By Ryan McGowan
A local radio host (Andy Gresh of 98.5 the Sports Hub) got me thinking Sunday morning. Tom Brady, Gresh said, is Boston sports. With all due respect to Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Josh Beckett, and maybe Jason Varitek, when people think of sports in the Hub, #12 shows up in their minds as the physical incarnation of our fair city’s athletics.
But, like a lot of Patriots realists, Gresh is starting to see Brady’s career as kicking into the back nine and into irreversible decline. So, he opines, who will become “the” icon of Boston sports when Brady is gone later in this decade? And then, who is currently “the” icon of the other major sports cities of America? When you think of a city’s sports scene, who embodies that city? And who will be next?
Current Icon: Tom Brady, Patriots
Past Icons: Ted Williams, John F. Kennedy, Carl Yastrzemski, Larry Bird, Sam “Mayday” Malone, Nomar Garciaparra/Pedro Martinez, possibly Drew Bledsoe, Rocky Marciano, Rob Mariano, Whitey Bulger.
Future Icons: Rajon Rondo, Celtics; Tuuka Rask, Bruins; Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox; Jerod Mayo, Patriots.
Brady is still the reigning icon of New England, and will be the man as long as he plays. Even if his career does go into a gradual decline, his superstar status and now international rock-star image will keep him in the public’s eye for years. When he is gone, though, the cupboard currently appears bare for his successor. Rondo is a stud, but once the Big Three sail off into the proverbial eternal groupie-fest of retirement, it’s unclear whether he can carry the franchise. Rask is a potential superstar goaltender, but the Bruins would have to win a Cup to elevate him, which right now looks about as realistic as Nancy Pelosi and Glenn Beck hugging it out on the House floor. Ellsbury, Pedroia, and Mayo are/will be all stars, but they definitely lack the gravitas of a Brady. Once #12 calls it quits, there doesn’t appear to be any worthy successors, at least right now.
Current Icon: Derek Jeter, Yankees
Past Icons: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Rudy Guiliani, Mickey Mantle, Joe Namath, Jay Gatsby, Biff Loman, maybe Patrick Ewing, Don Mattingly, George Costanza, Woody Allen.
Future Icons: Mark Sanchez, Jets; Eli Manning, Giants; Lebron James, Knicks/Nets (?)
For a city with a succession of Yankee icons, Jeter ranks right up there the others, basically owning the town since he popped on the scene as the 1996 Rookie of the Year. Jeter was lucky in that he came of age after a relatively lean Yankee period and during downturns for both the Jets and Giants. Each game Jeter plays, he moves higher and higher up the all-time Yankee lists, so he’s going to run the town for a while. Sanchez is very green, and it would seem hard for a New York icon to come from the second football team in town, Broadway Joe notwithstanding. Even with Super Bowl XLII, Eli is too much of a country bumpkin to embody the Big Apple. But if Lebron ever ends up hanging with Jay-Z at MSG, he’d be an easy choice to bump off Jeter in this basketball-mad city just waiting for its next hoops savior.
Current icon: Kobe Bryant, Lakers
Past icons: Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, Jack Nicholson, maybe Sandy Koufax, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Gene Autry, Cary Grant, Bo Jackson, Wayne Gretzky, Shaquille O’Neal
Future icons: Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, Lakers
Bynum and Gasol are nice players, but nowhere near ready to take over for Kobe, who is still only 31 despite being in the league for 14 years. Unfortunately, Anaheim is too much of a redheaded stepchild to L.A. for any of its players truly to be considered iconic for Southern California. Besides, the Angels are a team composed mostly of sluggers on the back nine (Torii Hunter, Hideki Matsui) and a core of very good players but not superstars. The Clippers? Please. And with no football teams coming to the 213 in the foreseeable future, it doesn’t seem like anyone is threatening to dethrone #24 anytime soon.
Current icon: Donovan McNabb, Eagles
Past icons: Allen Iverson, Steve Carlton, Ron Jaworski, Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, Rocky Balboa, Charles Barkley, Will Smith, Boyz II Men, Reggie White
Future icons: Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Roy Halladay, Phillies; Charlie Kelly, Dennis Reynolds, and Mac, Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Since McNabb is (presumably) on his way out, the door will be open for one of the Phillies, most likely Howard, to become the preeminent superstar in the City of Brotherly Love. It doesn’t hurt to play in back-to-back World Series. Halladay is just too new to the franchise to contend with Howard, but if he remains a one-dimensional power hitter, Philly’s icon might just revert back to Balboa, most famous of course for his 1985 declaration of the end of the Cold War (“If I can change, and you can change, everybody can change”) which changed the course of history as we know it.
Current icon: Michael Jordan, Bulls
Past icons: Stan Mikita, Ernie Banks, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Al Capone, Walter Payton, Richard Daley, Al Bundy, Chris Chelios.
Future icons: Derrick Rose, Bulls; Jay Cutler, Brian Urlacher, Bears
More than the other major cities, Chicago has yet to find a replacement for its most storied icon, Jordan. A case could be made for Urlacher, but a middle linebacker who has been to one Super Bowl and has generally been on underachieving teams for the majority of his career won’t replace #23 overnight. As exciting a player as Derrick Rose is, His Airness’ shadow still looms too large over the Windy City. When people think of the Chicago Bulls, they don’t think of Rose and Joakim Noah and Vinny Del Negro; they still think of Jordan, Pippen, Bill Cartwright, Will Perdue, and Phil Jackson. The Cubs have no superstars, and the White Sox’ most prominent personality is the virulent Ozzie Guillen. I don’t think I could name one player on the Blackhawks.
Current icon: Dwyane Wade, Heat
Past icons: Dan Marino, Don Shula, Snowflake the Dolphin, Vanilla Ice, Bea Arthur, maybe Alonzo Mourning.
Future icons: Hanley Ramirez, Marlins
Wade, assuming he stays put for a while, is entrenched as the man in Miami for a while. Ramirez is supremely talented, and the cheapskate Marlins will have to pony up some cash to keep him. Still, the franchise’s inherent invisibility on the national scene leaves him the best-kept secret in South Florida. Unless Chad Henne starts throwing 40+ touchdown passes a year, all Dolphin quarterbacks will forever be compared unfavorably to the great Marino, whose role in Ace Ventura keeps him in the public consciousness whenever the movie gets rerun on TBS or TNT.
OTHER CURRENT ICONS:
Dallas: Jerry Jones, Cowboys. And that’s just the way Jones likes it. Dirk Nowitzki is a close second, but Jones has inserted himself in every fan’s visual of Dallas sports, especially with his Titanic new stadium. Tony Romo would be in the running, too, but more for his penchant for banging hot chicks than anything related to the field.
San Francisco/Oakland: Barry Bonds, Giants. As great as Tim Lincecum is, the former is still best known for looking like the long-haired kid from Dazed and Confused. People still think Barry when they think SF. Jerry Rice and Joe Montana are still the iconic 49ers. The Bay Area needs a new superstar fast.
Seattle: Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners. Matt Hasselbeck is a possibility here, too. Felix Hernandez just isn’t well-known enough outside of hardcore baseball fans.
Cleveland: Lebron James, Cavaliers. If he were to leave, things look really bad in Cleveland.
St. Louis: Albert Pujols, Cardinals. Though many crusty old tea-bagger types would probably rather pine for the halcyon days of Mark McGwire or Stan Musial. Or Bob Pettit.
New Orleans: Drew Brees, Saints. Toast of the town. Chris Paul a distant second.
Toronto: Vacant. Was probably Roy Halladay until he got traded. Chris Bosh is talented but anonymous in most parts of the States. Come to think of it, it’s probably some left winger for the Maple Leafs that I’ve never heard of. Blame Canada.
Baltimore/Washington: Barack Obama, executive branch. Everyone knows the true sport of the Beltway is politics. Alexander Ovechkin of the Capitals is probably the sports guy, though. Part of me thinks Ray Lewis or even Cal Ripken, Jr., still holds this spot, but I like to think better of the fans of our nation’s capital. No one on the Redskins or Nationals is threatening here.
Detroit: God, who to pick here? The Tigers have been contenders but pretty anonymous. The Pistons, the same. Red Wings are in decline. Matthew Stafford? If I had to pick one, it’s probably still Barry Sanders.
Indianapolis: Tyler Hansbrough, Pacers.*
Atlanta: Matt Ryan, Falcons. Though deep down in places you don’t like to talk about at parties, you know it’s still Michael Vick. Does anyone watch sports in Atlanta anyway?
Phoenix: Kurt Warner, Cardinals (retired). Larry Fitzgerald might be in the running, too. Steve Nash could be iconic, but no one in the Southwest likes Canadians.
Houston: Yao Ming, Rockets.
Denver: John Elway, Broncos. Carmelo Anthony might be the guy if anyone on the East Coast ever watched a Nuggets game except drunk at 1 AM on ESPN2.
San Diego: Philip Rivers, Chargers. And they can have him.
Minneapolis: Joe Mauer, Twins. Adrian Peterson is a fantastic player, but Mauer is the true hometown boy and the Twins’ only real marketable star. Favre? Please.
Milwaukee/Green Bay: Most fans will still think of Favre here. If not him, then Aaron Rodgers. Prince Fielder just isn’t doing it for the rest of the country.
*Just kidding. It’s obviously Bill Polian.