Holding Court: The NBA's Mount Rushmore
MANILA, Philippines - Before we start this discussion, let me issue this disclaimer: I don’t hate LeBron James. I don’t mind the success he has been enjoying the past few years, or since he won his first NBA title in 2012, which validates his claim as perhaps the greatest player of this decade thus far (let’s not just discuss the previous one, which is up for dispute between Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan). I’d also acknowledge that he may be the most athletically gifted player that ever suited up (yes, even more athletic and physically imposing than Michael Jordan) and would probably end up as one of the sport’s greatest when he’s finished.
But let me make one thing clear: He still isn’t up there or about to assume his place in the Mount Rushmore of pro basketball. For the uninitiated, Mount Rushmore is that famous mountain up there near Keystone, South Dakota where the 60-foot sculpture of the faces of four US Presidents were carved in its granite face. The memorial was created to honor the men who are generally regarded as the four greatest Presidents in American history – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.
Now, what caught our attention to make this the subject of our discussion is a recent interview by James himself (this will be shown on NBA TV on February 17 and might be available on local TV through cable) where he proclaimed that he would be up there in the NBA’s own Mount Rushmore when all is said and done.
“I’m going to be one of the top four that’s ever played this game, for sure,” LeBron declared. “And if they don’t want me to have one of those top four spots, they’d better find another spot on that mountain. Somebody’s gotta get bumped, but that’s not for me to decide. That’s for the architects. That’s for the architects to chisel somebody’s face out and put mine up there.”
Tough words out there, and that’s the audacity LeBron James has always been noted for, if not on the basketball floor, then in the interview room.
But let’s get real. Is James up there now among the top four, or, to be more specific, would he be there on the NBA’s Mount Rushmore when he’s through?
In fairness, LeBron is saying he’ll be there when the right time comes, but for now, he has picked his own top four. “I would say obviously, the easy three, that we all talk about in our league is Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and you got Magic Johnson. And I would say my fourth… this is so tough, the greatest players of all time that I would like to see on Mount Rushmore… this is not fair. You know how many great players there is? Oscar Robertson.”
James obviously skipped the greatest big men out there, and you can make a very strong case for Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, arguably the cream of the elite centers who defined that position. But whether that’s symbolic of the way James has helped transform the game into a more perimeter-oriented sport is perhaps a subject fit for another discussion.
But for purposes of defining the NBA’s Mount Rushmore, isn’t it most appropriate to put in at least the greatest big man in history up there, no matter if, at 6-feet-10 (some say 6-9) and 220 pounds, Russell is just a middlin’ big man in today’s game?
“(Russell is) the NBA’s ultimate champion and ultimate statesman,” ESPN.com’s Marc Stein says. “I know Michael Jordan is bound to be the popular pick (for the first spot on the NBA’s current Mount Rushmore), but let’s not forget Mr. Russell – small-time as the league might have seemed in his heyday – had to go head-to-head with Wilt Chamberlain to achieve all that success. Keeping Wilt off this mythical mountain gets you serious bonus points.”
“Thanks to superior speed, great leaping ability and impeccable timing, Russell revolutionized defense and controlled the game with his blocks and rebounds,” Curtis Harris of Hardwood Paroxysm says. “The Celtics center remains an underrated passer (4.3 apg) and was money in big games (try a 10-0 record in Game 7s). As a rookie in Game 7 of the 1957 finals, Russell had 19 points and 32 rebounds. In Game 7 of the 1962 finals he had a mammoth 30 points and 40 rebounds. That’s how you get 11 titles in 13 seasons.”
“Russell was the NBA’s first superduperstar, and he was the No. 1 player in history before Jordan came around,” Bleacher Report’s Adam Fromal, meanwhile, chimes in. “Championships galore were won for the Boston Celtics while he was patrolling the paint, and the biggest dynasty in the history of American professional sports thrived with Russell blocking shots and running in transition.
“Beyond that, he helped shrink the racial divide and continues to serve as an ambassador for the game. There’s a reason people listen when he talks. There’s a reason he’s treated with undeniable reverence by anyone who encounters him. There’s a reason he hands out the Finals MVP trophy every year, which just happens to be named after him.”
That, in fact, is part and parcel of being on the NBA’s Mount Rushmore: the legacy one leaves even when he’s gone, and the three other members of this elite four should necessarily possess that characteristic, too.
Jordan, of course, is a no-brainer. The most popular player in the game’s history who made it easier to transform basketball into a global game, His Airness not only personified excellence and competitiveness on the basketball floor; he also opened doors for his fellow athletes to cash in on their achievements through commercial endorsements and other money-making activities.
“He was the biggest superstar that the game has ever seen,” Fromal says. “His legacy is undeniable, and few players have ever come within sniffing distance of his greatness.”
Jordan, of course, would have been even greater to our mind had he tangled with an equal during his prime, just as Russell did with Chamberlain, and Bird and Magic did with each other during the heady ‘80s, when the Lakers and Celtics won eight of the 10 NBA titles put at stake (the Lakers won five and the Celtics three, with Philadelphia and Detroit accounting for the other two).
That in itself is one of the major reasons Johnson and Bird should get the other two slots on the NBA’s Mount Rushmore. Bird and Magic provided the game the ultimate point and counterpoint with their contrasting styles and personalities on the two most illustrious teams in league history, the Celtics and the Lakers, as they employed games whose contrast, however, was intertwined in the way they were similarly premised on unselfishness and team play, which at that point was kind of anathema in a league perceived to be selfish and too individualistic.
The duo provided fans around the world (yes, the sport turned global in their era) so many exciting and memorable moments in the ‘80s that a new period of prosperity was ushered in for the pro league. Truth is, Jordan would have had hardly anything to work with in terms of commercial appeal had Johnson and Bird not come before him and brought national, nay, global attention to the pro league with their transcendent talent and compelling personas.
“When Magic and Bird entered the league in 1979, the NBA finals were broadcast on a tape-delayed basis,” Fromal recalls. “You had to stay up until 11:30 p.m. to watch Brent Musburger call the play-by-play. The league was riddled with drug problems and attendance was sagging.
“Many like to credit David Stern with reviving the league. But where would David Stern be without Magic Johnson and Larry Bird?”
Now, the question is, could, and would LeBron James be able to debunk any of these four legends once his career is closed, and an accounting of his contributions to the game, his accomplishments and his impact is made to merit a place on the NBA’s Mount Rushmore? Since LeBron himself provided the fuel to the fire, it’s just fair that we dissect his current place and future prospect of inclusion on the self-styled immortal face of this fictitious mountaintop.
The verdict so far is not a slam dunk. Kurt Helin of ProBasketball Talk, for example, says that the jury is still out.
“We can’t accurately judge LeBron’s legacy right now,” Helin writes. “Right now he’s basically playing for that legacy (and a whole lot of cash, to be fair) – how many championships, MVPs and all of it factors in… He’s a guy that’s worked hard to improve his weaknesses (remember his jumpshot the first few years?) and has accomplished a lot. But his overall legacy? Ask me when he’s been out of the game for a few years, that’s when we’ll have perspective on all of it.”
Some, however, are of the belief that James would have difficulty breaking into that exclusive circle, rarified territory or God knows whatever way that hallowed landmark is configured. “Love his confidence. Love his ambition. Love how he just raised the bar on himself when he’s already trying to get to a fourth straight finals,” it’s Stein talking. “But I can’t see him bumping any of the aforementioned four. Let’s not forget that he also has to fully leapfrog Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar), Wilt, The Big O (Oscar Robertson) – and that likewise assumes his resume will automatically eclipse a few fairly recent successes named Shaq (Shaquille O’Neal), Kobe (Bryant) and (Tim) Duncan – to get us all scurrying for chisels.”
Fromal, however, is not that hesitant about including LeBron in the top four, at least when his career is over.
“Right now, LeBron doesn’t deserve to be featured. It really shouldn’t even be much of an argument,” Fromal explains. “Although he’s established himself as a top-10 player of all time and possesses a serious case to be considered the greatest player at his position, better even than Bird, he doesn’t have the necessary type of legacy. He hasn’t left a lasting impact on the game like Bird, Magic, Jordan and Russell each did.
“Maybe he will with a few more titles and years under his belt, but he hasn’t revitalized the game like his predecessors. He’s greatly enhanced the perception of the league, the popularity of the sport and the 24/7 nature of basketball, but that doesn’t quite live up to the men he’s trying to displace. He’ll displace one of them, though.
“Even if his impact on the sport doesn’t reach the level of the current men depicted on the hypothetical monument, he’ll exceed them as a player. Maybe not Jordan – that’s a conversation for another time – but it’s hard to imagine LeBron not retiring as one of the top three players in the sport’s history. He’s still squarely in the midst of his prime, after all, and he’s already in the top 10.”
Of course, the top-10 stuff is understandable. But top three, unless it’s about the level of athleticism where he may already be No. 1? Better than Bird? Now, that’s open to debate, and I’ll make a rebuttal to the contrary.
First of all, any star, even as talented as Jordan or LeBron, is not playing, or did not play, in a vacuum. He had to have a foil against whom his greatness could be measured. As such, that greatness has to be validated by the quality of competition he played against. Bird, for example, had to beat (yes, he did this to every opponent and then some) Hall of Famers like Julius Erving, Charles Barkley (I have to include Sir Charles since he’s one of the greatest hybrid forwards ever), Dominique Wilkins, Alex English, James Worthy, Bernard King, Adrian Dantley and Jamaal Wilkes as well as multiple All-Stars like Mark Aguirre, Kiki Vandeweghe and Bobby Jones.
Whom did LeBron compete against – and not necessarily beat particularly before he joined forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami? Well, we have Paul Pierce (not necessarily bad), Carmelo Anthony (not bad either), his heir apparent and current main competitor Kevin Durant, Tracy McGrady, Andre Iguodala, Luol Deng, Caron Butler and a fading Vince Carter, Ron Artest, Shawn Marion and Grant Hill.
Bird also competed against fellow Mount Rushmore residents Magic and MJ, arguably the greatest at their respective positions, and the degree of difficulty rises quite a bit right there. On the other hand, James spanned the eras of such all-time talents like Kobe and Duncan, and, while the Heat edged San Antonio in a seven-game barnburner in last year’s finals (he got lucky there as will be discussed later), LBJ still has to beat Kobe’s Lakers in a setting reminiscent of the Magic-Bird rivalry of yore. Now tell me who had the more formidable competition.
Toughness under pressure, the ultimate yardstick when one talks about a player’s greatness, also gives the unquestionable edge to Bird as it’s only now that LeBron is developing his ability to make winning shots in clutch situations. Larry’s ability to hit game-winning shots of any kind is legendary even as a rookie, while LeBron’s game-winning three-pointer against Golden State last February 12 was only his second (he’s just 2-for-12 in his career in go-ahead threes in the last 10 seconds of a game). He of course has more go-ahead baskets near the end of games but they’re mostly layups coming out of his unparalleled athleticism although, again, a lot of detached observers claim he often commits traveling violations while doing this without being called by the referees.
Filipino fan Buboy Bernales, for one, claims Bryant has more clutch baskets in the 2009-10 season alone than James has in 11 years. “Kobe had five game-winners either at the buzzer or within the last five seconds (that) season alone and three of them were three-pointers,” Bernales points out. “Hell, I think Joe Johnson has more game winners this season than LeBron does for his career. But hey, I guess it’s not as impressive because he’s not The King. LeBron should really thank Ray Allen every single day, because if it wasn’t for his huge Game 6 three-pointer in last year’s finals, LeBron wouldn’t have had a chance for a big Game 7, and all we’d remember is the rest of his mediocre series and his legacy would look a little different right now.”
If James can’t even beat other players in shotmaking, how can he then do the same to Bird who has made a career out of late-game heroics and is regarded as one of the top three or four shooters of all time? Bird’s superior marksmanship is borne out by career percentages of .496 from the floor and .376 from three-point range (this could have been better had those back and elbow injuries not hampered him) as well as .886 from the stripes compared to James’ .490 from the floor (which is mainly driven by his forays topped off by those slam dunks as opposed to Bird’s more difficult shots), .337 from three-point range and .747 from the line.
And while James trumps Bird by a mile in terms of athleticism, he could not hold Bird’s jocks in rebounding as the latter made up for his lack of spring and speed with tremendous smarts and anticipation, averaging 10 rebounds in his career (Larry normed 10 or more rebounds in six of his 13 years) to James’ career norm of 7.3 boards. LeBron has the edge, all right, in career assist average at this point with 6.9 to Larry’s 6.3, which is still remarkable, but make no mistake, Larry was a better passer than LeBron could ever hope to be, this being the most spectacular facet of his game along with his magnificent shooting.
LeBron’s assist numbers, just as his scoring average (27.6 ppg to Bird’s 24.3) are higher but this is simply because he dominated the ball so much as the overriding strategy of his teams was to invariably give him the ball and let him create, which is not really bad but which explains the difference in numbers.
While Larry in his time probably handled the ball no more than 40-50 percent of the time, max, James did, and still does, handle it at least 70-80 percent of the time when he is on the floor. In other words, Bird was more of a player who tried to blend in as opposed to LeBron who tried to dominate, which is not intrinsically wrong but which explains why he may have better scoring and assist averages.
Finally, being put on Mount Rushmore requires more than sheer basketball greatness. It also requires character, class and an ability to be modest and gracious. While James has matured a bit and has minimized those juvenile antics of his (remember the clutch dance and the breast beating?), he also has to learn to be more magnanimous and not have that sense of entitlement that many of today’s athletes do. After last year’s championship victory, for example, James lashed at critics who rightfully pointed to his rather inconsistent play before Game 7 against the Spurs. He also complained when media personnel gave the Defensive Player of the Year Award to Marc Gasol instead of him. Can more than 120 national media guys, the same guys who gave him a fourth MVP trophy, be wrong?
“Please continue to motivate me,” LeBron begged of his critics after last year’s finals. “I need you guys.”
Such antics, of course, are partly a function of the way LeBron was brought up, being pampered by his mom Gloria in a misplaced way of trying to compensate for his not having a father and having been surrounded by a posse of “yes” men that he has kept throughout his life. But James can still learn to be a real ambassador for the game if he gets the good sense of studying the way all-time greats like Jordan, Magic, Bird, Russell and Erving behave and speak. That's part of being your sport’s preeminent star. The huge money, after all, that you get out of the endorsements spurred by your status is an integral part of your being that model to the public.
My issue with LeBron James has always been not about his talent, which is ridiculous because he is simply the best basketball player in the world right now, with apologies to Kevin Durant. My issue with him is the way he behaves and comports himself in public, during games and after games, where he unmistakably exudes an air of arrogance that is far from what the old-school sports stars and even recent greats like Jordan did.
Sure, you can be competitive, and you can try to impose a dominating aura or sense of superiority on your opponents at any time, but it’s the fine line between that and being humble after you’ve made a great play or have won a game, a series or a championship that defines you as an athletic superstar, a great personality and a worthy role model to your millions of adoring fans – especially the young – the world over. James has to realize, no matter what Barkley once said that athletes are not supposed to be role models, that millions of impressionable young people look up to him, whether he likes it or not, and inspiring them – in his own words – to become great simply covers not only athletic prowess or sporting skills but, and this to my mind can have a telling effect on these kids, also personal behavior as well as modesty and circumspection in one’s actions and speech.
It’s good that LeBron is slowly becoming more gracious to the people around him nowadays, as he is with Fil-Am coach Erik Spoelstra whom he once hardly regarded with respect (witness that bumping incident in one of the Heat’s timeouts during their first year of incarnation with the Big Three), but he still has some ways to go in this respect. Hopefully, his personality catches up to his amazing basketball talent soon enough for him to establish himself alongside the true legends, those whose reputation not only rested on superior athletic skills but on personal values and irreproachable class.
Until he does that, I’d have to agree with Stein that it might be difficult for him to fulfill a self prophecy of joining any of Russ, MJ, Bird and Magic in that imaginary mountaintop. - Rappler.com
Bert A. Ramirez has been a freelance sportswriter/columnist since the '80s, writing mostly about the NBA and once serving as consultant and editor for Tower Sports Magazine, the longest-running locally published NBA magazine, from 1999 to 2008. He has also written columns and articles for such publications as Malaya, Sports Digest, Winners Sports Weekly, Pro Guide, Sports Weekly, Sports Flash, Sports World, Basketball Weekly and the FIBA's International Basketball, and currently writes a fortnightly column for QC Life. A former corporate manager, Bert has breathed, drank and slept sports most of his life.