EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 23, 2009

Boston's 10 greatest sports icons: The Ultimate Big 3: Red, Russell and Orr

Bill Burt

Kudos to ESPN.com for sparking the debate. They have started a "series" called the "Mt. Rushmore of Sports" in which readers from each state will nominate four sports icons (athletes, coaches, management).

Four? That might be an easy thing to do for South Dakota — Adam Vinatieri, Sparky Anderson, Olympic 10,000-meter champ Billy Mills and cowboy Casey Tibbs.

In Massachusetts, that would mean leaving about dozen deserving icons out. Since I like things in groups of 10, and there are at least that many legitimate candidates, I am going to rank them, 10 to 1.

Mind you, this is no easy task. I wasn't around to see a few of these legends, but I've seen the numbers and heard about their impact.

My criteria is simple: greatness and longevity. Pedro Martinez is probably the greatest pitcher the Red Sox ever had, but was he here long enough? No.

10. Ray Bourque, Boston Bruins

Key stats: NHL's all-time leader in goals, assists and points by defenseman (410-1,169—1,579); 5-time Norris Trophy winner as top defenseman; Stanley Cup champion.

Why he's in the top 10: It is difficult for me to be objective about this guy. He is probably nicest man among this incredible group. In many other states he would be ranked No. 1. He played 22 seasons, nearly 21 here, and he was at the top of his game for nearly every one of those years. He was selected to 13 "first team" (the most in history) and six "second team" All-Star squads.

Why he's ranked here: The only thing that keeps him from creeping closer to the top five is lack of championships as a Bruin and Bobby Orr, who may be the most talented hockey player ever. Bourque, though, did play in two Stanley Cup finals and the fact that he is all-time leader for defenseman in goals, assists and points is worthy.

9. Carl Yastrzemski, Boston Red Sox

Key stats: He was last Triple Crown winner; Red Sox leader in hits (3,419), HRs (452), RBIs 1,844), runs (1,816), doubles (649) and games played (3,308).

Why he's in the top 10: Like Bourque, the consummate pro. Nobody on this list worked harder at making himself a superstar. His 1967 season, especially the pennant drive in August and September, was maybe the greatest clutch run of any Boston athlete. Ever. The birth of Red Sox Nation started with Yaz in 1967. It is remarkable that he spent 23 seasons all with the Red Sox.

Why he's ranked here: He has almost everything you're looking for in a legend — statistics, awards and leadership. The only thing he doesn't have is a championship or two. But he was close in 1967, 1975 and 1978. With the influx of Boston champions the last decade, he has dropped a few notches.

8. Tom Brady, New England Patriots

Key stats: 3-time Super Bowl winner, 2-time Super Bowl MVP, NFL record 50 TD passes in 2007.

Why he's in the top 10: Because he might be the greatest quarterback that ever lived. He is the captain of this Patriots ship. He is one of the coolest customers when it matters most. His career record of 101-27 as a starter is unmatched.

Why he's ranked here: He is still very young with more to prove. If the Patriots had finished the job last February, he might be cracking the top five. The only knock is the competition has been good, but not great. If he does the expected and leads the Patriots to two more championships, he will be knocking at the door of our all-time best.

7. Rocky Marciano, Boxer

Key stats: The Brockton Blockbuster held the heavyweight title from 1952-56; a career record of 49-0 (43 KOs) and the only heavyweight champion to ever retire undefeated.

Why he's in the top 10: He had a will to win that surpassed even his powerful left hook. There were so many things to love about this guy. He was a gentleman outside of the ring and when he retired, he really retired. He defended his title seven times, winning six by KO or TKO.

Why he's ranked here: How does a guy finish with a perfect record, retire as a heavyweight champion, and not cop one of the top few spots? Competition. While he beat Jersey Joe Walcott, Ezzard Charles and Archie Moore in title bouts, they were well past their primes. He missed two key fighters that would have defined his career ... Joe Louis (near his prime) and Cassius Clay. He also had to get off the canvas in title bouts to beat Moore and Walcott.

6. Bill Belichick, New England Patriots coach

Key stats: Only coach to win three Super Bowls in four-year span, a record of 102-42 in nine season and 14-3 record in playoffs.

Why he's in the top 10: We thought the franchise was dying, again, in 2000. We were wrong. Belichick rebuilt from the offensive and defensive lines out, added physical and mental toughness and consistency. He not only coached the team but he had final decision on all football matters. His gameplans are legendary. So is his ability to find talent (see No. 8 Tom Brady). He is one of the greatest football coaches ever.

Why he's ranked here: With a little luck, the Patriots could have won five or even six Super Bowls over this span and he would be in the top three. He ranks ahead of Brady and a few other great Boston athletes because he not only coached the Patriots to greatness, but he built them with his own hands. His best season as a coach may have been this year.

5. Larry Bird, Boston Celtics

Key stats: A 12-time All-Star, two-time Finals MVP, one of three NBA players to win three straight MVP's.

Why he's in the top 10: Bird carried the Celtics for a decade and for most of us baby boomers, he is the greatest athlete we ever saw. He not only led the Celtics to three titles, but they won those three in one of the best eras in league history (see Lakers, Sixers and Pistons). Bird was a big-game performer. He played his best when it mattered most.

While he was a great shooter, passing was his forte.

Why he's ranked here: The competition. As you'll see, the guys ahead of him are even more extra special. Bird lost out to Magic Johnson in the titles war (5-3), which probably keeps him out of the top three. If I had to win a game, any game, I would probably choose him over anybody on this list.

4. Ted Williams, Boston Red Sox

Key stats: Last player to have a batting average over .400; won two Triple Crowns and two MVPs, batted .344 with 521 homers.

Why he's in the top 10: He's the greatest hitter that ever lived. Period. Nobody cared about that craft like he did. His swing was a thing of beauty. So was his batting eye. His records are too many to mention. And if not for his military service, which caused him to miss four full seasons, he might have broken Babe Ruth's home run record.

The fact that he was an esteemed Navy flighter pilot during World War II adds to his lore.

His career batting average is the highest for any player that played since 1940.

Why he's ranked here: Again, a World Series title or two, we would be talking top three. It's tough to argue against him being No. 1. He was that good.

3. Bobby Orr, Boston Bruins

Key stats: Only defenseman to lead NHL in scoring. He was eight-time Norris Award winner, two-time MVP and two-time playoff MVP, scored 270 goals with 645 assists.

Why he's in the top 10: Probably the greatest hockey player that ever lived. Changed the game by making defensemen offensive players as well. Before he joined the Bruins they were the losingest franchise in the NHL over the previous six seasons. By his third year, the Bruins won their first Stanley Cup in 29 years. The greatest athlete I ever saw and my favorite athlete while growing up. He did things no one else did.

Why he's ranked here: Longevity and a few more championships could have moved him up. Only really played nine full seasons. What separates him from others is his greatness. He made it look easy.

2. Bill Russell, Boston Celtics

Key stats: His teams won 11 championships in 13 seasons; he averaged 22.5 rebounds per game over his career; and he had a 10-0 record in Game 7s.

Why he's in the top 10: The older I get the more I appreciate his body of work. Nobody represents the desire to win more than Russell. He averaged only 15.5 points per game, but we know better. His forte was defense and winning. He represented the Celtics — wins over stats — better than anybody in any era. Like Bird, he saved his best for last, which the 10-0 record in Game 7s proves. Like Orr, he made changed the Celtics into a winner franchise. Russell was a winner before coming to Boston, winning two titles at the University of San Francisco and an Olympic gold medal.

Why he ranked here: Because he's greatest athlete in Boston history.

1. Red Auerbach, Boston Celtics coach, GM and president

Key stats: Built one of the winningest franchises in sports history with 16 NBA championships.

Why he's in the top 10: While athletes are the ones who get it done, Auerbach's record for accumulating and coaching talent is unmatched in any sport. It started with the 1956 draft when he made a back-room deal to get Bill Russell. He also added KC Jones 14th overall and Tommy Heinsohn as a territorial pick. Then came Frank Ramsey, John Havlicek and Don Nelson, followed by key acquisitions like Dave Cowens, JoJo White, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. His work spanned three different "dynasties," the last two when he was general manager. What separates Auerbach from everyone else, including Russell, was the fact that his work spanned 65 years (1941-2006). He retired as the game's winningest coach (938 victories, 9 titles).

Why he ranked here: He not only had ability to coach and accumulate talent, he had vision. He brought fast-break basketball to the league. He invented the "Sixth Man" role, which to this day is a cornerstone for many winning franchises. And, maybe most impressive of all, he not only drafted the first black player (Chuck Cooper), but he named Russell as the first black coach. If there ever was a Mt. Rushmore built for Boston sports icons, Auerbach's bust would have to be front and center.

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