The debate started, as seemingly all of them in the NBA do these days, with LeBron James. And it was flawed from the start, as seemingly most of them are. For those who missed it, James was asked in an interview with former guard Steve Smith to name his Mt. Rushmore of NBA players, which Smith defined as the best four players in league history.
He thereby turned four faces carved into the side of a mountain into a wrongheaded runaway train.
Suddenly everyone was offering a version of an NBA Mt. Rushmore. Anybody connected to the game got sucked into it. James was the first, but certainly not the last, whose grasp of basketball history was roundly criticized because he failed to pick the appropriate four names from the league's 68-year history.
The real swing-and-miss, meanwhile, had more to do with the mischaracterization of Mt. Rushmore. Had the NBA Mt. Rushmore really reflected the real Mt. Rushmore, there wouldn't have been nearly as much room for argument.
Not to go all schoolmarm or come off as critical of Smith, but he asked a trick question. The four former commanders-in-chief immortalized in South Dakota granite—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln—do not represent the greatest in the country's history, arguably not back in 1927 when they were selected and almost certainly not now.
The two men most responsible for turning Mt. Rushmore into a monument—sculptor Gutzon Borglum and South Dakotan politician Doane Robinson—chose their foursome from a list of 29, that being how many men had served as president at the time construction began. There was no great debate if they were the most worthy; the idea, as much as anything, was to honor four presidents who had helped shape the country's first 150 years and create an attraction to lure tourists to an otherwise off-the-beaten-path part of South Dakota. (Apologies if that last part seems redundant.)
Not seeing the monument in the proper light suggests that picking the four greatest players in NBA history shouldn't be that hard; I mean, after all, Borglum and Robinson did the equivalent before Google was invented, and they were so dead certain they carved the choices in stone, right?
Selecting Mt. Rushmore's NBA equivalent isn't an exact science, either, but the parameters being far more sharply defined makes it at least worth a shot.
So where to start? Well, if Borglum's NBA counterpart were in charge, there's little chance any black stars would be represented, seeing as Borglum was connected to the Ku Klux Klan. (Yes, that does put an uncomfortable twist in Smith and James unknowingly referencing his masterwork.)
Let's assume, though, that the modern-day Gutzon would be more enlightened. Regardless, the first face on the mountain would have to belong to the first true superstar in league history, the Minneapolis Lakers' George Mikan. There may have been better all-around players in his era, just as there may have been better all-around statesmen than ol' Wooden Teeth, but as the star of the newly formed NBA's first two championship teams and recognized as the Greatest Player of the first Half-Century, it all starts with the original Mr. Basketball.
Choosing the equivalent of Jefferson is more debatable. It would have to be someone who overlapped Mikan/Washington, since Jefferson served as the latter's first Secretary of State and the country's third president. Two candidates come to mind, both power forwards: Bob Pettit of the Milwaukee/St. Louis Hawks and Dolph Schayes of the Syracuse Nationals. Both won championships, both were perennial All-Stars and both are among the league's Greatest 50 Ever.
Jefferson defined the country's principles by writing the Declaration of Independence in the same way Schayes revolutionized the power forward's offensive game as a combination of drives and jumpers. Then again, Pettit is generally regarded as the better player and hails from Louisiana, which Jefferson purchased from France during his presidency. That Dolph's son, Danny, wound up playing 18 seasons in the NBA and Jefferson's only daughter to live past 25, Martha, married a future politician breaks the tie; Dolph's mug goes up next to George's.
From here, paying respect to the Mt. Rushmore timeline gets tough. Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president, is universally acclaimed as the greatest of all time and the natural parallel is the man with the most NBA championship rings, Bill Russell. Lincoln, however, is also responsible for the Emancipation Proclamation and 13th Amendment, which would make Oscar Robertson, who helped found the first players' union and fought for the first precepts of free agency, more of a kindred spirit. Russell and Robertson also played basically in the same era, which means only one should make it, if this is truly the Mt. Rushmore model. Anyone going with Russell gets no quarrel, but the Big O is my Abraham.
That leaves Teddy Roosevelt, too far removed from the others as the 26th president to equate him with the odd man out between Russell and Robertson. The ideal choice would be a player who had a cousin by the same last name who wound up actually being better, since that's how Teddy compares to Franklin D., placed by many right next to Lincoln and Washington on the presidential pyramid.
Going strictly on TR's swagger, bushy mustache and motto "Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick," Dr. Julius Erving—with his style, massive 'fro and swooping dunks that personified the aforementioned motto—is the most natural fit. As with Roosevelt, no one would put him in the top four on pure merit, but both represented a bold new attitude.
So there it is: Mikan, Schayes, Robertson, Erving. Or: Mikan, Pettit, Russell, Erving. But if we're really using Mt. Rushmore as our guide, there aren't many variations beyond those. Jordan, Magic, Bird are all Kennedy, Reagan and Clinton—highly regarded in their respective ways, but too late to be part of the South Dakota Black Hills.
LeBron, meanwhile, is still in office and therefore not yet eligible for consideration. As for his suggestion that one of the existing faces will need to be blasted off to make room for his some day, it's safe to say he wouldn't have said that if he truly understood what Mt. Rushmore represents.
A better suggestion for LeBron: Find your own Borglum. And your own damn mountain.
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Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.