Philadelphia’s Mount Rushmore of Sports: Mike Schmidt,

The SN Rushmore project named four pro athletes from the 13 cities that have had at least four of the following five leagues represented for at least 20 years – NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, WNBA. While there were no hard-and-fast rules pertaining to the athletes selected, our panel of experts considered individual resumes, team success and legacy within the sports landscape of each city. Multiple players from the same franchise were allowed, and not every franchise needed to be represented. All sports fans have an opinion on this topic. This is ours.

There is no sports city like Philadelphia, where the greatest reputation for toughness belongs not to one of the Eagles’ ferocious defensive ends or a muscular power forward for the Sixers or an old-time Flyers enforcer or a Phillies pitcher who played a lot of chin music but, instead, the fans who follow all of those teams.

Philly fans at a 1968 Eagles game really did boo Santa Claus. Well, not the real thing of course, but rather an Eagles fan who happened to be dressed as Santa and was drafted to fill in for the snowed-in Santa who’d been hired to appear.

They threw stuff at the fake Santa, as well.

So maybe we’re taking a chance here merely by presenting the Mount Rushmore of Philadelphia sports. It’s possible we could get every choice exactly right and still be jeered by the Philly faithful.

MORE: See the The Sporting News Rushmore of all 13 cities

There are few towns as rich in sports passion. That’s why it made sense for Philadelphia to be among the pioneers in all-sports radio. Station WIP launched its talk-heavy format nearly 35 years ago, when many of the loudest voices in media were doubting whether predecessor WFAN’s model was sustainable.

Angelo Cataldi, who was covering the Eagles for the Philadelphia Inquirer, was among the first hosts and will retire from his show at the end of this year.

Philly fans never run out of things to talk about regarding sports.

We’re here to help anyway.

MIKE SCHMIDT (Phillies, 1972-1989)

It’s possible there was no athlete with a more complicated relationship with the City of Brotherly Love than the man widely acclaimed as the greatest third baseman ever to line up on a baseball diamond.

An outsider would expect this to have been a two-decade love affair. Mike Schmidt played his entire career in Philadelphia. In the period before wild cards, he helped the Phillies reach six postseasons, played in two World Series and helped deliver a championship in 1980. He led the National League in home runs eight times, and people like home runs.

“He’s the best player at his position in Major League history. That’s still relatively indisputable, I would say,” Inquirer columnist Mike Sielski told TSN. “If it’s possible to be the greatest player at your position and spend your entire career with one franchise and still be underappreciated, Mike Schmidt was that guy. Because he made everything look so easy. And Philadelphia hates that.

“They want their athletes to try. And they want their athletes to show that they are trying. And if the athletes aren’t trying, they want them to try to show that they are trying. And Schmidt was not that. And at times he could be a little tortured with himself. For the longest time, he didn’t hit well in the postseason. And the fans could get to him.”

In this arena, Schmidt delivered one of the greatest quotes in the history of sports coverage, although the sports journalists he was satirizing might not have appreciated it at the time: “Philadelphia is the only city where you can experience the thrill of victory and the agony of reading about it the next day.”

As problematic as this was at times, Schmidt told the Los Angeles Times near the start of his career he would take Philly’s vocal fans “over the tourist types who show up in Houston or Montreal and just sit there.”

A year after his 1989 retirement, when the Phillies honored his career at Veterans Stadium, Schmidt acknowledged fan reaction impacted his performance and insisted this was true of every athlete he ever encountered. “Calling Philadelphia fans ‘spectators’ hardly describes your impact,” he said. “You help mold the spirit of a team.” He told them every ovation, including the one that day, left him with goosebumps.

Maybe not every interaction, though. “I was covering a charity golf tournament and Michael Jordan was there, and the foursome was Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Mike Schmidt and somebody else,” said Joe Juliano, who retired from the Philadelphia Inquirer last December after nearly five decades covering the city’s sport scene. “After the thing is over, Jordan is just mobbed for autographs. And Barkley is just mobbed for autographs. And here’s Mike Schmidt showing up in our little room in the clubhouse where we’re doing media. We’re like, ‘Oh, look, Mike Schmidt came in to talk to us.’ No, Mike Schmidt came in to avoid the autograph seekers.”

Schmidt was the foundation of the greatest modern Phillies teams. The club only has been to the World Series seven times, and two of those came with Schmidt, Pete Rose and lefty Steve Carlton as stars and the likes of Bob Boone, Larry Bowa, Gary Maddox, Bake McBride and Greg Luzinski filling a stacked lineup.

Schmidt was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame with his name on 96.5 percent of baseball writers’ ballots. “I remember watching his speech at the Hall of Fame,” Juliano said. “That was the day he got it, that ‘These fans really do love me.’”

Schmidt By The Numbers
Most Valuable Player Awards 3
Gold Glove Awards 10
World Series titles 1
All-Star Games 12
Career home runs (No. 16 all-time) 548

TSN ARCHIVE: Nobody Did It Better; Schmidt Selected TSN Player of Decade (Jan. 29, 1990)

JULIUS ERVING (76ers, 1976-87)

When it comes to Dr. J, the rest of the world is deeply indebted to Philadelphia. He was only a glorious rumor in the early 1970s, when he levitated through two seasons with the Virginia Squires and three more with the New York Nets, averaging a double-double all five seasons and authoring an endless series of dazzling plays that were retold almost like fables. When Doc got to Philly, everyone got to see what they’d been missing.

Was it better than imagined? No, it was exactly what had been imagined, and who else but Julius Erving ever could live up to such a tale?

“The country as a whole didn’t have an appreciation, fully, for how great he was until he got to Philadelphia,” Sielski said. “Because the ABA didn’t have a national TV contract, and he had played at UMass when UMass wasn’t really a powerhouse. No one really knew who he was relative to the other great college players at the time. He comes to Philly, and all of a sudden it’s: Oh, my God! This man who can fly plays for the Sixers!”

Is that an overstatement? My goodness, have you ever seen the baseline swoop from the 1980 NBA Finals, when Erving jetted from right side of the backboard, the ball palmed in his right hand until he arrived on the left side and flipped it up and through the goal? Some who watched the play live wondered if that was as amazing as it seemed at the time. More than 40 years later, all one must do to conjure the memory of that moment in conversation with longtime fans is cite the name of the Lakers player Erving eluded as he soared: Mark Landesberger.

“It was a shame, back in those days there was no replay in the building. The Spectrum had a message board, but there was no video capability,” Juliano said. “You had to remember it in your head. I swear, I do remember that the roof was ready to blow off the place.”

Or how about the greatest punctuation ever, of the many thousand fastbreaks run in the NBA’s long history of regular season games, this one developing when Sixers guard Mo Cheeks knocked loose a James Worthy pass that Erving hustled to collect near the sideline. Upon gathering the ball, he raced up the left side and began swinging the ball in his vast right hand as he approached the goal, then wound up and hammered it through the goal as Michael Cooper vainly attempted to defend.

“He said he never liked doing the windmill dunk because his wrist hurt for like three days after,” Juliano said. “That was something they really needed, so he was dribbling as fast as he could, and Cooper was sprinting down to stop him, and then Doc just takes the ball back and it’s ‘Woosh!’ Cooper thought better of it.”

Erving was not just about moments, flash, spectacle. He was an amazing player, sure, but also truly great. Joining with George McGinnis at first and later Moses Malone, he led the Sixers to four NBA Finals and the 1983 championship.

The Doctor may be the one universally loved athlete in sports. Michael Jordan is adored mostly by Bulls fans, North Carolina fans and Michael Jordan fans. The rest acknowledge his astonishing ability and accomplishment, but otherwise regard him with a mixture of respect and fear. Doctor J belongs to everyone.

“It just seems more natural to like Julius Erving, in a way,” Sielski said. “You don’t feel pressure to like him. He’s an amazing athlete and always carried himself with such grace and professionalism. When they finally won the championship in ‘83, there was a lot of: This is great because we won, and this is great because Doc finally won.”

Erving By The Numbers
NBA Most Valuable Player 1
First-team All-NBA 5
NBA All-Star Games 11
Playoff seasons 11
NBA titles 1

TSN ARCHIVES: NBA Players Hail Dr. J as No. 1 (April 25, 1981)

BOBBY CLARKE (Flyers, 1969-1984)

The Philadelphia Bulletin newspaper survived less than a decade after writers Jack Chevalier and Pete Cafone introduced the “Broad Street Bullies” nickname to the hockey-loving public after a particularly contentious game in the 1972-73 season, and it has endured for nearly 50 years. Clarke was the toothless – but not punchless – face of that collection as the Flyers claimed, in 1974 and 1975, the franchise’s first and only Stanley Cup victories.

“Clarke was pretty much a god,” Juliano told TSN. “And everybody loved the way the team stuck up for him. If somebody even took a dirty look at Bobby Clarke, one of his teammates was in that guy’s face with a right hook or something.”

It wasn’t that Clarke couldn’t handle himself, even at 5-10, 175 pounds. He tangled with opponents in six hockey fights in the 1974-75 season, one of his best as a pro from a pure hockey standpoint. It always was more important, though, to have a talent like his on the ice.

“He is the consummate Flyers player: worked his ass off every night, nobody played harder, would do absolutely anything to win,” Sielski told TSN. “Go look at the 1972 Summit Series, when he slashes a Russian forward’s ankle. It’s a totally dirty play, and it doesn’t matter. It turns the whole series for Canada because now Russia’s best player is out of the lineup. And that’s who Clarke was.

“I don’t know that there’s ever been an athlete more beloved as a player than Bobby Clarke was.”

Clarke was an immediate smash upon arriving in Philly, finishing fourth in the voting for the Calder Memorial Trophy as rookie of the year and 10th for the Hart Trophy as MVP in year two. By his fourth year, he’d won that award and begun a stretch of a half-dozen years in which he finished no lower than sixth.

That was the period in which the Broad Street Bullies rose to prominence, then dominance. That team became so dominant in that too-brief stretch, effectively the hockey equivalent of Cincinnati baseball’s Big Red Machine, that it’s easy to forget the team only had been a part of the league for seven years when the Flyers claimed, in a 4-2 Stanley Cup Finals series victory over the Boston Bruins, the first of their consecutive titles.

The Flyers were part of the 1967 expansion that doubled the size of the league from the six teams comprising the whole of the NHL since 1942. Philadelphia chose Clarke with the 17th selection in the 1969 draft, making him one of the great second-round bargains ever to enter the league.

“They were exploiting a stagnant system. They were finding a place where they could just be different from everybody else and use it to their advantage,” Sielski said. “And their thing was: We are going to put the fear of God into our opponents; when they take the ice with us, we’re going to beat the snot out of them. No team had really tried to do that.

“So you have all those guys, and then you have this core of incredibly skilled players. And they got all that room to maneuver, because if anybody tried to come after them, Dave Schultz was going to clean their clock. It was pretty ingenious, and Clarke’s the consummate example of how it worked. He got all the room on the ice. He was tough, but if he needed to fight, he didn’t have to fight. Somebody else would do it for him.”

Clarke By The Numbers
Hart Trophies (MVP 3
Stanley Cup titles 2
All-Star Games 8
NHL assists leader 2

TSN ARCHIVES: Philadelphia’s Bobby Clarke, the modest Flyer with firepower (March 10, 1973)

ALLEN IVERSON (76ers, 1996-2007, 2010)

He left Philadelphia without a championship, and only came close just the once. He did not play his entire career in the city, wasn’t one of those lifers who comes and stays and becomes as much a part of the scene as Wawa and Cheez Whiz. There are multiple generations, though, for whom Allen Iverson is the defining Philly athlete.

Regardless of whether you belong to those age groups, though, he is the greatest pure athlete you’ve ever seen wear the uniform of a Philadelphia pro team. Has there ever been anyone in any sport – anywhere, in fact – with a greater combination of speed, quickness, body control, elevation, mastery of the game in question and chew-nails toughness?

“Put aside what he did on the court – the style of play, playing every game like it’s his last — you could do far worse in finding someone who embodied what Philadelphia would want from a professional athlete than Allen Iverson,” Sielski said. “But then when you think about his cultural impact … it’s something I don’t think we in the city appreciated as much at the time, but the cornrows and the tattoos and the mainstreaming of modern Black culture in an NBA star, that influence, I don’t think, can be minimized.”

It was Iverson as much as anyone who led the league to adopt a dress code for players entering arenas and particularly those not in uniform while sitting on team benches. The league did not want to see baggy or oversized clothes or chains or medallions worn by players. In a discussion with NBA contemporaries Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson on the Showtime podcast “All the Smoke”, Iverson said he knew the policy was directed at him. And he thought it to be ridiculous.

“Don’t tell nobody how to dress, man. Leave people alone,” Iverson said. “Let people dress and be who they are.”

Once he was on the floor, wearing the Sixers uniform, no one ever put more of themselves into the pursuit of success. He led the NBA in minutes played six times as a Philadelphia player. Of the five players in league history who averaged more than 40 minutes, he is the only one to play after 1975. The game changed. AI did not.

“He did things pretty much his way. And he was fun to watch,” Juliano said. “He had this thing: ‘I play every game as if it’s my last.’ And sometimes you’d watch him and you’d think he wasn’t kidding. He’d throw his body around. It was 1,000 miles an hour all the time.

“The crowds just love him. When he comes to the Wells Fargo Center now, he gets ovation after ovation. That image of AI is really locked into the brains of all the fans who watched him.”

Iverson played with the ball in his hands on most offensive trips but never was strictly a point guard. He won four NBA scoring championships while still managing to average more than 5 assists in eight of his first 11 seasons in the league. And there were many times he got no statistical credit for baskets he created. Iverson was so adept at slicing into the defense and drawing defensive attention away from big men that putting the ball off the rim or the board meant one of his teammates, someone like Theo Ratliff or Dikembe Mutombo, would be in position to rebound and score on a putback. One basketball writer still calls such a play, more than a decade after his retirement, an “Iverson assist”.

“He’s a transitional figure,” Sielski said. “You go from Bird and Magic and Jordan and kind of the corporate nature of the great players in the league, and then he comes along and he’s something else entirely, and it takes the sport in a new direction.”

Iverson By The Numbers
NBA Most Valuable Player 1
NBA points leader 4
All-Star Games 11
First-team All-NBA 3
NBA Rookie of the Year 1

TSN Archives: Allen Iverson, the mercurial Sixers star in two columns

IVER: Why the Eagles missed the cut on Philly’s Mount Rushmore


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