Bill Russell and the Mount Rushmore of American Sports
We lost Bill Russell on Sunday — the greatest winner in American sports history. In Bill Russell’s life, he won two high school championships, two NCAA championships, an Olympic Gold medal and 11 NBA titles, two of them as the first Black coach in American sports.
My pal Michael Schur put up this fitting tweet:
TheBillRussell @RealBillRussellAn announcement… https://t.co/KMJ7pG4R5Z
And I thought: You know what? Bill Russell is not only on the Boston Mount Rushmore, not only on NBA Mount Rushmore — he’s on the Mount Rushmore of American Sports. All of them.
And then I thought: OK, who would be on that mountain?
Here was my first stab:
That’s a pretty good mountain — I’d visit that before I’d visit the actual Mount Rushmore — but as American as baseball is, I’m not really sure the sport can have TWO players on it. I mean — no football? Football is THE American sport and has been for probably 30 or 40 years, at least.
But I’m not sure there’s a football player who has risen to the level of those four, when you consider everything about them. I mean, there’s the great Jim Brown — but there are a few issues there. Tom Brady? Joe Montana? Gale Sayers? Peyton Manning? Alan Page? Roger Staubach? All great choices, but none of them feel quite right.
What about Jim Thorpe? My friend David Maraniss’ book on Thorpe is coming out in a few days, and it’s terrific, and Thorpe represents football and baseball and the Olympics and pretty much everything else. I like him on the mountain.
Who would he replace? Let’s try him in place of Ruth and see how that looks:
That looks pretty good. I’d visit that mountain, too. But we can’t have an American Mount Rushmore without Babe Ruth, can we?
For that matter: Can the mountain really not have Michael Jordan on it? Has an American athlete ever been more renowned than MJ? Didn’t he hit the height of heights in American sports history?
Wait, what about Serena Williams? How can this mountain not have Serena Williams? Has there been a more amazing American sports story than Serena?
Of course, Ali should be on there — but should Ali really be on there more than Joe Louis? Who has meant more than Joe Louis?
Wait, what about Jesse Owens? He won gold after gold under the outstretched arm of the Nazis, for crying out loud.
How can this mountain not have Ted Williams on it? I mean: greatest hitter who ever lived AND an American hero. The man had John Glenn as his wingman.
Um, what about Tiger Woods?
Then, if we’re talking Tiger, what about Jack Nicklaus?
So, wait — no Michael Phelps? No Kareem? No Jackie Joyner-Kersee? No Willie Mays, no Henry Aaron, no Babe Didrickson-Zaharias, no Lou Gehrig, no Billie Jean King, no Roberto Clemente, no Simone Biles, none of the Sugar Rays, no Wilt Chamberlain, no Sandy Koufax, no Wilma Rudolph, no Arnold Palmer, no Pete Sampras, no Secretariat (that head would be AWESOME on a mountain), no Bobby Jones, no Magic Johnson, no …
Come on, this is impossible. You know what: Forget this. Let’s just do the Boston Rushmore like Mike first suggested.
There we go. That’s easy, right? That definitely feels right.
This Rushmore is confirmed by Mike Schur, who said he’s had this debate “so many times.” But, Mike adds: “I think you can make the argument that Papi surpassed Williams.”
Yeah, you could make that argument. Plus: Are we really leaving Larry Bird off the mountain? Has there ever been a bigger Boston sports hero than Larry Bird? Plus, we’re leaving off Yaz and Bourque and Pedro and Havlicek and Cousy and …
You know what? Four just isn’t enough.
Oh, wait a minute, I just got an email about Bill Russell from my good friend, writer John Garrity, that I want to share with you:
Okay. It’s 1970 and I’m researching a Sport Magazine feature on Dave Cowens at Red Auerbach’s Basketball Camp on Cape Cod. Russ is horsing around with his teenage son on one of the outdoor courts while occasionally looking over his shoulder at the camp kids, who are scrimmaging under the harsh guidance of college and high school coaches. The coaches, thinking that Auerbach will be impressed by their shouting and bullying, have reduced a couple of the kids to tears. After a couple of minutes, the session breaks up and everyone starts to scatter.
But not Russell. He walks over to the two most miserable kids and starts giving them rebounding tips, providing nothing but encouragement and warming them up with that delightful laugh of his. It took only five minutes for him to turn the most miserable hour of their lives into the most memorable. For that, and other reasons, I’ve always considered Bill Russell to be among the five most impressive individuals I’ve met as a journalist.
OK, forget the rest. Let’s let that be the final word. Whatever Mount Rushmore you want to talk about, Bill Russell should be on it.
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