Mount Rushmore: To most, it is a monument located in the western part of South Dakota. Recently, that term has become shorthand for the top four in any given subject, and thus, a means of debate.
From sports to hip hop — and even movie theater snacks — everything under the sun is subject to a “Mount Rushmore” debate over the top four.
In a series done by The Sporting News, 13 cities home to the top major pro leagues (MLB, NBA, NHL, NFL, and WNBA) received lists of the four sports legends who make that city’s Mount Rushmore.
Thursday was Detroit’s day in the spotlight and with a city so heavy with sports legends, it’s possible that there could be some controversy on who makes up the magical quartet for the Motor City. Back in 2018, the Free Press ran its own bracket to determine the greatest athlete in Detroit pro sports history, with Gordie Howe getting the best of Ty Cobb in the final. (Barry Sanders and Isiah Thomas were the other two members of the final four, advancing out of their team’s “regionals.”)
In 2018, there was only a spot for one atop the mountain — pun intended. Who made The Sporting News’ Mount Rushmore?
Gordie Howe, Detroit Red Wings (1946-71)
When your nickname is, “Mr. Hockey” and you play as “Hockeytown” it is pretty easy to figure out why he’s one of the no-brainers for any Mount Rushmore, G.O.A.T, or best-ever list.
Howe made the NHL’s year-end All-Star squad an NHL-record 21 times (and that glosses over his six seasons in the rival WHA). Howe was the prototype for multiple generations of hockey players. From his scoring ability to his work as a member of the “Production Line” to his famous “Gordie Howe hat trick” (which consists of a goal, an assist, and a fight — you know, a typical day at the office).
Howe’s legacy and impact continues to cast a large shadow for the Red Wings organization even as fellow greats like Steve Yzerman and Nicklas Lidström also scored goals and lifted Stanley Cups.
To this day, Howe still holds the team records for points, goals, power play goals, and game-winning goals.
Al Kaline, Detroit Tigers (1953-74)
In an age where athletes are free to put on the uniform of multiple clubs throughout potentially lengthy careers, it is rare that someone with Hall of Fame sills actually stays in one place.
As a man known to many as, “Mr. Tiger,” Kaline embodied what many sports fans wish was still around: A player whose career is played in one city. An 18-time All-Star and 10-time Gold Glove winner, this member of the 3,000 hit club surprisingly never won the AL MVP, though he finished second twice (1955, 1963) and third another time (1956).
It was his commitment to the community and the club even after his career ended that endears him to generations of Tiger fans.
Barry Sanders, Detroit Lions (1988-98)
Winning the Heisman Trophy, then being the No. 3 overall pick in the NFL draft can be a bit of an albatross. Add in that you’re playing for the Lions, and the albatross grows a bit bigger. For Sanders, each gameday had Lions fans anticipating his every move on the carpet of the Pontiac Silverdome. Meanwhile, opposing fans in Chicago, Green Bay, and Minnesota dreaded every time Sanders would wiggle through the line and find daylight.
Much like Kaline, Sanders spent his entire career in Detroit (walking away from the NFL at the start of training camp in 1998). Of course, that meant while he didn’t achieve the overall team success of his most-noted contemporary, Emmitt Smith, but Sanders’ résumé still ranks among the greatest in NFL history: 10-time Pro-Bowler, six first-team All-Pro nods and 15,269 rushing yards, which ranked second at the time and still stands fifth. Sanders’ spot on Detroit’s Mount Rushmore is pretty hard to even think about questioning.
Isiah Thomas, Detroit Pistons (1981-94)
As the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers waged one of the great sports rivalries of the 1980s, there was another team, located in the Midwest, that threw its hat into the ring near the end of the decade: The Pistons, who eventually dethroned both the Celtics and Lakers in head-to-head matchups. And in case you forgot, Thomas, a 12-time All-Star will not hesitate to remind you.)
Having won a national title at Indiana in 1981, Thomas was the No. 2 overall pick; his playmaking ability and tenacity as a defender turned the hapless club into a blue-collar success story.
MORE ON ZEKE: How Isiah Thomas became the greatest Detroit Piston ever
With the additions of players such as Bill Laimbeer, Dennis Rodman, Rick Mahorn and Joe Dumars, among others, the gritty squad became the “Bad Boys” and made life a living hell for the Eastern Conference. And Thomas was at the helm. After Thomas’ injury in the 1988 Finals cost the Pistons a shot at their first title (losing in seven games to the Lakers), the Pistons stormed back in 1989 for the first of back-to-back NBA titles.
When he wrapped up his career in 1994, Thomas was remembered as one of the great clutch performers in NBA history; he was named to the NBA’s 50th anniversary team in 1997, and the 75th anniversary squad earlier this year.