Print and Go Back ESPN.com: BlogsColumns [Print without images]

Thursday, September 10, 2009
Updated: September 11, 3:04 PM ET
Chicago's finest

By Gene Wojciechowski
ESPN.com

So the editor e-mails and says, "Hey, about a column ranking the 23 most important Chicago athletes of all time -- you know, in honor of Michael Jordan, the Hall of Fame and his No. 23 jersey?"

And I say, "Sure, I'd love to do that -- right after I staple-gun my eyelids shut and chug a Clorox milkshake."

"Great," the editor writes back.

Sigh.

Michael Jordan
Ranking the 23 most important sports figures in Chicago history is an inexact science, but guess who's ranked No. 1.

Look, there's no way to rank the top 23 most important Chicago athletes of all time because: (A) How do you quantify "important?" and (B) how do you limit it to 23? I mean, why can't we use Jordan's jersey number from when he first came back to the Bulls in 1995 (No. 45)? Or his career scoring average (30 and change)? Or his point total (63) in Game 2 of the 1986 playoff series against the Boston Celtics, the one when Larry Bird said, "That was God disguised as Michael Jordan?" Or better yet, how much Jordan made that year in salary ($630,000)?

But I'm limited to 23 names. And for the purposes of this list, we'll define "important" as someone who created some sort of seismic change in the plate tectonics of Chicago sports. Or, in non-geology terms, someone whose career was sutured to the hip of Chicago and whose accomplishments defined or redefined the sport they played.

Sadly, that rules out, say, Chicago-born Mike Krzyzewski, who redefined the college basketball coaching dynamic, but did so at Duke. Had he returned to coach the Bulls after Phil Jackson left, then we're talking.

It also rules out Jim Bouton of "Ball Four" fame. Bouton's ground-breaking, behind-the-scenes book on the culture of major league baseball changed the landscape of sports -- just not necessarily in Chicago. Also on the near-miss list: Kevin Garnett, Quinn Buckner, Dwyane Wade, Denis Savard, Red Kerr, Bo Jackson, Johnny Weissmuller, Ryne Sandberg, Bronko Nagurski, Otto Graham, Norm Van Lier, Donovan McNabb, Jay Berwanger, Chris Chelios, Refrigerator Perry, Jim McMahon, Mike Singletary, Ray Meyer and George Halas.

And please, no outraged e-mails about the absence of Mike Ditka or the Zen Master on the list. Are they important? Yes. But their impacts came as coaches here, not as athletes. End of discussion.

And now, the list of 23:

23 -- Jay Cutler
The guy has yet to play a regular-season down for the Bears, but he bogarts his way onto the list because his success or failure will shape this franchise for years. It isn't just the draft choices the Bears gave up (a No. 1 and No. 3 in 2009, a No. 1 in 2010, as well as former starting quarterback Kyle Orton) that matters; it's the absolute belief they have that Cutler is THE missing piece to a team's decades-long search for an elite QB. In the balance are three legacies: those of Cutler, Bears general manager Jerry Angelo and Denver Broncos coach Josh McDaniels.

Jay Cutler
Jay Cutler hasn't taken one regular-season snap for the Bears, but the significance of his acquisition put him on this list.

22 -- Isiah Thomas
The back story is compelling (Zeke survives life on the West Side, becomes high school royalty, leads Indiana University to a national championship, leads the Bad Boys to back-to-back NBA Championships), even triumphant. But behind that incandescent smile was a player who would cut your basketball heart out and eat it with fava beans and a nice Chianti. Thomas is the same person who, by most accounts, helped orchestrate the 1985 All-Star Game freeze out of MJ. He also walked off the court in the waning seconds of the Detroit Pistons' series loss to Jordan and the Bulls in 1991 -- and never stopped to shake hands. And he was once again linked to Jordan in 1992, when Thomas was notably absent from the final roster of the USA Olympic Dream Team led by, ta-da, MJ. And did we mention he had some itsy-bitsy problems with the Indiana Pacers and especially the New York Knicks?

21 -- Frank Thomas
History will treat the Big Hurt kinder and kinder with each passing year. His power-hitting numbers (521 home runs, 1,704 RBIs) and batting average (.301) are Hall of Fame stuff. As a refreshing bonus, he apparently produced those numbers without the aid of hypodermic needles and Vitamin S. For the better part of the 1990s and early 2000s, Thomas was the face of the White Sox.

20 -- Tony Esposito
Think Hawks and goalie, you think of Esposito and his 74 shutouts.

19 -- Doug Atkins
Atkins' Bears career deserves to be on any and all lists of the great NFL (and college) players. I'm sure he'll be thrilled to find out he made this prestigious top 23. Anyway, when discussing defensive linemen, you start with Atkins and go from there.

18 -- Lou Boudreau
Hall of Famer. World Series champion. Manager of the Cubs. Cubs broadcaster. Bulls broadcaster. University of Illinois multi-sport star. Is that any good?

17 -- Ron Santo
Never won a pennant with the Cubs, but he didn't have to. Santo played hurt (diabetes), played well (why he isn't in the Hall of Fame is beyond comprehension) and played with heart. As the Cubs' radio analyst, he wears his emotions on his toupee. One of a kind.

16 -- Red Grange
The Wheaton Iceman. I've got a framed photo hanging on my office wall of Grange delivering a block of ice to a house in 1924. Grange, also known as "The Galloping Ghost" (now there's a nickname) at Illinois, was a three-time All-America. But it was what Grange did after his college career that changed the face of sports in Chicago and in this country. Grange's barnstorming tour with the Chicago Bears helped turn professional football into something other than an afterthought. It gave it credibility. Grange was elected to both the college and pro football halls of fame.

Ozzie Guillen
Not just a colorful personality, Ozzie Guillen also has hardware this city hadn't seen in generations.

15 -- Ozzie Guillen
Played for the Sox. Managed the Sox. Won an improbable World Series in 2005. Got into the face of Cubs Nation. When he leaves (and let's hope it isn't anytime soon), that U.S. Cellular home dugout and clubhouse is going to be much, much quieter. And more boring, too.

14 -- 1963 Loyola basketball team
Don Haskins' 1966 Texas Western team gets all the pub (and its own movie), but George Ireland's Loyola program is the one that actually made college basketball history. That 1963 Ramblers team featured four African-American starters (and at times, five) in an era when most coaches were scared stiff to play more than one African-American player. Loyola not only reached the NCAA Tournament, but won it, beating mighty Cincinnati in OT for the national championship.

13 -- Greg Maddux
The greatest player who should have never left Chicago. The Cubs botched that one -- and paid for it season after season. Maddux eventually returned to the Cubs, where he won his 300th game, had his jersey number retired and now awaits his Hall of Fame induction speech. Maddux won 133 games and one Cy Young Award as a Cub, but 194 games and three Cy Youngs with the Atlanta Braves. Yeah, that's going to leave a mark.

12 -- Sid Luckman
The standard by which all Bears quarterbacks are compared. And deservedly so (not that he's had that much competition).

11 -- Ernie Banks
It's true: the smiley face logo is based on Banks (no, not really). Banks never played in a postseason game as a Cub, but the two-time league MVP is part of the franchise's Mt. Rushmore. Put it this way: he has his own statue in front of Wrigley Field. And he never met a day -- or a doubleheader -- that he didn't like.

10 -- Stan Mikita
The Hawks' all-time leader in games played, assists and points. Mikita spent his entire 22-year career in Chicago and hoisted the Stanley Cup in 1961.

9 -- Bobby Hull
Maybe Stosh belongs here and The Golden Jet belongs at No. 10. But I'll take my chances with Hull ranked slightly ahead of Mikita by the tiniest of margins. Hull had a slapshot to die for, and he skated so fast that his blades left contrails. He led the Hawks in goals 10 consecutive seasons (he and Mikita were tied in 1962) and is the franchise's all-time goals scorer. Hull and Mikita were teammates on that '61 Stanley Cup championship team.

8 -- Frank Chance
Frank who? Frank Chance, of Tinker to Evers to Chance fame. When Chance led the Cubs to the 1907 and 1908 World Series championships as a player/manager, he probably didn't figure those titles would still stand alone more than 100 years later. Nicknamed, "The Peerless Leader," he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1946.

7 -- Dick Butkus
"Every time he hit you," said the great Deacon Jones of Butkus, "he tried to put you in the cemetery, not the hospital." If you never saw Butkus play, YouTube him and watch the greatest middle linebacker of all time. He hit people so hard that their mothers' teeth rattled. Butkus was Chicago personified -- born and raised on the South Side, played at U of I, finished third and sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting, signed with the Bears and spent nine years with the team (and was selected to eight Pro Bowls) before injuries forced him to retire. The Bears never reached the playoffs during his career.

6 -- George Mikan
Remember that stuff about redefining a sport? That was Mikan. DePaul coach Ray Meyer helped turn Mikan from a 6-10 stiff into the most dominant player of his time. He was so good, so unlike anyone who had ever played the game, that rules were changed in the college and pro game to adjust for his talent. In 1996, Mikan was named one of the NBA's 50 greatest players. No argument here.

Walter Payton
One of the greatest players in NFL history, Walter Payton was like Dick Butkus at running back.

5 -- Scottie Pippen
Say what you want about Jordan, but no Pip, no six NBA titles. It's as simple as that.

4 -- Walter Payton
Sweetness was the equivalent of Butkus playing running back. He hurt you, not the other way around. He played 13 season at a position where the average career span is, what, three seasons? Payton finished his Bears career with 16,726 rushing yards (2nd in NFL history) and 110 touchdowns (but none in the Super Bowl -- thanks, Ditka).

4b -- Gale Sayers
Scored 36 points in a single game. Led the NFL in scoring in 1965 and rushing in 1966 and 1969. In reality, Sayers played only four-plus seasons with the Bears, but was such a force that he was later elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Knee injuries ended his career much too early.

3 -- Sammy Sosa
Sosa was a picnic basket full of different controversies and accomplishments. How many of those accomplishments were aided by performance enhancers and corked bats is the question that will haunt Sosa. He played his first major league game on June 16, 1984, as a Texas Ranger and his last major league game on Sept. 29, 2007, as a Ranger. But in between he belonged almost exclusively to Chicago, first on the South Side with the White Sox (1989-91) and then on the North Side with the Cubs (1992-2004). By the time he was traded to the Baltimore Orioles in 2005, Sosa had gone from beloved to disowned. The slugger who helped "save" baseball with three 60-plus home run seasons in four years (66 in 1998, 63 in 1999, 64 in 2001 -- he had hit only 36 in 1997) turned him into an international baseball icon. But his sudden (and convenient) inability to speak English at a congressional hearing on steroids raised all sorts of red flags (a 2009 New York Times report later linked him to a positive test for PEDs). And he became persona non gladiator when he ditched the Cubs on the final day of the 2004 season, lied about his departure time from the clubhouse, only to be undone by a stadium security camera that refuted his fib. He will be remembered for 609 career home runs (545 of them with the Cubs) of dubious nature, for his larger-than-life status, for his diva-ness and his disgraced departure from a city that, at times, he co-owned with Jordan.

2 -- Shoeless Joe Jackson
Nearly 100 years after he supposedly helped throw the 1919 World Series (some help -- he batted .375 with three doubles and a home run in the Series), Jackson's White Sox/Black Sox legacy remains as strong as, if not stronger than, any player's in the franchise's history. In fact, the question of Jackson's guilt or innocence in the cheating scandal still remains a topic of discussion nearly 58 years after his death. He hit .356 for his career before being banned from major league baseball.

1 -- Michael Jordan
Arguably the most famous athlete on the planet. Not bad for a kid who got cut from his high school team. A basketball and cultural icon who helped transform a sport -- and took the city of Chicago along in the sidecar. Thanks for the ride, M.J.

Gene Wojciechowski is a columnist for ESPN.com.