Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Cities' Greatest Athletes

Atlanta: Greg Maddux. 10 postseason appearances, including 3 Pennants and a World Championship. 3 Cy Young Awards. 6 All-Star berths. A member of the 300 Win and 3,000 Strikeout clubs, and the majority of each stat was in Atlanta. Contrast this with Hank Aaron, who had the most significant part of his career -- statistically, if not culturally -- in Milwaukee.

No Falcon, Hawk, Flame or Thrasher comes close.

Baltimore: Johnny Unitas. Won 3 World Championships, made the Colts an iconic team in American sports (not just in the NFL), almost singlehandedly made the NFL a TV spectacle that day at Yankee Stadium, and not only rewrote the passing section of the NFL record book (though most of his records have been broken), but defined the position of quarterback for everyone who would come after him. If your choice for the greatest quarterback who ever lived is anyone other than Johnny U or Joe Montana, you do not understand the position.

Ahead of Brooks Robinson and Cal Ripken of the Orioles, Ray Lewis of the Ravens and Earl Monroe of the Bullets. (Also ahead of Frank Robinson of the Orioles, whose best years were split between Cincinnati and Baltimore.)

Boston: Bill Russell. 11 NBA Championships. 2 as player-coach. And he revolutionized his sport. Ted Williams of the Red Sox, Tom Brady of the Patriots and Bobby Orr of the Bruins, for all their achievements, can't match that.

Buffalo: Bruce Smith. Ahead of any of the other Bills, including O.J. Simpson, due not to O.J.'s post-football life but rather due to each man's on-field achievements. Ahead of any Sabres, including Gilbert Perrault and Dominik Hasek.

Calgary: Jarome Iginla. True, he didn't win a Stanley Cup with the Flames, but that wasn't his fault (the Flames truly were robbed in 2004). And, unlike most of the 1989 Cup winners, such as Lanny McDonald, Joe Nieuwendyk, Al MacInnis and Mike Vernon, his best years were with the Flames. I rank him ahead of all Stampeders, including Doug Flutie, who won a Grey Cup with them.

Charlotte: Steve Smith. Hard to pick one here, as the Carolina Panthers have only been to 2 Super Bowls and lost them both, and most of the Hornets' good players split their careers with other cities, including Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning. Smith caught over 800 passes for the Panthers, for over 12,000 yards, and it certainly wasn't his fault the Panthers lost Super Bowl XXXVIII to the New England Patriots.

Cam Newton? Check back in a couple of years.

Chicago: Michael Jordan. 6 NBA Championships with the Bulls, MVP of the Finals in all 6. Ernie Banks of the Cubs, Luke Appling of the White Sox, Bobby Hull of the Blackhawks, and any of several running backs and linebackers for the Bears (including Walter Payton and Dick Butkus) can't match that.

Cincinnati: Oscar Robertson. It's easy to forget that Cincy had the Royals in the NBA from 1958 to 1972. In 1961-62, The Big O averaged a triple-double for the entire season, in a league with only 8 other teams, so he was facing better teams than today's players. (This is the same year that Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50 points per game, including the 100-point game.) He held the career records for assists and steals now held by John Stockton. He's still, 42 years after his last game, 1 of the top 5 players of all time.

Ahead of Johnny Bench and any other Red, and ahead of Anthony Munoz and any other Bengal.

Cleveland: Jim Brown. 9 years in the NFL, 8 rushing titles. Retired as the league's all-time leader in rushing yardage, and in touchdowns achieved in any fashion, let alone in rushing. And he continued to hold those records for many years despite the expansion from a 12- to a 14-, then 16-game schedule. Again: Just 9 seasons.

Ahead of fellow Browns legend Otto Graham, Tris Speaker and Bob Feller of the Indians, and LeBron James of the Cavaliers.

Columbus: Rick Nash. Easily the Blue Jackets' all-time leading scorer. But in the history of his current team, the New York Rangers, he remains a footnote. And remember, this is the major leagues only, so none of the many legends of Ohio State football count here.

Dallas: Emmitt Smith. Still the NFL's all-time leading rusher. If he wasn't that good, Troy Aikman reaches no Super Bowls, instead of winning 3. Ahead of fellow Cowboys Bob Lilly, Roger Staubach and Tony Dorsett; Rangers Nolan Ryan, Ivan Rodriguez and Josh Hamilton; the Stars' Mike Modano; and Mavericks Rolando Blackmon and Dirk Nowitzki.

Denver: John Elway. The Rockies and the Nuggets have both had some nice players, such as Larry Walker and Dan Issel, respectively. But they've never had the kind of star that Elway was for the Broncos. The Avalanche had Patrick Roy for the 2nd half of his career, and Joe Sakic for most of his, and Peter Forsberg at his best. But the Broncos are the Rocky Mountain region's defining team, and Elway remains their defining player -- not Peyton Manning.

Detroit: Gordie Howe. Still the greatest hockey player ever. Don't tell me it was Gretzky. (Someday, I'll do a post explaining why.) As for other Detroit icons, Howe is ahead of fellow Red Wings Larry Aurie and Steve Yzerman; Ty Cobb, Hank Greenberg and Al Kaline of the Tigers; Doak Walker and Barry Sanders of the Lions; and Isiah Thomas of the Pistons.

Edmonton: Wayne Gretzky. True, the Eskimos have won a few Grey Cups, including 5 straight while quarterbacked by the young Warren Moon. But Gretzky not only led the Oilers to their 1st 4 Stanley Cups, he put up goal and assist totals that still make the head spin.

Houston: Hakeem Olajuwon. He led the Rockets to the city's only 2 World Championships in any sport, and that's before you consider he and Clyde Drexler led the University of Houston to 3 NCAA Final Fours. Ahead of Nolan Ryan of the Astros and Earl Campbell of the Oilers. The Texans don't have anyone approaching that level yet, and the aforementioned Gordie Howe wasn't with the WHA's Aeros long enough to be Houston's greatest sports legend.

Indianapolis: Peyton Manning. Kind of an easy choice, as he did win a title there for the Colts, and Reggie Miller didn't win one for the Pacers.

Jacksonville: Fred Taylor. Rushed for over 10,000 yards for the Jaguars.

Kansas City: George Brett. This is complicated by the appearance that the Chiefs, while having had Len Dawson, Willie Lanier and Derrick Thomas, among others, don't have one that stands out above the rest. So we go with the only man to win batting titles in 3 different decades, and is still the face of his franchise, which never reached the postseason without him until October 2014.

Of course, all those stars on the Kansas City Monarchs are there, but the Negro Leagues were about as good at keeping records as England's Premier League is at making sure it has competent referees, so we can't really be sure.

Los Angeles: Magic Johnson. Despite Dodgers like Sandy Koufax; Kings like Marcel Dionne, Gretzky and the current bunch; Marcus Allen and Howie Long during the Raiders' L.A. soujourn; and a few interesting Rams ranging from Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch to Merlin Olsen to Kevin Greene, L.A. is still a Laker town.

Throw in the fact that Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal all arguably spent their best years elsewhere, that Jerry West is now remembered mainly as an executive, and that Kobe Bryant is, well, Kobe Bryant, and it's got to be Magic.

If you count Anaheim separately, it's down to Nolan Ryan of the Angels and Teemu Selanne of the Ducks. Each was the 1st player for his team to get his uniform number retired. Ryan is iconic well beyond Southern California, but Selanne won a Stanley Cup in Anaheim.

Memphis: Pau Gasol. He's now better known as a Laker than as a Grizzly, but who else can we pick? The Grizzlies are, for the moment and for the foreseeable future, the only big-league team that Memphis has. Reggie White was a Memphis Showboat in the USFL for all of 2 seasons, just as long as Larry Csonka was a Memphis Southman in the WFL.

Miami: LeBron James. Surprise, it's not any Dolphin. That early 1970s Dolphin team was so team-oriented that no one player stood out more than the others, and when they did have one that stood out, Dan Marino, they didn't win a Super Bowl. LeBron was in Miami 4 seasons, and the Heat reached the NBA Finals all 4, winning 2 and came pretty close to making it 3. No Marlin or Panther comes close.

Milwaukee: Bart Starr. Yes, I'm counting Green Bay with Milwaukee. While the Braves had the young Hank Aaron, the older Warren Spahn, and the prime Eddie Mathews, and the Brewers had most of Robin Yount and Paul Molitor and the older Rollie Fingers, and the Bucks had the older Oscar Robertson and the young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Packers are still Wisconsin's defining team.

Why Starr, and not Don Hutson, Paul Hornung, Ray Nitschke, Brett Favre, Reggie White or Aaron Rodgers? Because Starr pulled off what is still a unique feat in NFL history: He quarterbacked 5 Championship teams. That's 1 more than Sid Luckman, Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana. Starr might be the most underappreciated player in NFL history.

UPDATE: Tom Brady has now quarterbacked 5 Super Bowl winners, but he cheated, so Starr's feat is still unique.

If you count Milwaukee separately from Green Bay, it's Hank Aaron. If the Braves had stayed in Milwaukee for Aaron's entire career, then it would be Aaron over Starr even if you did count Green Bay with Milwaukee.

Minneapolis: George Mikan. When he was on the Lakers, from 1947 to 1954 (they moved to Los Angeles in 1960), they won 5 NBA titles. All other Minnesota teams combined have won just 2 (the Twins of Kirby Puckett). No Twin (not Puckett, not Rod Carew, nor Harmon Killebrew), no Viking, no Timberwolf, no Wild layer and no North Star comes close.

Montreal: Maurice Richard. The Rocket was the Wayne Gretzky of his time, rewriting the NHL scoring records, and leading the Canadiens to 8 Stanley Cups. How big was Richard in Quebec? He died the same year as Canada's greatest Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau. Their funerals were held at the same Montreal cathedral. Guess which one had more people standing outside. He's ahead of any Expo and any Alouette.

Nashville: Eddie George. Ran for over 10,000 yards, although he didn't quite cross that barrier with the Tennessee Titans, finishing up with the Dallas Cowboys. I don't see any Predator approaching George's level.

New Orleans: Drew Brees. It's hard to pick the best player in Saints history, but he's the only quarterback to lead the Saints to win a Super Bowl. Ahead of Pete Maravich, whose best years in the NBA were in Atlanta, not in New Orleans with the Jazz.

New York: Babe Ruth. It's "greatest athletes," not "most athletic people." Ahead of Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Derek Jeter, and that's just among Yankees. Ahead of Christy Mathewson, Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson and Tom Seaver, and that's just among baseball players. Ahead of Frank Gifford, Lawrence Taylor, Joe Namath, and any other football player. Ahead of Walt Frazier, Patrick Ewing, Julius Erving and Jason Kidd, and any other basketball player. Ahead of Frank Boucher, Rod Gilbert, Mark Messier, Denis Potvin, Scott Stevens, Martin Brodeur, and any other hockey player.

There can be a debate as to who was the greatest player ever in those other sports, but the Babe was the greatest baseball player ever. If you doubt this, show me another player who was the best lefthanded pitcher in baseball and then became the best hitter in baseball. Show me a guy who spent 4 years as Randy Johnson with better hair, and then spent 16 years as Barry Bonds without steroids. Show me where Ty Cobb or Willie Mays or Bonds himself did that, and I'll step aside and say he was better than the Babe. Good luck finding such a player.

If you count New Jersey separately from New York, it's Brodeur, ahead of L.T. If you count Long Island separately from The City, it's Potvin, ahead of Dr. J, who had his most exciting days with the New York Nets, but was probably a better all-around player in Philadelphia.

Oklahoma City: Kevin Durant. In the brief time that the city has had its one and only major league team, the Thunder, he's been their best player, and along with LeBron James and maybe one other player each year, 1 of the top 3 players in the NBA.

Orlando: Shaquille O'Neal. He wasn't with the Magic for long, but he is still their biggest icon, and not just because of his physical size.

Ottawa: Cy Denneny. The all-time leading scorer for the old Senators, winning 4 Stanley Cups with them (the last in 1927, and also in 1929 with the Boston Bruins). 

Philadelphia: Wilt Chamberlain. Yes, he also starred in San Francisco and Los Angeles. But between his individual-record-setting years with the Warriors and his leading of the dominant 76ers team that took the 1967 NBA Championship, it has to be the Big Dipper, who is, over Michael Jordan and everybody else, the greatest basketball player who ever lived.

Ahead of Julius Erving of the 76ers, Chuck Bednarik of the Eagles, Bobby Clarke of the Flyers, Mike Schmidt of the Phillies, and any of the old Philadelphia Athletics.

Phoenix: Randy Johnson. A tough call, as the Big Unit was only with the Arizona Diamondbacks for 5 seasons, but 3 were Playoff seasons including the State's only World Championship thus far. No single player stands out for the Phoenix Suns, Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals or Phoenix/Arizona Coyotes.

Pittsburgh: Joe Greene. This is a really tough one. How do you choose one Pirate, between Honus Wagner and Roberto Clemente? How do you choose one Steeler, between Terry Bradshaw, Mean Joe Greene and Jerome Bettis? And once you do get it to one of each, how do you choose between them and Mario Lemieux of the Penguins?

This is how I choose: When you think of Western Pennsylvania, you think of football; when you think of the Steelers, you think of defense; and when you think of Steeler defense, you think of Mean Joe.

Portland: Bill Walton. Due to injuries, he hardly played for the Portland Trail Blazers. But for a year, from March 1977 until March 1978, he was not only healthy, but played the position of center about as well as it has ever been played in the era after Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, leading the Blazers to the NBA Championship.

His coach, Dr. Jack Ramsay -- who coached Chamberlain in Philadelphia -- said the night of the clinching, "I've never coached a better player, I've never coached a better competitor, and I've never coached a better person than Bill Walton." If it's good enough for Dr. Jack, one of the best basketball minds ever, it's good enough for me.

Raleigh: Eric Staal. If you combine the Carolina Hurricanes with their earlier incarnation as the Hartford Whalers, it's Ron Francis. But this is about individual cities, and Staal is their greatest player in Raleigh.

Sacramento: Mitch Richmond. In the long history of the team now known as the Sacramento Kings, he's probably their greatest player in their Sacramento years.

St. Louis: Stan Musial. The Rams weren't in St. Louis long enough to put up a serious challenger (not even the superb and versatile Marshall Faulk), nor were the football Cardinals before they moved to Arizona (not even the tough-as-nails safety Larry Wilson), nor were the NBA's Hawks before they moved to Atlanta (not even the original power forward, Bob Pettit).

The baseball Cards will always be The Team in St. Louis, and, while they've had icons such as Rogers Hornsby, Dizzy Dean, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Ozzie Smith, Mark McGwire and Albert Pujols, there is one that tops them all. With 4 Pennants, 3 World Championships, 3,630 hits and 24 All-Star berths, after his death, and over half a century after his final game, Stan remains The Man.

Salt Lake City: Karl Malone. A close call over his Jazz teammate John Stockton, who holds the NBA career records for assists and steals. But Malone, along with Charles Barkley, defined the position of power forward for everyone who came after.

San Antonio: Tim Duncan. Since the city has just the 1 team, the Spurs, and he's been there for all 5 of their NBA Championships, he's an easy choice.

San Diego: Tony Gwynn. Beyond his cultural importance, meaning he saved Major League Baseball in the city by leading the 1998 Pennant that got the ballot initiative to build Petco Park approved, he collected over 3,000 hits and won 8 batting titles. Maybe if Dave Winfield had stayed, it would have been him. But no other Padre, no Charger, and certainly no one from the Clippers' brief tenure in San Diego (1978-84) can match him.

San Francisco Bay Area: Joe Montana. The greatest quarterback ever, unless you still think it was Unitas (which is understandable). 4-for-4 in Super Bowls. Ahead of his 49er teammate Jerry Rice (by far the greatest receiver ever), Willie Mays of the Giants (whose most iconic years were in New York, if not his best ones), and any players from the Oakland teams (it doesn't help that the A's always seem to break up their good teams too soon) and the San Jose Sharks.

If you count Oakland separately, I suggest Rickey Henderson, ahead of Reggie Jackson, any other Athletics, any Raiders, or any Warriors. But at the rate Stephen Curry is going with the Warriors, we may have to rethink that in a couple of years.

If you count San Jose separately, well, they haven't got any Stanley Cup winners, and the 3 players they've had who are now in the Hall of Fame played a grand total of 5 seasons in San Jose. So I'm going to go with their only MVP, who will soon be their all-time leading scorer: Joe Thornton.

Seattle: Ken Griffey Jr. True, he only played the 1st half of his career (and a little at the end) for the Mariners, but who else are you going to pick? If Russell Wilson leads the Seahawks to another Super Bowl win, we'll have another legitimate candidate. But I can't pick any other Mariner over Junior, nor any other Seahawk, nor any SuperSonic.

Tampa Bay: Warren Sapp. Can't pick any other Buccaneer, or any member of the Rays or Lightning.

Toronto: Frank Mahovlich. The biggest star on the Maple Leafs' last 4 Stanley Cup winners, there's no Blue Jay, no Argonaut, and no Raptor who comes close.

Vancouver: Fred Taylor. Nicknamed Cyclone, and obviously no relation to the Fred Taylor I selected for Jacksonville, he led the Vancouver Millionaires to the city's only Stanley Cup win, in 1915. Yes, Vancouver won the Cup, but it was over 100 years ago. He had previously won the Cup in 1909 with Ottawa.

He's ahead of any Canuck, any member of the CFL's British Columbia Lions, and ahead of anyone with the Grizzlies in their 6 years as a Vancouver-based expansion team before moving to Memphis.

Washington: Sammy Baugh. This was a tough choice over Walter Johnson of the Senators, who might have been the greatest pitcher ever. But Slingin' Sam might have been the greatest all-around player in NFL history. Not only did he lead the Redskins to 5 NFL Championship Games, winning 2, but he showed the pro game what throwing the football could do. He was Unitas at a time when Unitas was a preschooler, Montana before Montana was born.

But the greatest argument for Baugh? In 1943, he led the NFL in passing yards, and interceptions made by a defensive player, and punting yardage. All in one season. Think about that: In his day, he was Peyton Manning, Richard Sherman and Shane Lechler all at the same time.

He's ahead of any Washington baseball player (even Johnson and Josh Gibson), any Washington hockey player (even Alexander Ovechkin), and any Washington basketball player (don't tell me that Michael Jordan, he was over the hill was a Wizard).

Winnipeg: Bobby Hull. Winnipeg hasn't won the Stanley Cup since the 1902 Victorias (that's even longer than Vancouver and Ottawa), but the Golden Jet -- the man for whom the WHA franchise was named -- led the original Winnipeg Jets to 4 AVCO Cup (WHA Finals), winning 3.

He might have been better with the Blackhawks, and certainly played against a lesser standard in the WHA, but he's ahead of any pioneer Winnipeg hockey player, and anyone from the CFL's Blue Bombers.

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