As the second half of the NBA season kicks off, I want to quickly revisit one of the biggest “stories” from All Star Weekend. This isn’t about whether or not LeBron James should have played fortune teller and discussed his future place in the history of the NBA. Nor is it really about whether his projection will prove to be accurate, although I will touch on each of them. Instead, I’d like to have a look at what Mount Rushmore actually is, as a lens to reveal what the real NBA Mount Rushmore would – and always will – look like.
In case you missed it, LeBron caused a stir by declaring his belief that he will eventually be seen as one of the top four NBA players of all time – that he would end up on the NBA’s Mount Rushmore. His current view of that monument includes the faces of Jordan, Magic, Bird and the Big O, which irked many fans, as well as one of the game’s all time greats, Bill Russell.
When I first heard about the quote, I thought The King was being honest and supremely confident, as always. That doesn’t always come off as he intends, but I personally find it hard to hold it against him that he’s aiming for the proverbial stars. But after thinking more about it and reading up on one of our most recognizable national monuments, I wanted to set the record straight.
Mount Rushmore is not intended to be the “top 4 Presidents of all time.” As its creator, Gutzon Borglum, said:
“The purpose of the memorial is to communicate the founding, expansion, preservation, and unification of the United States with colossal statues of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.”
The Founder: George Mikan
Even I feel bad about leaving Bill Russell off of this list, because his impact on the game – from his playing days to this past weekend – extends so far beyond all the titles he won. But the original dominant big man and founder of the NBA’s first dynasty was George Mikan. He won seven titles in his first nine pro seasons and was named the greatest player of the first half of the century by The Associated Press. Heck, they even changed the rules to keep him from kicking everyone’s ass.
The Expander: Julius Erving
I found this to be the toughest spot to pick, because the evolution of the game has taken so many leaps and bounds over the past nearly-70 years. But if the game Dr. James Naismith created started as a small man’s game, and Mikan took the altitude up a notch, the first man to truly expand the game into the skies was Dr. J. He only won a single championship in the NBA, but his panache and athleticism changed the dynamic of the game forever.
This is a bit of a cheat, but in their role as preserving the NBA, the impacts that Earvin Johnson and Larry “Legend” had are inextricably linked. Both players fully deserve their Top 50 All Time player status on their own merits separately. But they earn this spot because their bi-coastal rivalry, which began in the 1979 NCAA Championship Game, carried the NBA to major entertainment status and primed it for future success. When they joined the league, the NBA had a variety of issues, and they played a major part in its recovery from them.
The Unifier: Michael Jordan
The GOAT’s credentials for this list go without saying, but I’ve put him in this spot as the Unifier of the NBA because everyone in the country and around the world wanted to Be Like Mike. His role as the unquestioned leader of the 1992 US Olympic Basketball team – the greatest roster ever assembled – catapulted the game onto the world stage. The subsequent and robust infusion of international talent to the NBA is a direct result of this. He’s the best ever and he also helped to make the game even better for the next generations of fans. Also, Space Jam.
So I don’t think LeBron was too far off in his current assessment of this list. The big difference of opinion I have is that he will eventually be on this mythical monument. One of the amazing things about Mount Rushmore is that it is like a time capsule that feels relevant and educational to all who take the time to consider its values. The NBA’s version should be no different. While LeBron has been historically good in his career – particularly these last few – he hasn’t really done much to change the dynamics of the game itself.
I’m sure people will disagree with some of these selections; that’s the fun of this exercise. But before the opportunity slipped away, I wanted to shine a light on the history of the game and of our country that is so often forgotten.