LeBron James touched off this discussion when he flattered his own ego by saying he would eventually like to be on the hypothetical Mount Rushmore of basketball players, as one of the four greatest players ever. He named his selections for the current Mount Rushmore : Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the “easy three.” After hesitating, he settled on Oscar Robertson as his fourth choice, ahead of such notables as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving and Bill Russell.
Have five on Mount Rushmore. Limiting this to just four players is almost an impossible task. Since basketball is a game where a team has five players on the floor, we should start with the premise that a basketball Mount Rushmore should have five sculpted figures, a full team of starters. The real Mount Rushmore of presidents should actually have five as well, because Franklin Roosevelt is routinely ranked by historians as one of the three greatest U.S. presidents yet he is still omitted from the South Dakota site.
Three-point field goal separates eras. The three-point field goal completely revolutionized basketball. Before the trey ball came into the NBA during the 1979-80 season, offenses were designed to feed the ball into the low post. Therefore, the center was the focal point of the action and almost invariably handled the ball during each half-court possession. He could pivot directly toward the basket, dish the ball to a cutting teammate, or kick the ball back outside. But since the advent of the three-pointer, offenses now swing the ball around the perimeter, with bombers looking to launch a three-point attempt. Only when that option is stifled are other alternatives considered. Centers today are largely marginalized and there are few prominent centers remaining in the game. The 2012 U.S. Olympic male basketball team that won the gold medal did not feature one pure center on its roster.
Two Mount Basketballs. By using 1979-80 as a line of demarcation to separate two distinct eras, we are also lessening, if not eliminating, the bias against the older-era players. There is far too much attention paid to the here and now and the recent, and far too little respect shown to who and what came before. The three-point shot changed the game so radically that players from the two different eras can’t be compared to each other. So it is necessary to have two five-player Mount Rushmores, one for stars who predated the three-point line and one for those who came after it or whose careers overlapped the two eras. We can even leave Mount Rushmore for the presidents and start calling ours Mount Basketball 1 and Mount Basketball 2.
Mount Basketball 1. Sculpted on Mount Basketball 1 from the first era would be the images of Chamberlain, Robertson, Russell, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West.
We marvel at players today who score 50 points in a game. Well, imagine someone who averages 50 points a game for a whole season, as Chamberlain did during the 1961-62 season. We salute a player today who has a game where he reaches double digits in points, assists and rebounds, the mighty triple-double. Well, picture someone who averages a triple-double for an entire season, as Robertson did in that same 1961-62 campaign. Imagine someone who wins an NBA title his first year in the league, his last year in the league and nine more in between. Well, visualize Russell accomplishing that feat with the Boston Celtics, winning 11 titles in 13 years.
Mount Basketball 2. For the modern era Bird, Johnson and Jordan would be obvious choices. Abdul-Jabbar, the league’s all-time leading scorer whose career spanned both eras, would also be on Mount Basketball 2. The fifth choice would probably boil down to the following candidates: Erving, James, Moses Malone, Karl Malone or Kobe Bryant. We’ll go with Bryant based on his individual brilliance, his place high up on the all-time scoring list, and the fact that he won far more championships than the other contenders.
If each of the ten players was in his prime, at his most dominant, which of the two mythical Mount Basketball sides would win a seven-game series? Perhaps the outcome would be determined by whether the three-point shot was allowed. The answer probably depends on how old you are, and that is the very reason we needed two Mount Basketballs to begin with.