By Ray Hamill
So who would you put on a Mount Rushmore of sports?
It’s a subject I’ve brought up a few times on my weekly radio show and one that always sparks the most energetic of debates, while never ending in a consensus agreement.
The national memorial in South Dakota features giant sculptures of four of the most important ever American presidents, so a sports equivalent is limited not just by the number of stars we can include, but has to be made up of people who left a lasting legacy not just on their own individual sport but on the history of sports in general, and perhaps even beyond that.
First up, to state the obvious, there are dozens of candidates I can think of off the top of my head that I could make a case for, but alas only the very best of the very best can make the final list.
Secondly, it’s important to remember that this is not a tribute to the greatest sports stars ever, but rather the most important.
And now for the unveiling … drum roll please …
If you ask me, Ali is the first and most obvious choice for a sports Mount Rushmore, and usually the only consensus pick I hear on the subject.
Ali may not be the most talented pure boxer of all-time, but he was – and remains – the most intriguing hero the sport has ever seen, and he rarely appears any lower than No. 1 on lists of the greatest sports stars ever.
Of course, he never shied away from telling us he was the greatest, which merely served to endear him to us all the more, and when Ali took center stage – at a time when big heavyweight boxing fights were the Super Bowl of their day – the whole world watched.
I’m surprised how infrequently I hear Jackie’s name mentioned when I ask guests on my radio show who they would include on their Mount Rushmore, but I’m never surprised at how they suddenly agree when I suggest it to them.
He not only transcended the world of sports, but his legacy will be felt forever in all walks of life, and how many sports stars can truly say that?
Now it gets a little more difficult …
Whether or not you consider him the greatest golfer ever is irrelevant here. He makes the list because no one has had a bigger impact on the history of golf, and for most of his career he has simply been the most fascinating athlete on the planet.
It remains to be seen if Tiger’s multi-racial background will really have a lasting impact on who plays golf a generation from now, as everyone first proclaimed it would, but his competitive fire and unparalleled focus changed the way we view the sport forever.
He is without doubt the biggest force in the modern era of golf, and for my money the biggest sports star in the world over the past two decades.
And finally …
You can argue Jordan is not the greatest basketball player ever (although not many would), but there is no denying the legendary and iconic status he enjoys after taking the world of commercial endorsements to new and unimagined heights.
He also wasn’t too shabby on the court, where his competitive fire makes Tiger almost look tame (I said almost), and his legend was founded at crunch time, with a never-ending highlight reel of game-winning shots that never ceased to amaze us.
In regard to the way he played his chosen sport, no one else on this particular Mount Rushmore thrilled us the way MJ did.
(Just for the record, he makes the list as a basketball player, not for his inexplicable baseball pursuits.)
I particularly struggled with not including Babe Ruth, Willie Mays or Wayne Gretzky.
Of the two baseball legends, Mays is perhaps the better all-around player but Ruth was the more iconic – baseball’s greatest ever “larger than life character” – and probably more deserving of inclusion because of that.
Gretzky, great and all as “The Great One” was, is handicapped in this particular debate by the popularity of his chosen sport, and unlike the four I did end up choosing, he is rarely discussed outside of his own sport.
You could also make legitimate arguments for the likes of Joe Louis, Jerry Rice, Jim Brown, Joe Montana, Carl Lewis, Jesse Owens, Michael Phelps and perhaps even a Billie Jean King or Jim Thorpe, among a host of other legends, while Pele or Maradona – or perhaps both – would no doubt make a Mount Rushmore of worldwide sporting icons.
So who would you pick for a Mount Rushmore of sports?