LONGSHOTS: A mountain over this molehill
by Dave Long
If this were an episode of Boston Legal, I would stand up and stipulate to the court that on this particular topic I am nuts.
That’s because I can honestly say I’ve never seen anyone driven more around the bend by something as silly as lists ranking the best this, or best that, in sports as it does me. It’s not quite at the same level as what Inspector Clouseau does to Chief Inspector Dreyfuss, but it’s close. And if you don’t believe me, just ask my friends Petey K and Andy Statires, who got both barrels during the SNHU basketball game on Saturday, a day after ESPN had narrowed down its top five states in the Mt. Rushmore of sports series. It made me crazy because it included Illinois (me) and include Massachusetts.
Now why would that set me off? Hard to say. On surface it’s just stupid. But what it really is is my Niagara Falls-like irritation over the culture’s love of style over substance, celebrity over production, and its utter indifference to the importance of historical perspective. So they pick the flavor of the month, or the undeserving one they’ve heard of but don’t really know that much about, over clearly better players time and again. It’s how Nolan Ryan gets picked as the top right-handed pitcher on the All-Century team by folks who heard about his seven no-hitters and have no clue his 292 losses are the second MOST in baseball history.
The main perpetrator of this is mayhem is ESPN — who I think does these things to me on purpose. In today’s case, it’s the Mount Rushmore of Sports series, which is a great idea. It has people talking and debating this topic, which is great. I just wish they’d give a tutorial beforehand for what “great” is, so voters have a better chance of not looking so stupid. The Illinois vs. Mass. thing set me off, but two others made me even crazier — although the latter helps explain how Illinois moved on.
The first was seeing Joe Namath in my hometown’s Rushmore. I like Joe, and that win in Super Bowl III was the NFL’s greatest upset, but never has one guy lived off one game in history more than he has. He wasn’t even the best QB in New York when he was playing — Fran Tarkenton was. He was 63-63 as a starter, threw 170 TD passes and 220 interceptions and completes just 50.3 percent of his passes. On my NY Rushmore of honorable mentions he’s so far back in line he’s somewhere between Iowa and Minnesota waiting to move up. The first 11 that come to mind ahead of him are Gehrig, DiMaggio, Berra, Mantle, Willis Reed, Tom Seaver, Willie Mays, Lew Alcindor, Jimmy Brown, Jackie Robinson and probably Jeff Van Gundy.
Massachusetts voters picking Bobby Orr, Ted Williams, Tom Brady and Red Auerbach for its Rushmore made me even crazier as it left out the greatest team player in the HISTORY of sports in Bill Russell. Brady over Russell is the pop culture going with the guy in the moment. Williams over him is the stats over the only one that matters — 11 titles in 13 years. I could live with Brady over Ted maybe, but not over Russell or Larry Bird for that matter. I’ve got no quarrel with Bobby Orr in the group, as he also belongs on hockey’s Mt. Rushmore, but over Russell? I mean get serious.
But seeing the Chicago group of Michael Jordan, Walter Peyton, Ernie Banks and — are you ready for this — Mike Ditka ahead of them set me off. Not that he wasn’t really great, but people are so ga-ga over Jordan, llinois would’ve gotten into the top five if he were paired with Rex Grossman, Tom Boerwinkle and Sam Giancana. But voters got it wrong there too. Ditka over George Halas — who only invented the NFL — is even worse than Brady over Russell. And you can make a case for Dick Butkus over the great Peyton, who was Ray Lewis only scary. But they were both great and I can live with either. But how about Phil Jackson over Ditka?
Anyway here’s my take for Chicago vs. Boston Rushmores:
Bobby Orr vs. Walter Peyton: Greatness vs. greatness. Peyton retired the all-time leading rusher and did it while never playing with an all-pro lineman until the twilight of his career. He blocked, caught passes and played with honor. I’ve got nothing bad to say about him, but Orr revolutionized hockey in production and artistry. He was the first defenseman to win the scoring title, he ignited an unprecedented team scoring deluge, scored the winning goal in OT for Boston’s first title since the ’30s. And because it’s much easier to do in hockey than football he transformed a moribund franchise quicker than Walter. While I get why they won’t agree with me in Chicago, I have no hesitation to give a slight edge to Orr even with the admiration I have for Peyton.
Red Auerbach vs. Mike Ditka: This is laughable. Auerbach’s organization won 16 titles in 30 years. Nine came as a coach when he had his sport’s greatest winning percentage. Dikta turned around a program that had been failing for many years to win once. And while he had the single most determined and greatest run I have ever seen as a player, that great Bears defense was together for four years and never got close again in underperforming until he was fired. Given all that. he’s also behind Coach B, Tito, Bill Parcells, Joe McCarthy and Stan Spirou. Not even close.
Ernie Banks to Ted Williams: Ernie won two MVP’s, hit .274 and 512 homers in cozy Wrigley. Ted won two MYP’s, got robbed in ‘42, hit .344 lifetime with 521 homers to right at Fenway and was the last to hit. 400. The Kid arguably is on the Mt. Rushmore of hitters, while with Mays, Aaron, Mantle and Koufax around Banks ain’t even on the Rushmore of his era. Again – not real close. Boston wins
Russell vs. Jordan: The reason Michael seemed so much better than everyone is that he didn’t play with a comparable talent. He didn’t win squat when Bird was at peak and owes getting his first title in large part to the fact that Magic and Byron Scott got hurt and missed the finals, leaving L.A. with no back court. Then Magic retired the next year. Bird had Magic. Russell had Chamberlain. I love Michael, but if you’re talking about dominating your era, Russell was just as dominant in a different way. And even if you go with Jordan as most do, it’s 1 to 1a.
So I’m taking Boston, because while Michael had the style to go with his substance, the title count was 18 to 7 in this crew, or 18 to 13 if you count Halas, and that matters most.
Dave Long can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He hosts the Absolute Sports Experience at Billy’s Sports Bar in Manchester each Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon that is broadcast live on WGAM – The Game, 1250-AM Manchester, 900-AM Nashua.