Detroit’s Mount Rushmore of Sports: Gordie Howe, Barry Sanders, Al Kaline, Isiah Thomas voted best of the best
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Detroit’s Mount Rushmore of Sports: Gordie Howe, Barry Sanders, Al Kaline, Isiah Thomas voted best of the best

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.

Blue collar is more than a tagline in Detroit. 

It’s a mindset, an ethos tied to the Motor City’s identity from the factories to the recording studios. After all, the 1978 movie “Blue Collar,” starring Richard Pryor and Harvey Keitel is set in Detroit. In sports, to be labeled “blue collar” is not a five-cent cliche. It is the full-day compliment for athletes who personify that mindset for the Lions, Tigers, Red Wings and Pistons. 

“The national perception is that Detroit is not an emerald city,” Bally Sports Detroit’s Johnny Kane told The Sporting News. “There is a blue-collar, tough-minded, work-for-what-you-get-mentality, and that carries over to the fan bases.”

MORE: See The Sporting News Rushmore of all 13 cities 

SN’s Mount Rushmore picks for Detroit are blue-collar picks, but it’s more than that. Gordie Howe, Al Kaline, Isaiah Thomas and Barry Sanders combined for 70 professional seasons with Detroit sports teams. Loyalty matters, too. 

“It’s not like Detroit is a destination for a lot of athletes,” Detroit News columnist Bob Wojnowski told TSN. “So the ones that come here — they stay and become legends. They are welcome here because they personify things. What are those? Toughness and an edge certainly,  but also I think respectfulness.” 

Detroit also holds on to those legends who stick around when their playing careers are over. Three of our four selections made Detroit their permanent destination. That’s a difference-maker, too. 

“That’s kind of part and parcel of Detroit,” Detroit Free-Press columnist Mitch Albom told TSN. “If you’re representing Detroit, you want to be of Detroit, you want to be in Detroit and you want to be around Detroit. I think we like people more if we can see them outside of the stadium as much as inside it.”

GORDIE HOWE (Red Wings, 1946-71)

Gordie Howe played 1,687 games with the Red Wings and remains the franchise’s all-time leader with 1,809 points. Wojnowski still did not fully comprehend what the Red Wings right wing meant to the game until Howe died. Wojnowski attended Howe’s funeral at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Detroit on June 15, 2016. 

“I was amazed just at how many average hockey fans had personal stories with him,” Wojnowski said. “He would show up after retirement, which took a long time, at local rinks and have a game with them. He couldn’t have been nicer and couldn’t have been friendlier. It was the amount of tears I saw from people who met him maybe once.” 

Howe endeared himself to hockey fans with the “Howe hat trick,” which was a goal, an assist and a fight in the same game. He was a “Hockeytown” hero as part of Stanley Cup championship teams in 1950, 1952, 1954 and 1955. He played for 25 more seasons in the NHL after that and still wasn’t done. 

“He couldn’t get hockey out of his blood,” Wojnowski said. “He wasn’t the fastest skater. No, he didn’t have the best hands or best wrist shot, but he was the ultimate power hockey player.” 

As far as Red Wings legends go, the “Gordie Howe or Steve Yzerman” debate continues to this day. Yzerman played 22 years in Detroit, won three Stanley Cups as a player and now is back as the general manager. Yet Albom rewinds to a moment in the Red Wings’ locker room during Yzerman’s rookie season. Albom let Yzerman know that Howe was in the room, too. Yzerman acknowledged but didn’t move. 

“Well, go say hello to him,” Albom prodded. “Don’t you want to talk to him?” 

“Oh, you can’t just go up and talk to Gordie Howe,” Yzerman responded. 

“That kind of tells you about the two of them,” Albom said. “That’s how hockey players are. In other sports, the more you brag in a particular sport, the higher profile you get. In hockey, the better you are the quieter you are supposed to be. Look at Wayne Gretzky. Look at Steve Yzerman. Look at Joe Sakic. They’re all like that. Gordie personified that, but he was also tough as nails.” 

That toughness defined Howe. He might have a few teeth missing. He might have a black eye or stitches over his nose. Howe played through it. That career started in post-World War II America in 1947 and ended with the Detroit Vipers of the International Hockey League in 1997. Howe took his final shift when he was 69 years old. 

“He was talented but he could also beat the hell out of you,” Albom said. “He was an elder statesman for a long time and he remained with the Red Wings. He was a fixture at Joe Louis Arena long after his hair had turned white.” 

Howe By The Numbers
Stanley Cup championships 4
All-Star appearances 21
Hart Trophies (regular-season MVP) 6
Ross Trophies (points leader) 6

TSN ARCHIVES: Gordie Howe, at 42, yields to injury (Jan. 2, 1971)


BARRY SANDERS (Lions, 1989-98) 

On Nov. 13, 1994, Barry Sanders rushed for a Lions franchise record 237 yards against the Buccaneers, and a hoard of reporters waited by his locker. That’s when Albom noticed Sanders’ personal belongings were gone. So Albom slipped out a side door into the parking lot outside the Pontiac Silverdome, and that’s when he saw Sanders walking up a hill. 

Albom rushed up to Sanders and asked him a question: “You know there is like a mob of people waiting for you at your locker, right?” 

“Really? Why?” Sanders replied. 

Then Albom informed Sanders of the rushing total. 

“He looked at me and said, ‘Hmmm,'” Albom said. “That was that. That was Barry’s biggest quote — ‘Hmmm.’ That was Barry. Most things you would point out to him you thought were spectacular and he would say, ‘Hmmm.’ Then he would go on.

“If I were explaining it to young people who didn’t see him, I would say that he was one of those rare athletes that made you blink,” Albom said. “Like, you weren’t sure you saw what you just saw. He just kind of moved like a waterbug. If you ever watch a waterbug, you’re like, ‘Wait, how do they do that?’ That’s what Barry was like.” 

Sanders is the most exotic running back in NFL history. He bounced around tacklers with a style that still makes for must-watch viral videos across all social media platforms. For those who grew up in the 1990s, Sanders was the first “Madden” cheat code. When asked how many of his friends are Lions fans because of Barry Sanders, Kane simply said, “All of them.” 

Wojnowski pointed to the run against New England on Sept. 25, 1994, when Sanders turned Patriots safety Harlon Barnett completely around before scoring as one of those don’t-blink moments. 

“Most great Barry Sanders runs began with him having nothing,” Wojnowski said. “‘Oh, he’s trapped behind the line of scrimmage. That’s going to be nothing or a three-yard loss.’ Then there’s a jab step and a spin, another jab step and a spin and then there’s the speed and there he goes.” 

Sanders played 10 seasons in Detroit, and he compiled 15,269 yards, which still ranks third all time. In 1997, he became the third running back to rush for 2,000 yards in a single season. 

That sequence also was quintessential Sanders. He hit 2,000 yards on the mark with a two-yard run, then shook the official’s hand and pointed to the crowd. 

“On the next play he ripped off a 53-yard run and the old Silverdome was going bonkers,” Wojnowski said. “There literally are too many moments like that to write about.” 

The Lions had a 78-82 record in those 10 seasons and won just one playoff game. Sanders unexpectedly retired on July 27, 1999. He faxed that retirement to his hometown paper, the Wichita (Kan.) Eagle. 

“He left without diminishing his skills at all, so you remember him just as he was — and appropriately, in a way, in the public perception, that punished the Lions,” Wojnowski said. “Your Hall of Famer left at the prime of his career. That adds to his lore. I think people were ticked off at first, but ultimately they were ticked off at the Lions for not winning with him.” 

Yet Sanders remains actively involved in the Detroit community. 

“He is the most quixotic sports personality I think I’ve ever met in Detroit,” Albom said. “There’s not an ounce of bravado or ego. If you don’t know him better you wouldn’t even know that he liked football all that much. I think it was just something he was really good at.” 

Sanders By The Numbers
Pro Bowl selections 10
NFL rushing titles 4
Total rushing yards (fourth in NFL history) 15,269

TSN ARCHIVES: Barry Sanders rushing toward 2K (Dec. 15, 1997)

AL KALINE (Tigers, 1953-74) 

Before the 1971 season, the Tigers offered Kaline a $10,000 raise that would have pushed his one-year contract to $100,000. Kaline, who hit .278 with 16 homers and 71 RBIs the previous season, turned the Tigers down. 

Wait, he declined more money, and stayed with the team? 

“That kind of story endears you to Detroit and the fanbase,” Albom said. “We are not a showy populace. We like to go to work and get paid for what we feel is fair. That kind of story followed him around as much as his exploits on the field.” 

Truth is, Kaline was never leaving the Tigers. The right fielder played 22 seasons from 1953 to 1974 and made 18 All-Star Game appearances. He was the color commentator for Detroit from 1975 to 2002 and later a front-office consultant. Ty Cobb and Miguel Cabrera have more career hits, but there is a separator with Kaline: his place with the fan base. 

“To be honest, he was Detroit,” Kane said. “He exemplified all that you would want in a franchise player, and you don’t earn the moniker Mr. Tiger if you’re not all in.” 

Kaline never left. Kane’s first season covering the Tigers was in 2015, and he was told several times that he would see the Tigers legend on a frequent basis. As it turned out, frequent meant every day. Kaline still had a stall in the clubhouse, and Kane would soon have his first introduction in the hallway. 

“I said, ‘Hey, Mr. Kaline, I’m Johnny and I just wanted to introduce myself,'” Kane said. “He said, ‘I know who you are. You’re doing a good job kid.'” 

Kane called his mother moments later to tell her the news. 

When it came to the Tigers, Kaline knew everything and everybody. 

He also was a key piece on arguably the most important team in franchise history. On July 23, 1967, the Detroit riots erupted while the Tigers played a doubleheader at Tiger Stadium. The next year, the Tigers helped mend the community. Kaline hit .379 with two homers and eight RBIs in a thrilling seven-game World Series against the Cardinals in 1968. Detroit was a championship city, and it would not win another World Series until 1984. But that ’68 season will never be forgotten. 

“It resonates more than the ’84 one because of the backdrop of what happened in the ‘60s,” Albom said. “The riots had been the year before and the city really was being ripped apart. Baseball that following summer was really a healing kind of thing. It pulled blacks and whites together.” 

Kaline stayed ever-present without seeking attention. Kane recalled a conversation the two had before a game in 2019. 

“We were sitting in the dugout before the game, and we were getting ready to go on a road trip, he said to me, ‘If we ever get back to Baltimore, maybe you and I will go together and go take a look at the place I grew up in,'” Kane said. “That was a big deal because he never looked for fanfare or anything on camera.'”

They never got that chance. Kaline died on April 6, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. While Kaline might be gone, Wojnowski said remembrances of Mr. Tiger will live on forever. 

“He was there at spring training at Lakeland forevermore it seemed like,” Wojnowski said. “I go back to the words classy and elegant. He embodied the Tigers. He was the perfect polished package for a Detroit athlete.” 

Kaline By The Numbers
World Series championships 1
All-Star appearances 18
Gold Glove Awards 10
Career hits (32nd in MLB history) 3,007

TSN ARCHIVES: Al Kaline, 16 years a Tiger, finally on a winner (Oct. 5, 1968)

ISIAH THOMAS (Pistons, 1981-94)

Isiah Thomas scored 14 points in the third quarter of Game 6 of the 1988 NBA Finals at the Great Western Forum, and the Pistons looked primed to knock out the Lakers and win the franchise’s first championship.

That’s when Thomas sprained his ankle. Whatever despair Pistons fans felt while Thomas was writhing on the Forum floor sharply turned into amazement minutes later. Thomas returned and drilled a series of rainbow jumpers and layups as he hobbled up and down the court. He scored 25 points in the third quarter, still an NBA Finals record. 

Thomas scored 43 points with eight assists, but Detroit lost 103-102 after a controversial foul by Bill Laimbeer on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The Lakers won the series, but that moment became fuel for the Pistons’ back-to-back NBA championship runs in 1989 and 1990. 

“That quarter, hobbling around on the ankle, was something else,” Wojnowski said. “Put that in the time capsule when you look at Detroit sports at the time, doubled with or tripled with that they won back-to-back championships. That elevated him beyond almost anybody in the city’s history.” 

Thomas’ legacy in the NBA is complicated. Those rings often go overlooked because of the rifts with Boston’s Larry Bird and Chicago’s Michael Jordan, beefs that have no expiration date. The “Bad Boys” were not beloved outside Detroit, and Thomas, of course, was left off the 1992 Dream Team. 

“He got in some rifts and there was some weird behavior,” Albom said. “Not everybody in town loves Isiah Thomas. Not everybody in the media loves Isiah Thomas, either.”

Thomas’ image wasn’t for everybody, but his toughness on the court could not be questioned. 

“He was that perfect contrast of the face being the opposite reflection of the real personality,” Albom said. “He could smile, and he looked like you could swaddle him in a baby’s cloth. He was just so innocent, and yet he was vicious on the court. He wanted to win more than anybody. He grew up tough and he brought that mentality to the game.” 

Thomas and Joe Dumars formed a dynamic backcourt that could control the floor on both ends. Thomas averaged 19.2 points per game, and he finished ninth all time in NBA history with 9,061 assists. Jordan praised those skills in “The Last Dance.” 

“To me, the best point guard of all time is Magic Johnson, and right behind him is Isiah Thomas,” Jordan said. “No matter how much I hate him, I respect his game.” 

That is the summation for Thomas’ legacy. You can hate the player, but you couldn’t hate the game. Most Pistons fans will defend both to this day. Wojnowski recalled the practice where Thomas broke his hand when he punched Laimbeer in a fight on Nov. 17, 1993. In that tale of the tape, Thomas was 6-1 and Laimbeer was 6-11. 

“I remember once I called him a ‘silent assassin,’ and other people would call him that,” Wojnowski said. “He took exception to that because he didn’t think he played dirty. He just played with the Bad Boys, and in his mind he played as hard and as physical as you could play within the law.” 

Wojnowski chuckled, because that’s just who Thomas was. He would literally play on one leg to win a basketball game for the Pistons. 

“Just for that persona the Detroiters love, he might go down as the most beloved overall athlete in Detroit,” Wojnowski said. “He represented all of it and did all of it.” 

Thomas By The Numbers
NBA championships 2
NBA Finals MVP 1
All-Star appearances 12
All-Star Game MVPs 2

TSN ARCHIVES: Isiah Thomas has had a bumpy rookie year (Feb. 20, 1982)