greatest winner in American team sports collected 13 titles in 15 years, spanning his junior season at the University of San Francisco to his final season with the Celtics in 1969. He was the only constant in those years, as teammates like Bob Cousy, Bill Sharman, Sam Jones and John Havlicek came and went, while Russell just kept dominating. Even coach Red Auerbach eventually stepped back, ceding his spot on the bench to Russell himself in 1966. When Russell entered the league, the blocked shot wasn’t even a statistic. He made it an art form. In addition to his 11 NBA championships, Russell also won five MVP trophies, the same number as Jordan.
Well before LeBron James could complain about being a national punching bag, nobody took as much public damage for his dominance as Chamberlain. The 100-point game is shrouded in mystery and controversy, but nothing is fuzzy about the way Chamberlain challenged the game’s norms. The concepts of widening the lane, instituting goaltending and even raising the basket didn’t begin with Chamberlain, but they reached a fever pitch with his arrival. In 1961-62, he played every minute of every game, finishing with averages of 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds — one of 10 consecutive seasons in which he averaged more than 20 rebounds per game. Yet while he won five MVPs and claimed two titles with two of the greatest squads of all time (the 1967 Philadelphia 76ers and the 1972 Los Angeles Lakers), Chamberlain had the misfortune of being the greatest individual player of his era at the same time that Russell, the greatest team player ever, was patrolling the paint for the Celtics.
Separating Johnson and Bird is virtually impossible. They arrived at a time when public perception of the league was low and NBA Finals games were not even televised live. There were built-in storylines based on their race, their backgrounds and their epic showdown in the 1979 NCAA Championship game, and fans from the inner cities to middle American ate it up. Johnson came out the winner in the long run, claiming five NBA titles to Bird’s three, plus his NCAA championship at Michigan State. As his career neared an end, Johnson’s battle with HIV forced the NBA to strongly encourage awareness of the disease.