Top 10 Athletes From New York State
Forget Pennsylvania. Forget Ohio. Forget Florida. Forget Texas. California is the only State that can seriously challenge New York for the title of State with the best Top 10 Athletes. And while that is largely due to New York City, the rest of the State would, separately, hold its own with most States.
Honorable Mention to Jack Sharkey, the best athlete from Staten Island (Richmond County), New York City. He grew up there, but lived his adult life in Boston, and was nicknamed the Boston Gob. He was Heavyweight Champion of the World from mid-1932 to mid-1933, and was named The Ring magazine Fighter of the Year in 1932.
Honorable Mention to Bobby Thomson of Staten Island, New York City. He is famous for hitting 1 home run, but he hit 264 in his career and was a 3-time All-Star -- with that epochal 1951 season not being one of them. He was a very good player, if 2 or 3 steps below Hall of Fame quality.
Honorable Mention to Dick McGuire and Nancy Lieberman, the best athletes from Queens (Queens County), New York City. I won't call Dick the Knick, the Knickerbockers' 1st real superstar, a "wizard," because that would make Nancy, also from The Rockaways and long a candidate for the title of Greatest Women's Basketball Player Ever, a "witch." But both were magicians on the hardwood, to the point where Nancy was nicknamed "Lady Magic."
And, of course, Dick's brother was Al McGuire, an okay player as his early 1950s Knicks teammate, but better known as the coach who took Marquette University to the 1977 National Championship and was then a great color commentator on CBS college basketball broadcasts. Both McGuires, and Lieberman, are in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Honorable Mention to Whitey Ford and Phil Rizzuto of Queens, New York City. Holy cow, I would be a real huckleberry if I did this list without at least mentioning the Chairman of the Board and the Scooter.
Rizzuto, of Ridgewood, won the 1951 Babe Ruth Award as most valuable player of the World Series. Ford, of Astoria, won that one, and the later-established other Series MVP, the Sport Magazine Award. Rizzuto won 9 Pennants, Ford 11; each won 6 World Series. Each is in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium, with their numbers retired: Rizzuto 10, Ford 6.
Honorable Mention to Willie Keeler and Waite Hoyt of Brooklyn (Kings County), New York City. The 1st great Yankee hitter (and he was great well before he got to the Yankees), and the 1st pitcher to put up a Hall of Fame career based on what he did as a Yankee. (Keeler's teammates Clark Griffith and Jack Chesbro may have put themselves over the top with their Yankee tenures, but didn't make it solely with their Yankee tenures.)
Honorable Mention to Bob Cousy of Manhattan; and Lenny Wilkens, Connie Hawkins, Billy Cunningham and Chris Mullin of Brooklyn, all in the Basketball Hall of Fame. That none of these 4 hardwood legends can crack the Top 10 speaks volumes. Let the record show that Wilkens (with the 1979 Seattle SuperSonics) and Cunningham (with the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers) also coached NBA Championship teams. Mullin is now the head coach at St. John's.
Honorable Mention to Sam Perkins of Brooklyn and Vern Fleming of Queens, who, like Mullin, won the Gold Medal with the U.S. team at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, probably the best amateur basketball team of all time. Perkins was also with Michael Jordan on that team, and with Jordan and James Worthy on North Carolina's 1982 National Champions.
Fleming played at the University of Georgia, and later starred with Reggie Miller and Rik Smits on the Indiana Pacers. (Mullin didn't get to the Pacers until after Fleming left.)
Honorable Mention to Christian Laettner of Angola, Erie County. The star of Duke University's 1991 and 1992 National Champions, they retired his Number 32. He was the only college player selected for the 1992 U.S. Olympic Team in Barcelona, which also included Mullin. He is the only member of that team who's in the Hall of Fame as a member of "The Dream Team," and not in his own right. He did make 1 NBA All-Star Team, though, in 1997, while a member of the Atlanta Hawks.
Honorable Mention to George Davis of Cohoes, Albany County. A Hall of Fame shortstop at the turn of the 20th Century, he was probably the greatest athlete to come out of the State's Capital Region, including Albany, Renssalaer, Troy and Schenectady.
Honorable Mention to Carmen Basilio of Canastota, Madison County. The greatest athlete from the Syracuse area. None of the great Syrcause University running backs was actually from there. Larry Csonka was from Ohio. Jim Nance wase from Western Pennsylvania. Floyd Little was from Connecticut. Leroy Kelly was from Philadelphia. And Jim Brown, as you'll see, was from Long Island.
Basilio was twice Welterweight Champion of the World, from June 10, 1955 to March 14, 1956, and again from September 12, 1956 to September 23, 1957. He gave that title up to try to take the Middleweight Championship from Sugar Ray Robinson, and did, holding it until Robinson took it back on March 25, 1958. The Ring named him Fighter of the Year for 1957.
Honorable Mention to Ernie Davis of Elmira. He lived the 1st 12 years of his life in Pennsylvania, but the key to deciding where a great athlete qualifies is where he was trained to play his sport(s). Davis began playing football, baseball and basketball in Elmira, hence his later nickname, the Elmira Express. But that's still a long way from Syracuse.
He helped Syracuse University win the National Championship as a sophomore in 1959. In 1961, he became the 1st black winner of the Heisman Trophy. (The runner-up, Bob Ferguson of Ohio State, would also have been the 1st.)
Davis was drafted by the Washington Redskins, and thus in line to be the team's 1st black player ever, but refused to play for what he considered a racist organization. They traded him to the Cleveland Browns, where he would have been a teammate of former Syracuse start Jim Brown. But he was diagnosed with leukemia, and died in 1963.
A statue of Davis now stands on the Syracuse campus. The University made him one of the honorees when they retired Number 44, and the Browns retired Number 45 for him even though he never played a down for them. He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame. Rob Brown played him in the film The Express.
Honorable Mention to Ryan Lochte of Bristol, Ontario County. The swimmer isn't quite the greatest athlete ever to come from the Rochester area -- that honoree is forthcoming -- but he won a Gold Medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, 2 in 2008 in Beijing, 2 in 2012 in London and 1 more in 2016 at Rio de Janeiro, for a total of 8. Granted, that's 1 Olympics for Michael Phelps, but Lochte won Golds over the course of 4 Olympics, which Phelps but few other athletes have also done.
See that? A guy wins Gold Medals in 4 straight Olympics, and he doesn't make his home State's Top 10 Athletes. Let's move on.
Honorable Mention to Al Oerter of New Hyde Park, Nassau County. He attended the University of Kansas, and was the discuss thrower on their track & field team -- when their high-jumper was Wilt Chamberlain. He won the Gold Medal in the discus at the Olympics in Melbourne in 1956, in Rome in 1960, in Tokyo in 1964, and in Mexico City in 1968, setting a new Olympic record every time. He is a member of the IAAF Hall of Fame. (That's the International Association of Athletics Federations. "Athletics" is a synonym for the sport America calls "track and field.")
See that? A guy wins Gold Medals in 4 straight Olympics, and he doesn't make his home State's Top 10 Athletes. Let's move on.
Honorable Mention to Lindy Remigino of Elmhurst, Queens, New York City. He won the Gold Medal in the 100 meters at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland, making him the unofficial "world's fastest man." He won another Gold on the U.S. 4x100-meter relay team.
Honorable Mention to Art Monk of White Plains, Westchester County. Somebody had to hold the NFL's career records for receptions and receiving yards before Jerry Rice, and James Arthur Monk was that man, raising the record for receptions from 819 to 940. He also previously held the record for receptions in a season, with 106 in 1984.
He won 3 Super Bowls with the Washington Redskins, and was named to the NFL's 1980s All-Decade Team, the Washington Redskins Ring of Fame, and the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame. The Redskins don't retire numbers (except for the 33 of Sammy Baugh), but Monk's 81 has not been given out since he retired.
Honorable Mention to Vinny Testaverde of Elmont, Nassau County. He and Oerter both went to Sewanhaka High School in Floral Park. So did former NFL cornerback cornerback Lloyd Harrison and Kojak star Telly Savalas.
He won the Heisman Trophy at the University of Miami in 1986. He was a 2-time Pro Bowl quarterback. He played his 1st NFL game when Ronald Reagan was President and the biggest singer in the world was Whitney Houston, and his last when George W. Bush was President and the biggest singer in the world was Rihanna.
In between, he passed for 46,233 yards, was the last starting quarterback for the old Cleveland Browns and the 1st for the Baltimore Ravens, and got the Jets to within 30 minutes of a Super Bowl, something topped only by Joe Namath, and also matched only by Richard Todd and Mark Sanchez.
Honorable Mention to Guy Hebert of Troy, Renssalaer County. The original starting goalie for the Anaheim Ducks, he was a member of the U.S. team that won the 1996 World Cup of Hockey.
Honorable Mention to Patrick Kane of Buffalo, Erie County. The best hockey player ever to come from the Empire State, he has been dogged by controversy of his own making. But he's already a scorer of 285 goals and 752 points, a 6-time All-Star, a winner of the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL's Rookie of the Year, a winner of the Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL's Most Valuable Player, a winner of the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's leading scorer, a winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and a 3-time Stanley Cup winner with the Chicago Blackhawks, including scoring the overtime winner in Game 6 in 2010, to give the Hawks their 1st Cup in 49 years.
He's only 28, so he may have half of his career, or even more, ahead of him. Unless he does something really stupid (and, as we've seen, the potential is there), he will likely get his Number 88 retired, and be elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Honorable Mention to Bruce Jenner of Mount Kisco, Westchester County. What happened as the father/stepfather of the Kardashian sisters, and after transitioning to Caitlyn Jenner, isn't an issue here. What matters for this post is the record-setting decathlon win at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. That's 10 separate events, and the Olympic decathlon champion is traditionally considered "the world's greatest athlete."
So while he (now she) may have been a one-shot wonder, he was not, as this Epic Rap Battle of History suggested, "the most overrated athlete anyone's ever seen."
Honorable Mention to Gene Tunney of Manhattan (New York County), New York City. He famously beat Jack Dempsey to become Heavyweight Champion of the World in 1926, and beat him again to retain the title in 1927. He defended the title once more in 1928, then retired -- and, unlike every other Heavyweight Champ except Rocky Marciano, he stayed retired. Had he kept going, he might be higher on this list; but since he didn't, it speaks to his integrity. And he was only 31 -- presaging 2 others on this list.
Career record: 65-1-1. The only blots on his record were a loss and a tie to Harry Greb, who eventually became Light Heavyweight Champion. They fought 5 times, with Tunney winning 3 of them. He was named The Ring magazine's 1st Fighter of the Year, in 1928. His son, John Tunney, served California in both houses of Congress.
Honorable Mention to Hank Greenberg of Bronx (Bronx County), New York City. Before Henry Aaron was Hammerin' Hank, and before Sandy Koufax was the greatest Jewish baseball player ever, Henry Benjamin Greenberg was both of those things. He refused to play a key game in the 1934 American League Pennant race because it fell on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur. The Detroit Tigers won the Pennant anyway. This series of events made him the idol of millions, Jewish and otherwise.
A 5-time All-Star, he won 4 Pennants with the Tigers, including the 1935 and 1945 World Series. He nearly broke his idol Lou Gehrig's American League record with 183 RBIs in 1937, and nearly broke Babe Ruth's major league record with 58 home runs in 1938. He was the 1st player to win the MVP at 2 different positions: 1st base in 1935 and left field in 1940.
He was the 1st major athlete to enlist in the U.S. Army in the leadup to World War II -- before the U.S. got into the war. He was discharged in time to hit a grand slam on the last day of the 1945 season to clinch the Pennant.
He had a bad back, and wanted to retire after the 1946 season. But the Pittsburgh Pirates traded for his rights for 1947, and offered to make him the 1st $100,000-a-year player in North American team sports history. He accepted, and retired after the season.
His injury and nearly 4 years away at war limited him to 331 home runs and 1,628 hits. But he had a lifetime batting average of .313, and a huge OPS+ of 158. The Tigers retired his Number 5, and he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Later, he served as an executive with the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago White Sox, helping them build Pennant winners in 1954 and 1959, respectively. Late in life, he began playing tennis, and won an age-group tournament.
Honorable Mention to Rod Carew of Manhattan, New York City. Though born in Panama, he grew up in the Big Apple. 3,000 Hit Club, 7 batting titles, Number 29 retired by the Minnesota Twins and the team then known as the California Angels, Hall of Fame.
Honorable Mention to Harry and George Wright of Yonkers, Westchester County. Just as a pair of Wright Brothers from Ohio invented the airplane, so, too, did a pair of Wright Brothers invent professional baseball in Ohio. Harry was the manager and center fielder, and George the shortstop and best player, of the 1st openly professional team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869-70.
When that team was broken up, they moved to Boston, and founded the Boston Red Stockings, dominating the 1st pro league, the National Association, winning Pennants in 1872, 1873, 1874 and 1875. They were the 1st set of brothers who were both elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, since joined only by Paul and Lloyd Waner.
Honorable Mention to Asa Brainard of Albany, Albany County. A star pitcher in the 1860s for the Excelsior Club of Brooklyn, he inspired early pro teams to look for "our Asa," thus the claim that his name is the source of the word for a top pitcher, "ace." This led Harry Wright to sign him as the pitcher for the 1869-70 Red Stockings, lending them not just talent, but credibility.
Honorable Mention to Fred Waterman of Manhattan. A lookalike for Edgar Allan Poe, he was the 3rd baseman on those 1869-70 Red Stockings.
Honorable Mention to New York State natives who won the James E. Sullivan Memorial Award, presented by the Amateur Athletic Union to the best amateur athlete in America every year: In addition to Jenner (1976), there's been runner Leslie MacMitchell of Manhattan (1941, but World War II ruined his chance at Olympic glory), Jim Beatty of Manhattan (1962, runner of the 1st indoor sub-4-minute mile, but never ran in an Olympics), Frank Shorter of Middletown in Orange County (1972, winner of that year's Olympic marathon), Chamique Holdsclaw of Queens (1998, one of the top female basketball players of all time), Sarah Hughes of Great Neck in Nassau County (2002, Gold Medalist in figure skating in that year's Olympics), and Breanna Stewart of Syracuse (2015, women's basketball).
Honorable Mention to New York State natives who won the Honda-Broderick Cup as the nation's top female collegiate athlete: Lieberman (1978-79), Holdsclaw (1997-98), swimmer Cristina Teuscher of New Rochelle (1999-2000), and basketball player Breanna Stewart of Syracuse (the city, not the University, she went to Connecticut) in 2015-16.
Honorable Mention to Johnny Podres of Witherbee, Essex County. He pitched a shutout in Game 7 of the 1955 World Series, to earn the Brooklyn Dodgers their 1st World Championship, and was named Series MVP (both the Babe Ruth Award and the 1st-ever Sport Magazine Award), and Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated. After the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, he helped them win the World Series in 1959, 1963 and 1965, too.
Honorable Mention to Al Weis of Farmingdale, Nassau County. He won the Babe Ruth Award as most valuable player of the 1969 World Series with the Mets.
Honorable Mention to Frank Viola of East Meadow, Nassau County. He swept the World Series MVP awards for the 1987 Minnesota Twins. He and Jerry Koosman (in 1990 and 1976, respectively) are the only lefthanded pitchers to win at least 20 games in a season for the Mets.
Honorable Mention to Sarah Whalen of Greenlawn, Suffolk County. She was a member of the U.S. team that won the 1999 Women's World Cup, and were collectively named Sportspeople of the Year by Sports Illustrated.
Honorable Mention to Sue Bird of Syosset, Nassau County. A serious candidate for the title of greatest player in the history of women's basketball, she has won 2 National Championships at the University of Connecticut, 2 WNBA Championships with the Seattle Storm, and 4 Olympic Gold Medals.
Honorable Mention to these New York State natives who became star athletes at New Jersey's Rutgers University: Phil Sellers of Brooklyn, from the 1976 Final Four basketball team; Sue Wicks of Center Moriches, Suffolk County, from the 1988 Women's Final Four team; Brian Leonard of Gouverneur, St. Lawrence County, and Ray Rice, of New Rochelle, Westchester County, and the twins Devin and Jason McCourty of Nyack, Rockland County; who were a part of Rutgers' greatest football team in 2006, although Rice lost everything in one moment of madness off the field.
The McCourtys, who played at St. Joseph Regional High School in Montvale, Bergen County, New Jersey, across the State Line but just a stone's throw from Nyack, both reached the NFL. Devin, a safety, has reached 2 Pro Bowls, and has won 2 Super Bowls for the New England Patriots. Jason, a cornerback, played 8 seasons for the Cleveland Browns, and now plays for the Tennessee Titans.
And Jim Valvano of Seaford, Nassau County: While a good basketball player for Rutgers in the 1960s, it was as a coach that he made his mark.
Honorable Mention to Brian and Stephen Gionta of Rochester, who starred for the New Jersey Devils. Brian helped them win the 2003 Stanley Cup, and holds the club record for most goals in a season, 48 in 2006. Stephen hasn't been that illustrious, but he's a quality player.
Honorable Mention to these New York State natives who helped the Yankees win the World Series: Willie Randolph of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, 1977 and 1978; Allen Watson of Jamaica, Queens (1999); and Clay Bellinger of Oneonta, Otsego County (1999).
Honorable Mention to Warren Mehrtens of Jamaica, Queens, New York City. In 1946, he rode Assault to win American thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown. Two of the greatest racehorses of the 20th Century were also born in New York State, and both were still winning races past the point at which more thoroughbreds are retired (their 4-year-old season): Forego and John Henry.
Honorable Mention to Bob Kiphuth of the Buffalo "satellite city" of Tonawanda. You've probably never heard of him. From 1918 to 1959, he coached the swim team at Yale University, going 528-12 in dual meets, and winning National Championships in 1942, 1944, 1951 and 1953. He also coached the U.S. Olympic swim team a few times, served as Yale's athletic director, and published Swimming World magazine. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy made him the 1st person connected with sports to receive the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Dishonorable Mention to Manny Ramirez of Manhattan, New York City. If you didn't know he cheated, he'd be a good case for the Top 10. But he did cheat, and you do know it, so let's move on.
Alex Rodriguez isn't on this list anyway: While he was born in Manhattan, he grew up and was trained as a baseball player in Miami.
Dishonorable Mention to Joe Paterno of Brooklyn. Believe it or not, he was a quarterback at Brown University. But he went straight into coaching, so he wouldn't be on this list even if he weren't disqualified for his despicable actions (and inactions) as head coach at Penn State. Sports Illustrated may want to take that 1986 Sportsman of the Year Award back.
Now, the Top 10:
10. Abby Wambach of Pittsford, Monroe County. She is the greatest athlete from the Rochester area, regardless of gender or orientation. No soccer player, male or female, has scored more goals at the international level than her 184. She won Olympic Gold Medals in Athens in 2004 and London in 2012, and Captained the U.S. team that won the 2015 Women's World Cup.
And she may have been the 1st gay athlete to be able to publicly say, "I never felt like I was in a closet."
9. Mike Tyson of Brooklyn, New York City. Born at the same hospital as Michael Jordan (who doesn't count here, because he grew up in North Carolina), Iron Mike was the youngest Heavyweight Champion of the World ever, winning the WBC portion of it at age 20 on November 22, 1986. By August 1, 1987, he held the WBA and IBF titles as well.
On June 27, 1988, with Michael Spinks also undefeated and still recognized as champ by The Ring magazine, "The Bible of Boxing," he got in the ring, and ended the dispute as to who was "the undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World" in 91 seconds. It was at the Convention Hall (now named Boardwalk Hall) in Atlantic City, New Jersey, next-door to Trump Plaza. Donald Trump was there. If only Tyson, The Ring's Fighter of the Year in 1986 and 1988, had then gone after Trump.
But the death of his trainer and legal guardian, Constantine "Cus" D'Amato, in 1985, before Tyson could work his way up to the title, left him morally adrift. One thing led to another, and, after winning his 1st 37 fights, only 4 of them going the distance, he lost the title and then his freedom.
He regained the title in 1996 and was 45-1, but then came Evander Holyfield, and not only was Tyson exposed as a great puncher but not a great boxer, but whatever positive image he had was gone forever. He only won 5 of his last 12 fights.
In the film A Low Down Dirty Shame, which came out in 1994, before Holyfield and later Lennox Lewis exposed him, Jada Pinkett Smith says, if both men were in their prime, Tyson could have beaten Muhammad Ali. Keenen Ivory Wayans tells her, "Mike Tyson can't spell Muhammad Ali!"
Honorable Mention to Floyd Patterson of Brooklyn, New York City, the 1st Heavyweight Champion trained by Cus D'Amato, also of Brooklyn: Floyd Patterson. Holding the title from 1957 to 1959, he became the 1st man to lose it and regain it, holding it again from 1960 to 1962. He also won an Olympic title in 1952. The Ring named him Fighter of the Year in 1956 and 1960.
Honorable Mention to Riddick Bowe of Brooklyn, New York City. Heavyweight Champion for a year from late 1992 to late 1993, he built a 43-1-1 record, and was named The Ring Fighter of the Year for 1992.
8. Carl Yastrzemski of Bridgehampton, Suffolk County. He broke the Long Island high school single-game basketball scoring record, and went to the University of Notre Dame on a basketball scholarship. It soon became apparent that baseball was his best sport.
An 18-time All-Star, a 7-time Gold Glove and a 3-time American League batting champion, in 1967 he put the Boston Red Sox on his back and led them to their "Impossible Dream" Pennant, winning the Triple Crown, leading the AL in batting average, home runs and runs batted in, making himself the obvious choice for AL Most Valuable Player, and also earning him Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year award. He also got them to the Pennant in 1975.
He retired in 1983, a member of the 3,000 Hit Club, with 452 home runs -- the 1st AL player with at least 3,000 hits and at least 400 home runs. But his 3,308 games played are the most that any athlete has played in North American sports without winning a World Championship. The Red Sox retired his Number 8, and he was an easy choice for the Baseball Hall of Fame.
7. Warren Spahn of Buffalo, Erie County. The most accomplished athlete from Western New York (even if you count Syracuse, and you shouldn't, that's Central New York) isn't, as you might expect, a tough, gritty football player, although that would include Bill Bergey, Ron Jaworski, Daryl "Moose" Johnston, and 1980s Giants Jim Burt and Phil McConkey. But he was tough.
A veteran of the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, Spahnnie was a 17-time All-Star who won 363 games, more than any lefthanded pitcher ever, and more than any other pitcher in the post-1920 Lively Ball Era. He won the Cy Young Award in 1957, and probably would have won it a lot more had it existed sooner. His 2,583 strikeouts were more than any lefthander before him. He pitched the Braves to the National League Pennant in Boston in 1948 and in Milwaukee in 1957 and '58, winning the 1957 World Series. He pitched his 1st career no-hitter at age 39, and his 2nd at 40.
He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, the now-Atlanta Braves retired his Number 21, and he came in at Number 21 on The Sporting News' 1999 list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players -- the highest-ranking lefthanded pitcher, 2 places ahead of Lefty Grove and 5 ahead of Sandy Koufax.
He and Koufax were both named to the MLB All-Century Team, and Koufax agreed that Spahn belonged: "After all, he pitched for most of the Century!" Not quite, but he did debut with the Braves in 1942, when Casey Stengel was their manager; and his last season, 1965, included a stopover with the Mets, Casey's last year as a manager. In between were Casey's 10 Pennants, including the 1957 and '58 World Series against Spahn's Braves. Spahn said, "I'm the only guy who played for Casey both before and after he was a genius!"
6. Julius Erving of Roosevelt, Nassau County. An All-Star 5 times in the ABA and 11 times in the NBA, "Doctor J" became the stylish symbol of 1970s and early '80s basketball. The 1974 and 1976 ABA Championships he led the New York Nets to remain the last 2 league championships won by any pro basketball team in the New York Tri-State Area. He got the Philadelphia 76ers to 4 NBA Finals, winning the NBA Championship in 1983, coached by Cunningham.
Moreover, he did something no one thought possible. Philly fans' favorite athletes are the tough guys, the ones who get knocked down, get back up, and knock other guys down, hard enough to make them stay down. Guys that Theodore Roosevelt, the only New York City native fairly elected President of the United States, described as "the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood... who spends himself in a worthy cause." Dr. J. showed them that a man could do that and still look cool. He showed them that it was okay to love a pretty boy.
The University of Massachusetts and the team now known as the Brooklyn Nets have retired Number 32 for him; the Sixers, who had already retired 32 for Cunningham, gave him Number 6, and retired that for him. He was named to the Basketball Hall of Fame, and was 1 of only 5 players named to the ABA All-Time Team (he was easily the greatest player in that league's 9-year history) and the NBA's 50th Anniversary 50 Greatest Players.
Cunningham and Erving were 2 of the 5 men who were named to both the ABA All-Time Team and the NBA's 50 Greatest, and they grew up 22 miles apart, and one coached the other. Another was Rick Barry of Roselle Park, New Jersey, so that's 3 of them within 41 miles. The other 2 are Moses Malone of the Norfolk area, and George Gervin of Detroit.
5. Sandy Koufax of Brooklyn, New York City. Like Yaz, he went to college in the Midwest, in his case the University of Cincinnati, on a basketball scholarship. He liked sports, but wanted to be an architect. To actually be one, not to pretend to be one like the Seinfeld character George Costanza.
The only thing he built was one of the most remarkable careers in baseball history. For the 1st third of it, he struggled. For the 2nd third, he may have been, by the standard of peak performance, the best pitcher ever. And we never got to see the last third.
He was a 7-time All-Star. A rookie on the Dodgers' 1955 World Series winners in Brooklyn, he didn't make the Series roster. He was on their roster for their 1959 win, and was the key figure in their 1963 and 1965 wins. He was the 1963 NL MVP, and won the Cy Young Award in 1963, '65 and '66 -- 3 of the last 4 seasons when it was still an award for the most valuable pitcher in both leagues.
His total of 382 strikeouts in 1965 remains a record for National League pitchers, and for all lefthanded pitchers. He pitched a no-hitter every year from 1962 to '65, the last a perfect game. As the biggest Jewish sports star of his time, he refused to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur, turning him from big star to all-time icon. The Dodgers lost it. Then he lost Game 2. Then he pitched a shutout in Game 5. Then he pitched a shutout to win Game 7 -- only Jack Morris in 1991 has done that since. Sports Illustrated named him Sportsman of the Year for 1965. He swept the World Series MVPs in both 1963 and '65.
At the close of the 1966 season, his career records were 165-87, a 2.79 ERA, and 2,396 strikeouts. But his elbow was in terrible pain, and he didn't like the idea of all those cortisone shots. Unlike Denny McLain when he was faced with the same decision a few years later, Koufax decided enough was enough, and retired shortly before his 31st birthday.
He was the youngest man ever elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, at 36. The Dodgers retired his Number 32. He was named to the MLB All-Time Team in 1969, and in 1999 was named to the MLB All-Century Team and Number 26 on The Sporting News' list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players.
4. Lou Gehrig of Manhattan, New York City. It's not just the streak of 2,130 consecutive games played, a record long since broken by What's His Name from Maryland. (No, not Lou's teammate. The other big ballplayer from Maryland who gets remembered. Which also lets out Lefty Grove and Jimmie Foxx.)
He starred at Columbia University in the early 1920s, and when the College Baseball Hall of Fame was established in 2006, he was a charter inductee. He was the American League's 1st baseman in the 1st 6 All-Star Games. He won 6 World Series with the Yankees: 1927, '28, '32, '36, '37 and '38.
He was named AL MVP in 1927 and 1936. In 1931, he had 184 RBIs, which remains an AL single-season record. In 1932, he became the 1st AL player to hit 4 home runs in a game (and a double off the wall meant he just missed becoming the only 5-HR-a-game man). He won the Triple Crown in 1934, the 1st Yankee to do so.
Only the illness that took ended his career, took his life, and came to bear his name stopped him from reaching 500 home runs (he finished with 493) and 2,000 RBIs (1,995). His lifetime batting average was .340 -- which, coincidentally, was Cal Ripken's peak for one season. His career OPS+ was 179. That's insane. The only guys who've done better are Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Barry Bonds (and Bonds cheated).
His Number 4 was the 1st retired by any MLB team. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1939, out of (well-founded) fear that he might not live to see himself become eligible. He was named to the MLB All-Time Team in 1969, and the Major League Baseball All-Century Team in 1999. That same year, The Sporting News put him at Number 6 on their list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players -- behind Ruth, Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson and Hank Aaron.
He might have been given a bad break, but he did an awful lot while he lived. And as great as all that is, he's not the greatest athlete from New York City, or even the 2nd-greatest from Manhattan.
3. Sugar Ray Robinson of Manhattan, New York City. Born Walker Smith Jr. in Georgia, he moved to Harlem at age 12. From 1940 to 1965, he had nearly 200 professional fights. No, that's not a misprint: He got into a ring to fight professionally nearly two hundred times, going 175-19-2.
He won his 1st title, the Welterweight Championship of the World, on December 20, 1946, giving it up to fight for the Middleweight Championship. He would hold it 5 separate times between January 14, 1951 and January 2, 1960.
He won his 1st 40 professional fights, including one over Jake La Motta at the old Madison Square Garden in 1942. They fought again at the Olympia in Detroit in 1943, and La Motta delivered Robinson his 1st loss.
They fought 6 times -- La Motta said, "I fought Sugar Ray so often, I almost got diabetes!" -- and that was La Motta's only win. The last time was at Chicago Stadium on February 14, 1951, a fight known as the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, reflective of the Al Capone shootout in the city in 1929. Robinson knocked La Motta out after 13 brutal rounds. In the film Raging Bull, La Motta was played by Robert De Niro, Robinson by Johnny Barnes.
Robinson advanced to 128-1-2 before losing the Middleweight Title to British boxer Randy Turpin in London, but that may have been a hometown call. So the rematch was held in Harlem, at the Polo Grounds. Sugar Ray took no chances, knocking Turpin out in the 10th round. The next year, he tried to win the Light Heavyweight Title from Joey Maxim, at Yankee Stadium, but the heat got to him in the 14th round, and it was the only time in 196 pro fights that Sugar Ray Robinson didn't go the distance.
He lost the Middleweight Title to Gene Fullmer, and got it back from him. He did the same with the aforementioned Carmen Basilio. In addition to the preceding, he also beat champions Fritzie Zivic, Henry Armstrong, Tommy Bell, Kid Gavilan and Carl "Bobo" Olson. The Ring named him Fighter of the Year in 1942 and 1951. He had a famous restaurant in Harlem, and is considered by many to be the greatest fighter, pound-for-pound, who ever lived.
And yet, for all of that, I can't consider him the greatest athlete from New York State, New York City, or even Manhattan.
2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of Manhattan, New York City. The greatest college basketball player of all time, he went 88-2 at UCLA, and won the National Championship, the National Player of the Year, and the NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player all 3 years: 1967, '68 and '69. Not 4, but not because he left early; rather, because freshmen weren't eligible until 1972.
1970 NBA Rookie of the Year. 1971, '72, '74, '76, '77 and '80 NBA MVP. 19-time All-Star. 1971 NBA Champion with the Milwaukee Bucks. 1980, '82, '85, '87 and '88 NBA Champion with the Los Angeles Lakers. That's 6 titles, and twice, 1971 and 1985 -- 14 years apart -- he was named MVP of the NBA Finals. Sports Illustrated named him Sportsman of the Year for 1985.
He is the NBA's all-time leader in minutes played, field goals made, and points scored in both the regular season and the Playoffs -- ahead of Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.
He was 1 of the top 5 players in the NBA at the moment he entered, at age 22. He was 1 of the top 5 players in the NBA at age 40. He may be 1 of the top 5 players in NBA history. His Number 33 has been retired by UCLA, the Bucks and the Lakers. He was an easy choice for the Basketball Hall of Fame and the NBA's 50th Anniversary 50 Greatest Players.
President Barack Obama awarded him the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2016. (At the same ceremony, he also honored another New York native best known for working in sports in Los Angeles, Vin Scully.) And he is the greatest athlete ever produced by the greatest city in the world. "Roger, Roger."
How does anybody top that? By being the best ever in one of the "Big Four" sports:
1. Jim Brown of Manhasset, Nassau County. He was born in Georgia, and moved to Long Island at age 8. He earned 13 varsity letters in high school: Baseball, football, basketball, track and lacrosse. He set a Long Island high school basketball record of 38 points in a game -- soon broken by Yastrzemski. He starred in football and lacrosse at Syracuse University. In 2008, ESPN named ranked him 18th on their list of the Top 25 College Football Players of All Time.
Since lacrosse has never been a major league sport, we'll never know for sure, but there are people who say Brown is the greatest athlete ever, since he was the best ever in 2 sports: Football and lacrosse.
He did all of the following despite playing just 12 games in a regular season from 1957 to 1960, and 14 from 1961 to 1965, as opposed to the 16 games a season has been since 1978. He played 9 seasons, and was named to the Pro Bowl every season. He won the 1957 NFL Rookie of the Year award and 3 NFL MVP awards. He was the NFL's record holder for rushing yards in a game from 1957 (his rookie season) until 1976, for rushing yards in a season from 1958 (breaking Steve Van Buren's 1949 record by 381 yards) until 1973, and for rushing yards in a career from 1963 until 1984.
He was the 1st man to rush for over 9,000, 10,000, 11,000 and 12,000 career yards, and the 1st man to score 100 touchdowns, both overall and rushing. His 5.2 yards per carry remain an NFL record. He also caught 262 passes, at a time when that was a decent career total, and a record for a running back. He helped the Cleveland Browns reach the Playoffs 4 times, winning the 1964 NFL Championship.
And, like Koufax, he retired at the peak of his game. Unlike Koufax, it was not because of injury. Rather, he decided that he wasn't going to leave the set of the film The Dirty Dozen and fly all the way across the ocean -- going from London to Cleveland -- just because the owner of his team gave him an order. At age 29, he decided he could make more money acting than playing football, which, at the time, was easily true. Or, as he put it, he'd rather make love to Raquel Welch (his co-star in the 1969 "revisionist Western" film 100 Rifles) than take orders from Art Modell (an easy choice, even if you didn't know what Raquel looked like).
Syracuse retired his Number 44, and, after he and Modell made peace, the Browns retired his Number 32. He was named to the NFL's 1960s All-Decade Team, its 50th and 75th Anniversary Teams, and the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame. Although 9 players (currently led by Emmitt Smith, with 18,355) now have more rushing yards than his 12,312, he is still the standard by which big fullbacks are measured, having succeeded the legendary Bronko Nagurski in that regard.
A bit hard to believe: Jim Brown played his last game at age 29; Sandy Koufax, not quite 31; Gene Tunney, 31; Dick McGuire, 34; Abby Wambach, 35; Lou Gehrig, not quite 36; Hank Greenberg, 36. (Bruce Jenner was 27 when he won his Gold Medal, but under the rules of the time, he wouldn't have been able to make money off his achievement for another 4 years if he wanted to compete in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, which the U.S. ended up boycotting anyway.)
It would have been nice to see what each of them could have done, even with just a couple of more years. Especially when you know what Kareem, Yaz and Spahn were doing even in their early 40s.
If you believe that Jim Brown is not the greatest football player ever, or the greatest athlete ever to come from the State of New York, then consider how much justification you will need to make your case. Gehrig and Kareem come close as New Yorkers, and Rice and Payton come close as football players. But they still have to come to the mountain, because the mountain isn't going to come to them.
Jim Brown is the mountain.