By Jeff Riger

By now you must have heard about Kobe Bryant and the fact that he passed Shaquille O’Neal for fifth on the NBA all-time scoring list on Monday night.  Of course with the milestone comes the question; is Bryant the greatest Laker of all time?  I say NO!  It’s hard to compete with the 5 rings Kobe has but I can’t see how anybody could choose anybody other than Magic Johnson as the best ever?

But this blog is not about Kobe or the Laker, oh no, it’s about Detroit!

With all this talk about if Kobe is the greatest Laker ever, I started to wonder who the greatest Detroit athletes are from their respected teams?  So I tried to figure it out!

Below I have listed the greatest athlete ever to play for a Detroit local team, including colleges as well.  I’m sure you will disagree with most of mine, so feel free to debate back once you read what I have to say.

Red Wings:  Nick Lidstrom

I know that most people, when wondering who the greatest ever to play for the Wings will say Gordie Howe, and I fully understand that.  However when you look at what Nick Lidstrom has been able to accomplish wearing the winged wheel, it’s hard for me to say anybody else.  Howe played the majority of his years against 5 other teams, and while you cannot hold that against him, how can you not give credit to Nick for dominating the modern day best of the best for all of his years?

Lidstrom is often referred to as the second best defenseman of all time behind Bobby Orr, but you have to wonder when; if he continues to play will #5 surpass him?  Lidstrom has 7 Norris trophies, 4 Stanley Cups and without a doubt continues to be the biggest reason as to why he has never missed the postseason.  I know Orr changed the game; however, he also didn’t have nearly the length of career that Nick is having and after a knee injury, he was never the same player.  Lidstrom continues to score and be the best D-man on the ice at age 41.

I know it’s damn near impossible to convince you that Nick is greater than Gordie.  Howe is synonymous with Detroit, he is after all ‘Mr Hockey’ and even has a hat trick named after him.  Gordie won 6 Hart trophies along with 4 cups and he is the only player ever to play in 5 different decades.  He was sensational!  In fact he won the NHL Lifetime Achievement Award as well.  There is nothing negative I can say about the man.

The problem with trying to convince you that Nick is better means I almost have to point out the flaws in Gordie’s game and I have no desire to do that.  I’m not sure he has any.  So I have stated my reasons, and now it’s time for you to fight back!


Tigers: Al Kaline

There are so many choices when talking about the Tigers as to who is the best ever?  Hank Greenberg, Ty Cobb, Hal Newhouser, even Charlie Gerringer are all good choices and hard to disagree with.  Detroit has been truly blessed to have so much talent play at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull for all those years.  However Kaline, I believe is the best of the best.  ‘Mr. Tiger’ has all the statistical backing that he needs to win this award.  He was a Tiger his entire career, he hit 399 career home runs and registered over 3000 hits as well.  Kaline is in the Hall of Fame and he also won a World Series in 1968.  To this day, you think Detroit Tigers and even if you never saw Kaline play, I bet you his name is the first that pops in your head.  Kaline has almost a career .300 average and his career OPS is an impressive .855.

I’m not going to pretend that I saw a lot of Kaline’s games because I did not.  I have seen videos, and I have heard numerous stories, and sure some of the other players that I mentioned earlier might even have better stats.  However Kaline embodies all that is the old English D, which is why I go with him.  Who you got?

Pistons: Isiah Thomas

This one is truly a slam dunk to me.  ‘Zeke’ was the most fearless, gutsy, winner I have ever seen in the red white and blue.  Of course what happened to Thomas after he left the Pistons really doesn’t count against him in this argument.  Sure names like Bing, Lanier and Dumars could be mentioned as well, but I can’t be convinced to go with anybody else but Zeke.

‘The Bad Boys’ era of Piston basketball was not only impressive but also entertaining and Thomas was the core of it all.  ‘Zeke’ made that team go, and eventually led them to back to back titles.  For that reason alone, I think Isiah Thomas is the only answer here.

Lions:  Barry Sanders

Herman Moore, Chris Speilman, Mel Far, and Bobby Layne could all maybe be the best Lions ever to play in Pontiac or Detroit, however how can you go against Barry?  Even though Barry decided to fax his retirement into his college paper the day before training camp, and I still have not forgiven him, I just can’t forget his brilliance.  Sure I sometimes go out of my way to point out the flaws of #20, but having seen his unforgettable runs, there is no other choice than Barry in my mind.

Michigan Football: Charles Woodson

What Woodson did in Michigan’s 1997 National Championship season was unreal.  Not only did #2 play a lock down corner back position but he also ran back punts and kicks and even saw time on the offensive side of the ball.  I have never seen a player other than a QB affect a game as much as Woodson did in Ann Arbor.

For the above reasons I have to go with Woodson, however Anthony Carter, Desmond Howard and Tom Harmon also could take home this category.

Michigan State Football:  Bubba Smith

I have to be honest, I struggled coming up with a Spartan to put into this paragraph.  Guys like Charles Rogers, Plaxico Buress , and Andre Rison were all fantastic in East Lansing, however none of them left that lasting impression to me as the greatest I have ever seen to wear a block S.  So I went with Smith!  I have never seen Bubba play, but being a two time All American with Michigan State in the 60’s pretty much speaks for itself.  Smith has his number retired as a Spartan and he is also in the college football hall of fame plus he won back to back national titles as well.

Of course Smith also starred in some ‘Police Academy’ movies, which should catapult him past anybody else that never had a presence on the silver screen.

Michigan Basketball:  Cazzie Russell

Cazzie Russell seems like a no brainer for this honor as people to this day still call Crisler Arena/Center ‘the house that Cazzie built.’  Russell led Michigan to three consecutive Big Ten Titles and two Final Fours.  In 1966 Russell averaged almost 31 points per game for the entire season where he was named College Basketball Player of the Year.

Sure guys like Chris Webber, Glenn Rice and Rudy T. come to mind when talking about the greats of the hoops in Ann Arbor, but nobody can compare with Cazzie.

Michigan State Basketball:  Mateen Cleaves

I know people now think I’m absolutely crazy!  How can I not say that Magic was the best ever to play hoops at MSU?  Let me explain.

Nobody can argue with the brilliance that Magic was and really still is to this day.  While I don’t personally remember 1979, the National Title game pitting Johnson vs. Larry Bird was epic and will always be talked about.  However Magic left East Lansing after his sophomore season, while Mateen stayed all four years playing under Tom Izzo.  I would never try to say that Mateen’s game was anywhere close to that of Erving’s, however being named the greatest player in this category is more than just about stats.

After Johnson won it all he bolted for the NBA and I personally can’t blame him.  However Cleaves refused to leave Izzo and company after his junior year even though his draft stock was at an all-time high.  Cleaves stuck around, went back to the Final Four and  ended up winning a title, something that he set out to do from the get go.  It always seemed like the team was more important to Cleaves than any personal stat was.  Of course there were plenty of milestones for the original ‘Flint Stone.’  Cleaves is the only player in MSU history to be named an ‘All American’  three times and he was also named Big Ten Player of the Year twice.  Cleaves also set the single game record for assists and to this day leads MSU in steals with 193.

But what really made me choose Cleaves for this category was his leadership and the success that followed him.   I am a true believer that Cleaves changed Michigan State hoops for the better and is partially responsible for the dominant program that the school has become.  After Cleaves went to the NBA, MSU has continued to put out solid basketball teams and has gone to 3 more Final Fours.

Cleaves was no doubt Izzo’s biggest recruit and I believe he changed the program forever.

So who did I get wrong?


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