Editor’s note: This Illinois Bicentennial Series is brought to you by the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors and Illinois Press Association. More than 20 newspapers are creating stories about the state’s history, places and key moments in advance of the Bicentennial on Dec. 3, 2018. Stories published up to this date can be found at 200illinois.com.
The Illinois Press Association and Illinois Associated Press Media Editors enlisted longtime Chicago Sun-Times sports reporter Mark Potash for the job. Here is the second installment in his list of the top 10 athletes from Illinois. His top three were Red Grange (Wheaton), Dick Butkus (Chicago) and George Mikan (Joliet).
4) Isiah Thomas, Chicago
The epitome of the head-strong, will-to-win Chicago point guard, Isiah Thomas parlayed his innate skills and determination into superstardom and championships. A west side native, he took St. Joseph High School in Westchester from anonymity to second place in the Class AA state tournament in 1979. He led Indiana to the NCAA title in 1981 and was the spark plug on the Pistons’ back-to-back NBA titles in 1989 and 1990.
Thomas was a 12-time NBA all-star and was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2000.
5) Jackie Joyner-Kersee, East St. Louis
A basketball and track star at East St. Louis Lincoln and UCLA, Jackie Joyner-Kersee made her biggest mark in international track competitions, particularly the Olympics, where she won six medals in four different Olympics — including a silver medal in the heptathlon in 1984 in Los Angeles and gold in the heptathlon in 1988 in Seoul and 1992 in Barcelona. She was named the greatest female athlete of all time by Sports Illustrated for Women in 1990.
6) Otto Graham, Waukegan
The Big Ten Player of the Year at Northwestern — where he also played basketball and baseball — in 1943, Otto Graham became a prolific quarterback and one of the great leaders of pro football history. He won seven league titles with Paul Brown’s Cleveland Browns in the old All-American Football Conference (1946-49) and NFL (1950, 1954 and 1955) and three NFL Most Valuable Player awards (1951, 1953, 1955).
7) Ray Nitschke, Maywood
A rough-and-tough, fierce competitor from Proviso High School, Ray Nitschke was a third-round draft pick by the Packers out of Illinois who was at the right place at the right time — becoming an intimidating force as the leader of the great Packer defenses in the Vince Lombardi era.
Nitschke won five NFL championships with the Packers, including the first two Super Bowls. He was the MVP of the 1962 championship game.
8) Jimmy Connors,
The “Brash Basher of Belleville,” as tennis guru Bud Collins called him, the East St. Louis native was a gritty, gutty, unconventional player and non-conformist who is credited with sparking a re-birth in American tennis in the early 1970s. Jimmy Connors won eight Grand Slam titles, a record 109 singles titles and was ranked No. 1 in the world for 268 weeks, including a then-record 160 straight from 1974-77.
In 1974 at age 22, Connors went 99-4 and won 15 tournaments, including three Grand Slam events — the Australian Open, U.S. Open and Wimbledon. He was barred from the French Open (the second leg) because of a contract with the World Team Tennis, costing him a chance to win the Grand Slam.
9) Lou Boudreau, Harvey
A Hall of Fame shortstop with the Cleveland Indians, Lou Boudreau had one of the greatest baseball seasons of all-time as player/manager in 1948. He won the American League batting title (.355) and MVP award and led the Indians to the World Series championship — the only title the Indians have won since 1920. With a great knack for leadership, Boudreau won a state title in basketball as a sophomore at Thornton and Big Ten titles as team captain in basketball and baseball at Illinois.
10. Bonnie Blair,
Bonnie Blair won five gold medals at three different Olympic Games, capped by a dominating performance in 1994 at Lillehammer, when she won the 500-meters (by 0.36 seconds) and 1,000 meters (by a record-1.38 seconds) by wide margins. She was the first American to win an event (the 500-meters) in three consecutive Olympics. She also won the Sullivan Award as the best amateur athlete in the U.S. in 1992.
Mark Potash can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @MarkPotash.