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.
The Bay Area isn’t necessarily synonymous with the word grit, and neither are many of the best pro athletes to ever call it home. Rice, Montana, Bonds, Mays, Henderson, McCovey and Barry all made greatness look so damn Stephortless.
But then you dig a little deeper and start to understand what makes them great.
MORE: See The Sporting News Rushmore of all 13 cities
Grit x Talent.
For some of the Bay Area’s best, their legacies preceded them. Joe Montana, a national championship winner at Notre Dame, helped usher in a new offensive system that would change the league forever. Barry Bonds came back home to the Bay fresh off an MVP season in Pittsburgh.
For others, their arrivals came with skepticism. Jerry Rice dominated college football, but outside of the national spotlight. Could he get separation against the NFL’s best defenses? Stephen Curry was a nice story with a beautiful stroke, but could a guard from Davidson really be more than a 6th man in the NBA?
Yes and yes.
Four legends who have the honor of being in the discussion for GOAT status in each of their respective sports make up the Bay Area’s Mount Rushmore. Rice, Curry, Bonds and Montana stand above the many other legends that played at Oracle Arena, the Coliseum, the Cow Palace and the ‘Stick. So sound the foghorn, set off the water cannons and listen to who We Believe belongs on the mountain.
JERRY RICE (49ers, 1985-2000; Raiders 2001-04)
Jerry Rice might just be the greatest football player to ever live. The NFL Network thought as much in 2010, when it ranked him No. 1 in their countdown of the league’s top 100 players of all-time.
From the moment general manager John McVay and head coach Bill Walsh traded up to grab Rice out of Mississippi Valley State in the 1985 NFL draft, much was expected.
“Bill Walsh was unlike most other talent evaluators in that he didn’t believe that there was a guy he’d really like to have,” said longtime Bay Area columnist Ray Ratto. “There were a few guys he really had to have and Rice probably was the premier example of that.”
His rookie year was a bit uneven, yet he still recorded almost 1,000 yards receiving. In year two, it was on. Rice finished with over 1,500 yards receiving and caught 15 touchdowns, leading the NFL in both categories. The strike-shortened 1987 season was arguably the most impressive of his Hall of Fame career. In just 12 games, he caught 22 touchdowns, finishing second in MVP voting and capturing AP Player of the Year honors.
“The funny thing about it is he didn’t really have a defining moment (in his career),” Ratto says. “He had a bunch of defining games.”
One of those was the 49ers’ dramatic 20-16 win over the Bengals in Super Bowl 23. Rice was simply unstoppable, torching the Bengals for 11 catches for 215 yards and a touchdown as he took home MVP honors.
“He dominated that game coming off an ankle injury,” says Bonta Hill, radio personality on 95.7 The Game and host of Warriors pregame live on NBC Sports Bay Area. “He was spectacular. Quick slants, deep routes, double-teamed, triple-teamed, it did not matter,” Hill said.
When the lights were brightest, Rice was at his best. In four Super Bowl appearances (three in San Francisco, one with Oakland), he averaged 147.3 yards and two touchdowns per game. No other wide receiver who has played in multiple Super Bowls has averaged more than 117 yards receiving.
Rice played 16 seasons with the Niners before heading across the Bay where he helped Oakland to its last Super Bowl appearance at age 40 with a 1,200-yard season. In 54 somewhat forgotten games in Oakland, he still averaged 61 yards per game and scored 18 touchdowns — all after age 39.
“He worked harder than you did in July and August, and beat you like an old rug in September, October, November, December, and January,” Ratto says.
His career numbers are, in two words, utterly ridiculous. He still ranks first in NFL history in receptions, receiving yards, touchdowns and all-purpose yards despite the evolution to the NFL being a pass-first league the last 20 years. He finished in the top 10 in NFL in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns a whopping 12 times. He was a 10-time All-Pro selection who finished with three Super Bowl rings.
“Rice was the one guy who could not ever be accounted for by any other team no matter what they did,” Ratto says. “You couldn’t double-team him out of the game. And that’s probably the most extraordinary thing you can say about anybody.”
At the end of the day, there simply aren’t enough goat emojis to describe his career.
|Career receptions; rec yds; rec TDs||1,549*; 22,895*; 197*|
|Super Bowl titles||3|
|Super Bowl MVP||1|
* – NFL All-time leader
** – NFL All-time leader by non-kicker
TSN ARCHIVES: Jerry Rice was some catch (Dec. 24, 1990)
STEPH CURRY (Warriors, 2009-current)
Stephen Curry simply changed the game.
Everyone knew he could shoot when the Warriors drafted him 7th overall in 2009. But few anticipated him developing into arguably the greatest shooter to ever live, with an incredible handle, flare for the dramatic, and the engine for a dynasty almost nobody in the NBA saw coming.
Early in his career, with the Warriors mired in well over a decade of mediocrity following Run TMC and a brief return to relevance with We Believe, Curry was paired with fan favorite Monta Ellis in the backcourt. Many Warriors fans wanted Ellis to be the star, but the Warriors front office thought differently.
“You were either team Monta or team Steph,” Hill says. “I remember when the Warriors traded Monta and I was like damn that’s a bad move. Steph had the (oft-injured) ankles. He is another cursed Warrior.”
Ellis was traded to the Milwaukee Bucks in 2012, clearing a path for Curry and then rookie Klay Thompson to become the Dubs backcourt. In the 2012-2013 season, Curry began the most prolific shooting stretch in NBA history. He broke the league’s all-time record for 3-pointers made in a single season in 2013 (272). And again in 2015 (286). And again in 2016 (402), a record that still stands. Curry owns four of the top five single-season marks in league history and is 127 triples clear of Ray Allen for the career mark. And he’s just 34.
But he is obviously more than a shooting savant, as he led the Warriors to back-to-back NBA Finals appearances in pre-Kevin Durant era, and has brought home four rings overall to a Bay Area that had not had an NBA championship since 1975.
“I think it’s safe to say in no point in his career was he the best player in the league, but he was the most important player on the best team four times,” Ratto said.
There are the titles Curry has brought to the Bay, and in the process, a new state-of-the art arena in San Francisco, and the moments. His performance in Game 4 of the NBA Finals against the Celtics was one for the ages.
“In a gotta-have-it game, when he silenced that crowd and dropped 43 big ones, it’s hard not to say that’s not the signature moment,” Hill says. “On the grandest of stages. In Boston under all of those banners.”
His 54-point performance in Madison Square Garden in 2013, against a Knicks franchise that passed on him in the draft, was perhaps his coronation as an NBA Superstar. His then-NBA record tying 12th 3-pointer, a 40-foot bomb to beat the OKC Thunder in 2016, nearly broke Twitter and might be the most iconic shot of his career.
“Me and my buddies watched that on DVR,” Hill says. “Ordered some wings. We were rolling around the floor losing our minds like ‘what is this?’ And he did it with an ankle injury earlier that game too.”
As great as his four NBA titles and 2 MVPs are, it is his style of play that has absolutely transcended the sport.
“We kind of throw around the term ‘change the game’ loosely these days. But he has revolutionized the game,” Hill says. “Players want to mimic Stephen Curry, whether they are girls or boys. They want to mimic Stephen Curry because of the things he can do under the rim.”
|Most Valuable Player awards||2|
|NBA scoring titles||2|
|Career playoff 3-pointers*||561|
* – All-time NBA record
TSN ARCHIVES: Steph Curry, ‘there’s never been anyone like him’ (Oct. 22, 2021)
BARRY BONDS (Giants, 1993-2007)
No sport is more reliant on statistics than baseball. When you pull up Barry Bonds’ numbers on baseball reference, none of it makes any sense. You reload the page and it still doesn’t make sense. His slugging percentage reads like OPS. His power numbers, in both phases of his career in San Francisco, are absolutely staggering.
Obviously, those numbers come with a major caveat — starting in the late 1990’s, PEDs were rampant throughout baseball.
“There is an asterisk next to that entire era and that’s baseball’s problem because baseball let that happen because baseball took all the money and let that happen,” Ratto says.
Bonds was vilified by a portion of the baseball populace at large, but his standing in San Francisco was and always will be secure.
“I mean yeah, it’s controversial, but he is no doubt a Hall of Famer,” Hill says. “The controversy, it is what it is. Did he take steroids? Probably. But who wasn’t in that era?”
When looking at those numbers book ending his career in the Bay, it’s easy to understand why he won 7 MVPs, second to only Wayne Gretzky in pro sports history. In 1993, his first full season in San Francisco playing at wind swept Candlestick Park, he won his third MVP with 46 HRs, 123 RBIs and 29 stolen bases. In 2004, despite walking 232 times in 617 plate appearances, he still hit 45 HRs and drove in 101 runs, capturing his final MVP award.
“The fact that he walked almost 240 times in a year and intentionally walked 120 times tells you that he was the most feared player ever in terms of making managers just sweat and making pitchers just wishing they had taken up another job,” Ratto said.
Outside of perhaps his Godfather Willie Mays, Bonds was the most must-see TV athlete in baseball history. When he stood at the plate waving the bat with a slight waggle, everything stopped. Flashbulbs popped, fans stood to witness either a 420 foot home run or, often, a terrified pitcher nibbling like crazy and Bonds slowly trotting down to first base.
“Bonds created more fear than anybody else the game has ever seen,” Ratto said. “More than (Ted) Williams, more than (Joe) DiMaggio, even more than Mays,” Ratto said.
During his power heyday from 2001-2004, he walked an astounding 755 times.
Numbers aside, Barry Bonds’ legacy in the Bay started in high school when he starred for Serra High School in San Mateo, the same school that later produced Tom Brady. His dominance in the big leagues helped the Giants organization build a brand new ballpark on the shores of the San Francisco Bay in 2000.
“It’s the park that Barry Bonds built,” Hill says. “Barry was baseball here in San Francisco. He was box office. Think about how much better he made Rich Aurilla. Think about how much better he made Jeff Kent. He won an MVP batting behind Barry.”
|Most Valuable Player awards (with Giants)||5|
|Silver Slugger awards (with Giants)||9|
|Gold Glove awards (with Giants)||5|
|Career home runs*||762|
|Single-season home runs*||73|
* – MLB record
TSN ARCHIVES: Barry Bonds’ 71 homers are a lot, how about 755 (Oct. 8, 2001)
JOE MONTANA (49ers, 1979-92)
A single play perfectly encapsulates Joe Montana’s career.
Trailing by a touchdown with under a minute left in the 1982 NFC Championship game against the hated Dallas Cowboys, Montana rolled to his right, was chased towards the sideline, pump faked to wait for Dwight Clark to break open and flung a ball high to the back corner of the end zone. Clark hauled in the pass in what became one of the most iconic plays in NFL history and helped establish Montana’s reputation as the Comeback Kid.
“There were a ton of plays like that during his career where he should be filling trousers and in fact he is as calm as can be,” Ratto says.
The dramatics did more than just send the 49ers to their first Super Bowl. It elevated a franchise to a decade of success after the city endured seven losing seasons in eight years. And for Montana to do it against the Cowboys, who had sent the 49ers home from the playoffs three straight years from 1970-72, well, that was icing on The Catch.
During his 15-year career, Joe Cool led 31 comeback drives. He helped Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense revolutionize the NFL world, and until the likes of Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers came along, was widely regarded as the best QB to ever play in the NFL.
“This guy changed the culture of the 49ers, kind of like Steph Curry did with the Golden State Warriors,” Hill says. “People forget who Joe was. Joe was that dude. He was the Brady of that era. All the commercials. Everything. When you think about pinpoint accuracy. When you think about the clutch gene, it was Joe.”
His overall numbers aren’t necessarily staggering, but his imprint on the game is undeniable, winning back-to-back MVPs in 1989 and 1990 and three Super Bowl MVPs.
“The numbers are the worst way to compare because the NFL bears very little resemblance today to what it was 40 years ago,” Ratto says. “You can’t really take a guy out of his timeline and that’s another reason why Montana matters. Quarterbacks being given as much credit as they are for what is essentially an ensemble sport probably is as good as an example of why he should be on the list as any.”
|Super Bowl titles||4|
|Super Bowl MVPs||3|
TSN ARCHIVES: Joe Montana, the best (April 24, 1995) | Joe Montana, the bottom line (April 24, 1995)