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Twenty for Twenty

The 20 Greatest Acts of Sport Since 1992
Ken Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Jeremy Irons, March/April 2013

When Cigar Aficionado first showed its face on a newsstand in 1992, the deity of the sporting universe was one Michael Jordan, a 29-year-old who had already touched the ether. Since that time, football, a violent but enthralling game, has cemented its standing as America’s national pastime, replacing baseball, now tattered and corrupted, having devolved into a faint image of its former self. The past 20 years have bore witness to a host of acts of sporting dominance and excellence, none greater than the 20 we have assembled here.

1. Jordan
The Greatest Ever

Just 41.9 tics remained in game six of the 1998 NBA Finals. With his Bulls down 86–83, Michael Jordan drove for a layup, stole a low-post pass to Karl Malone, then shed Byron Russell and nailed a 15-footer for an 87–86 win. It was Chicago’s sixth title in eight years—an incomparable end to Jordan’s hegemony of the hardwood.

Jordan retired in 2003. He has a Beatle-sized fan base now, and like a giant he is faced with swarming Lilliputians seeking to usurp his throne. Jordan detractors rarely, if ever, reference a cold, hard stat. They take refuge in the shadows of nebulous phrases, speaking of others who “made players around them better.” Few fans, scribes or broadcasters seem to know the markers that reflect his dominance.

Career scoring leader? Jordan, 30.1 points per game. Career playoff scoring leader? Jordan, 33.4 points per game. Only Jordan led his team to six NBA titles and was awarded Finals MVPs for all six. He earned All-Defensive Team honors nine times. “Did anyone else win 70 games?” came his impatient quip when asked if the ’96 Bulls were the greatest quintet of all time. That team won 72 and then 69 the following year, 141–23 over two years.

“Jordan is embarrassing the league,” said Chuck Daley in the late 1980s, even as he was devising the “Jordan Rules,” a strategy of throttling Jordan continuously. “The other rule was, any time he went by you, you had to nail him,” Daly said. “If he was coming off a screen, nail him. We didn’t want to be dirty—I know some people thought we were—but we had to be very physical.” A decade later, after the championship wreckage Jordan had wrought, Pat Riley said, “Everyone who plays in this time has an excuse for not having a championship. That excuse is Michael Jordan.”

Repeat after me, please: There is not now, never was, and never will be another basketball player like Michael Jordan.

2. Roger Federer
The King of Slams

The grace, the footwork, the sheer fluidity of his movements—these elements are apparent even to Roger Federer’s casual observers. By dispatching Andy Murray last Wimbledon, Federer showed that approaching 31 years old needn’t be a retirement sentence. He won all 17 of his Grand Slam Singles titles from 2003 through 2012. 

Many players—Pete Sampras, John McEnroe and Rod Laver included—consider Federer the greatest ever. When Federer broke Sampras’ record of 14 Slams at Wimbledon in 2009, Sampras joked, “You only allowed me [the record] for seven years.” Sampras continued: “He’s got 15 grand slams, and he could get 16, 17 or 18.” The Swiss-born “Federer Express” has slowed, winning just two of 14 Grand Slam events. No matter. The greatest tennis player of all time has played in our time.

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