Phoenix Mount Rushmore of Sports: Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Nash, Randy Johnson, Diana Taurasi 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.

The Phoenix Rushmore includes two Valley of the Sun legends — Larry Fitzgerald and Diana Taurasi — who have spent their entire careers playing in front of fans in Arizona, and two Hall of Famers — Randy Johnson and Steve Nash — who established themselves elsewhere but were just brilliant during their years in town. 

And yet, the Phoenix Rushmore needs an asterisk. Because any conversation about professional sports in Phoenix that doesn’t include longtime hockey icon — no single person has ever done more for the icy sport in the desert — Shane Doan. 

MORE: See The Sporting News Rushmore of all 13 cities

“He’s probably the most beloved athlete in the community, to be honest,” longtime Phoenix sportswriter Paola Boivin said. “In all the years they were bad, he had opportunities to leave and he never did. There is a great appreciation for the fact that he stuck with the club. He’s such a nice human being. Everyone who meets him comes away and says something good about Doan and their encounter with him. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

And if this was a Rushmore of beloved players, the two-time All-Star who is 17th all-time in NHL games played would be on this list. But only four can reside on Rushmore, and who are you going to boot? The guy who won four consecutive Cy Young awards and helped the city celebrate its first championship? The back-to-back NBA MVP? The second-leading receiver in NFL history? Arguably the greatest player in WNBA history? 

You see the dilemma. Johnson, Nash, Fitzgerald and Taurasi stay, and Doan gets his mention right here. 

LARRY FITZGERALD, Cardinals (2004-2020)

If not for Barry Sanders, Larry Fitzgerald just might be the best No. 3 overall pick in NFL Draft history. He was a superstar receiver at the University of Pittsburgh and made an instant impact on a woebegone NFL franchise that needed an instant impact. 

Maybe more important, though, he made a lasting impact on that franchise. He played all 17 of his seasons in the NFL wearing a Cardinals uniform. 

“Phoenix, because we are a city of transplants, really values when somebody stays with one franchise,” Boivin said. “That in pro sports is such a rarity these days. The fact that he wanted to stay here really meant so much to fans.”

Fitzgerald had 780 yards receiving and eight touchdowns as a rookie, then led the NFL with 103 receptions in 2005. Of those 103 catches, 68 went for first downs and 10 were touchdowns. He missed a couple games in 2006 but was incredible as Kurt Warner took over QB1 duties in 2007-08. In those two years, Fitzgerald had 22 touchdown receptions, 196 catches and 2,840 yards receiving. 

And he was at his best on football’s biggest stage: the postseason. 

The Cardinals, who were 9-7 in 2008 and claimed a wild-card spot, followed Fitzgerald on a wild ride through the playoffs. In the wild-card round, he had 101 yards receiving and a touchdown — it was fitting he scored the first TD of the game — and in the divisional round, 166 yards and a touchdown. In the NFC Championship, with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line — the franchise hadn’t played for a title since 1948, when it called Chicago home — Fitzgerald scored three first-half touchdowns and finished with 152 yards against Philadelphia. 

And then, the Super Bowl. Oh, that Super Bowl. The heavy underdog Cardinals trailed the Steelers, 20-7, entering the fourth quarter. A 1-yard touchdown pass from Warner to Fitzgerald on a fade pattern with 7:33 left gave the Cardinals life, and a 64-yard touchdown pass — Fitzgerald caught a short pass from Warner across the middle, found the seam and outraced three Pittsburgh defenders — gave Arizona the 23-20 lead with 2:33 left. If not for Santonio Holmes’ incredible catch with 35 seconds left, Fitzgerald’s run-and-catch would have gone down as one of the best TDs in Super Bowl history. 

Speaking of history, the Cardinals’ record book reads like an ode to Fitzgerald. He had more than twice as many receptions as any other player in franchise history, more than twice as many yards receiving and 55 more receiving touchdowns. Not that he’d tell you, though.

“He comes across very sort of quiet and sweet, and in an era where athletes and celebrities can be all ‘Look at me!’ that was never who he was at all,” Boivin said. “I remember early in my coverage of the Cardinals, I would have to chase him down in a parking lot after games because he didn’t want to do interviews. Once you got him, he couldn’t be any more polite. He was thoughtful, had really good things to say, but was always trying to deflect attention off himself, for sure.”

Fitzgerald made his first Pro Bowl at 22, his 11th and final at 34. He led the NFL in receptions for the first time at 22 and for the second time at 33. He had at least 90 receptions eight times and at least 1,000 yards receiving nine times. He’s the best player in Arizona Cardinals history — the best in Cardinals franchise history, period — and the easiest choice for the Phoenix Rushmore.

Fitzgerald By The Numbers
Seasons in Phoenix 17
Pro Bowls 11
Receptions 1,432*
Receiving yards 17,492*
TD receptions 121**

*Second all-time **13th all-time

TSN ARCHIVES: Larry Fitzgerald retire? Bruce Arians had some counterpoints ready

RANDY JOHNSON, Diamondbacks (1999-2004, 2007-2008)

Randy Johnson’s spot among Phoenix’s elite is unique with our Rushmore honorees. 

For starters, the menacing lefty with an overpowering fastball and unfair slider didn’t even throw his first pitch for the Diamondbacks until he was 35 years old. Most athletes are contemplating retirement as 40 looms, but the Big Unit was just getting ready to establish a baseball legacy with an expansion franchise. 

And, boy, did he ever. The Diamondbacks played their first season in 1998, winning just 65 games, and went about a roster remake that offseason. Signing Johnson — who already had 2,329 career strikeouts, one Cy Young award and three other top-three finishes under his belt — was the top priority, but the D-backs also brought in Steve Finley, Armando Reynoso, Erubiel Durazo, Tony Womack and others before Opening Day 1999. 

That 1999 team won 100 games, and Johnson won the NL Cy Young award. He won the award again in 2000. And again in 2001. And again in 2002. And here’s the thing: None of the votes was particularly close. In his first four seasons with the Diamondbacks — his Age 35-38 seasons — Johnson claimed 84 of the possible 128 first-place Cy Young votes.

“I think a lot of novice fans thought, ‘Oh, this is what baseball looks like,’” Boivin said. 

And think about this: From 1980 to present day, no pitcher other than Johnson has recorded more than 326 strikeouts in a season, but from 1999-2002, Johnson averaged 354 strikeouts per year, with a single-season career best of 372 in 2001 that’s the third-highest total since 1900. And speaking of that 2001 season … 

In the regular season, Johnson led the NL with his 2.49 ERA and 372 strikeouts, and then he took things up a notch in October. In three starts leading to the World Series, Johnson posted a 1.88 ERA. He started Games 2 and 6 of the Fall Classic against the Yankees, recording 18 strikeouts against just nine hits and two runs, and Arizona won both contests. 

The very next night, Johnson entered in relief with two outs in the eighth inning of a tied ballgame, retired all four batters he faced and the Diamondbacks won on Luis Gonzalez’s single in the bottom of the ninth. Yep, that’s legendary stuff. 

“This is not a community of champions,” Boivin said. “The Suns are still working on the first one. The Cardinals are still working on it. So for longtime sports fans, his role in that World Series meant everything.”

All told, Johnson pitched eight seasons for Arizona. He threw a perfect game for the Diamondbacks at age 40 in 2004, exploded a bird with a spring training pitch, racked up 2,077 strikeouts in his time with the Diamondbacks and won four Cy Young awards. So, yeah, it’s a unique Rushmore story, but it’s certainly a worthy one. 

Johnson By The Numbers
World Series titles 1
Cy Young Awards with D-backs 4
All-Star Games with D-backs 5
Strikeouts with D-backs 2,077
Perfect games at 40 years old 1

TSN ARCHIVES: Randy Johnson, dissected 

DIANA TAURASI, Mercury (2004-present)

Diana Taurasi doesn’t just own a spot on the Phoenix sports Mount Rushmore, she would be in consideration for a spot on the WNBA Rushmore, too. Let’s start here: She’s not just the leader in career points for any WNBA player, she’s also the leader by more than 2,000 points, ahead of second-place Tina Thompson. Add that to 10 All-Star appearances and three WNBA titles and, well, she’s carved out a legacy of excellence worth of all the highest honors. 

“It’s her ability to win at every level. She has an Olympic gold. She has three WNBA titles. Won an NCAA championship at Connecticut,” Boivin said. “She’s one of those players who, when she’s on the court, the team has a chance to win. She’s just, for lack of a better word, such a baller. She loves basketball so much, lives and breathes it.”

Randy Johnson helped Phoenix claim its first major professional title in 2001. Taurasi was the No. 1 overall pick of the WNBA Draft out of Connecticut a few years later, in 2004, and it only took her a couple of years to help lift the Mercury to the top of the league. She helped lead the Mercury to their first title in 2007, and they won again in 2009, and in both series the Mercury trailed in the WNBA Finals, 2 games to 1 in the best-of-five. Both times they rallied to win the championship.

The third title was a little easier, relatively speaking. Phoenix went 29-6 during the 2014 regular season; Taurasi led a balanced squad with her 16.2 points and 5.6 assists per game. The Mercury then dispatched the Sparks and Lynx in the first two rounds, dropping just one game along the way. They swept the Sky in the Finals, with Taurasi averaging 20.3 points and 6.3 assists per game. 

“Her knowledge of the game is so great, and I think that helps her deliver what the team needs,” Boivin said. “There’s also a selflessness involved there, when a team doesn’t need points but needs assists. That’s really a reflection of who she is, because she loves the game so much she does whatever is needed to help the team win.”

Off the court, Taurasi has never been shy about speaking her mind, a trait that Boivin said has made her a fan favorite in her 18 seasons in Phoenix. 

“They adore her here. The Mercury has a very strong following in the community, a good fan base that’s very passionate about the team,” Boivin said. “She’s not a ‘Hey look at me!’ person, but if she feels wronged or feels like the WNBA is being wrong, she speaks out about it, often with sarcasm and attitude, which is brilliant. She’s been a great voice for the fans, for the players and for the sport in general.”

Taurasi By The Numbers
WNBA titles 3
MVP awards 1
All-Star Games 10
Career points 9,422*
Career assists 2,101**
Career 3-pointers 1,250*
All-Star Games 8

*First all-time **Fifth all-time

TSN ARCHIVES: Diana Taurasi voted by fans as WNBA’s greatest player of all-time

STEVE NASH, Suns (1996-1998, 2004-2012)

Steve Nash had two stints in Phoenix as a point guard for the Suns. The second one, folks, is why he’s here. But you probably already knew that. 

In that first stretch of desert basketball, Nash averaged 16.7 minutes and 6.4 points per game in the first two years after the Suns took him with the 15th overall pick in the 1996 NBA Draft. Then he was traded to Dallas. He became an All-Star point guard with the Mavericks, but nobody was quite prepared to see what he would accomplish when he returned to the Valley as a free agent for the 2004-05 season.

Turns out, he was the perfect piece of the puzzle for the Suns. They had a new head coach in Mike D’Antoni who wanted to push the tempo every possession, and they had a bunch of guys — Amar’e Stoudamire, Joe Jackson, Shawn Marion and Quentin Richardson atop that list — who could score at will. They just needed someone to get them the basketball. 

Nash obliterated his previous career high in assists per game (8.8) with a league-leading total of 11.5 per game, and the Suns went from 29 wins the previous season to 62 in Nash’s return, matching the best mark in franchise history. Phoenix averaged 110.4 points per game; the Kings were second at 103.7. His impact was so undeniable that he was voted the league’s MVP, despite averaging just 15.5 points per game. Only two players in NBA history have ever won an MVP award with a lower scoring average — Bill Russell (14.1 in 1964-64) and Wes Unseld (13.8 in 1968-69). 

“He was part of those Suns teams that were so much fun to watch,” Boivin said. “As long as he was in the game, you always felt like the Suns had a chance to do something. That hasn’t always been the case with this franchise, which still has not won an NBA title. But when he was on the court, you always thought that was a possibility. I remember Mike D’Antoni telling me once that one of Nash’s greatest assets was how, behind the scenes, he kept the team unified, putting out fires before they started, and noticing things and trying to help the cause. So obviously there’s that great value he brought on the court but he played a bigger role behind the scenes.”

Nash was better in 2005-06 — he upped his scoring to 18.8 per game, while elevating shooting percentages on 2-point and 3-point shots and from the free-throw line — and voters gave him a second consecutive MVP award. He also was The Sporting News’ Player of the Year.

“There were expectations, but not like what he delivered in the eight years he was with the Suns,” Boivin said. “He just elevated everybody’s levels of play. People who were not that into basketball found him unassuming, they didn’t realize who he was and what he was capable of. Constantly hitting that big 3 and making everyone around him better, I think it was a surprise how he did.”

In his eight-season run with the Suns from his Age 30 season to his Age 37 season, Nash averaged 16.3 points and 10.9 assists, played in six All-Star Games, led the league in total assists six times and led the league in true shooting percentage twice. Oh, and five playoff berths, three division titles and two 60-plus win seasons. Not a bad return for a kid they originally traded away after just two seasons. 

Nash By The Numbers
MVP awards 2
All-Star Games with Suns 6
NBA season assists leader with Suns  6
All-Star Games with Suns 8

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