Twenty for Twenty
The 20 Greatest Acts of Sport Since 1992
From the Print Edition:
Jeremy Irons, March/April 2013
(continued from page 1)
The Detroit Redwings currently have no equal in North American sports. Their active streak of 21 postseason appearances surpasses the Yankees, the Lakers, anyone. The four cups commenced in 1997 with a four-oh dusting of Philadelphia and a sweep of Buffalo in 1998. They blitzed Carolina 4–1 in 2002 and in 2008 it was 4–2 over Pittsburgh. That’s a 16–3 thrashing of finals opponents.
Detroit’s best players of recent vintage each played 20 years with the team: center Steve Yzerman—their captain since he was 21, on board for the first three cups—and Swedish-born defenseman Nicklas Lindstrom, who played on four title teams and won seven James Norris trophies for the best defenseman. Yzerman’s in the Hall of Fame; Lindstrom’s on his way. Sergei Federov, Brendan Shanahan and goalie Chris Osgood were more than a supporting cast.
Their 11 cups are the most by any club based in the United States. They rank third in silver finery behind Montreal (24) and Toronto (13).
11. Michael Phelps
Let the Debates Begin
The counter to Michael Phelps being the “greatest athlete” in Olympic history has been voiced: does swimming require the athletic ability of running and jumping? But even the most ingenious argument can’t erase Phelps’s dominance. Phelps didn’t just surpass the previous medal records—he drowned them. After amassing 18 golds and 22 medals overall, he said, “I can hang up my suit; I’ve done everything I’ve wanted to do.” Any regrets? “Growing up, I looked up to Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time.” The clear implication was that he was the greatest swimmer of all time.
Before the Athens games, Phelps and Coach Bob Bowman sought to build a massive aerobic capacity, logging 50 miles a week in the pool. “During those six years it was a sacrifice that I made to become my best. In bed at 10 or earlier every night, waking up at 6:30 every day: I would do anything. Whatever Bob told me, I would do about 10 times better.”
He lost motivation after the eight pieces of gold in Beijing. “I did nothing for a long time. I gained 25 pounds.” The rumors about his eating entire pizzas and two dozen eggs were excessive, but a friend told him, “Bro, you’re fat.” He then thought, “As I come to closure on my career, am I going to look back and say, ‘What if’? That’s something I don’t want.”
Now retired, Phelps will avoid the path of ungainly athletes who perform after their best days are behind them. “I always said I wouldn’t swim past 30. I don’t want to be that guy who’s hanging on.”
12. Usain Bolt
The Evolution of Sprinting
First came Beijing. Bolt was so far ahead of runner-up Richard Thompson in the 100 meter finals that he slapped his chest in celebration. “Disrespectful” actions said IOC president Jacques Rogge. Bolt disagreed: “When I saw I wasn’t covered, I was just happy.”
Regardless of what his future brings, Bolt has salted away six golds in electric performances at Beijing and London.
It’s sports science. “Sprinters he has run against, such as Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell, take about 45 steps; Bolt takes 41,” according to Matthew Taylor, a sports scientist at the University of Essex. At 6'5", Bolt
defies what gym teachers said about the only successful sprinters being short guys with tree-trunk thighs. If that phys-ed lore seems arcane, so does the screwy math saying that Bolt will hit 9.4. Those believing this 9.4 date with destiny base their unbounded optimism on his long strides making him similar to the world’s fastest land animal, the cheetah. Yes math geeks—but he runs 28 mph; Cheetahs hit 70.
Bolt broke his own 2008 Beijing time of 9.69 in the 100-meter with a 9.63 in London, in what was billed as “the greatest footrace in history,” a proclamation born out as seven of eight contestants finished in less than 10 seconds. He defended his medals in the 200-meter and in the 4-by-100 relay, setting a world record with a time of 36.84 seconds.
13. New Jersey Devils
Three Bits of Silver
With a defeat of Detroit in the 1995 finals, the Devils crowed at their cross-Hudson rival that the cup had migrated from “the Garden to the Garden State.” New Jersey showed true grit, recording 11 road victories in one playoff season.
After four years of playoff frustrations, owner Lou Lamoriello wanted more consistent results and made the gutsy move of replacing Coach Robbie Ftorek with assistant Larry Robinson in 2000. It worked: their 1995 core four of Scott Stevens, Martin Brodeur, Scott Niedermayer, and Bobby Holik remained, but newcomers—including Patrik Elias, Petr Sykora, Jason Arnott, and Alexander Mogilny—helped them recapture the cup against Dallas.
When they beat Anaheim in 2003, five Devils could claim they played on all three: Brodeur, Stevens, Niedermayer, Ken Daneyko, and Sergei Brylin.
The Curse Slain in 2004
If an event is the first in your lifetime—not to mention your parents’ or grandparents' lifetime—then it has riveting potential. Since the Red Sox had last won a Series in 1918, the 85 years of futility that followed were beyond galling, especially given the playoff failures from 1948 to 2003 and seven-game World Series lost in 1946, 1967, 1975, and 1986.
The 2004 comeback remains singular: Boston overcame a three-games-to-none deficit against the New York Yankees. In 2007 they won again, sweeping Colorado.
The team’s victories in 2004 and 2007 owed in large part to two sluggers—Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz—both of whom were found to have used performance enhancing drugs. If grown men want to celebrate dubious events, such as David Ortiz’s 400th home run in 2012—which many baseball writers did, without a word of context about the cheating revelations years earlier—let them. Likewise, Yankee fans should see the Mitchell Report before recalling fondly their victory in the 2000 World Series. Clemens, David Justice, Chuck Knoblauch and others on that team have all been accused of using performance enhancers.
15. Dream Team
We can recall Seoul in 1988, when collegians, led by David Robinson, watched the Soviets take gold, Yugoslavia silver, and America bronze. An 82–76 semifinal loss to the Soviets sealed the fate of college players.
Then came the varsity in ’92. In Barcelona America thumped its opponents by 43.8 points per game. Its 117.3 points per game were 15 more than the 1960 team in Rome that included Jerry West and Oscar Robertson. The closest anyone came in ’92 was Croatia, which lost 117–85 in the final. In 2012, James and company posted 106 points per game and won by a margin of 32.1 points. But the original dreamers had perimeter bombers with Bird, Mullins and Jordan; half-court maestros in John Stockton and Magic Johnson; rebounding in Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Robinson, and Patrick Ewing. Against that frontcourt, who would board for the London boys? Kevin Love? Carmelo Anthony?
Chuck Daley was right 20 years ago: “You will see another team of professionals, but I don’t think you will see another team like this.”
16. New York Giants
Giants’ president John Mara explained Super Bowl XLII was the “greatest victory in franchise history; we beat a team that was 18–0.” The Giants were 12-point underdogs, the fourth biggest in Super Bowl history. After Brady drove the Patriots to a 14–10 lead, Eli Manning had 2:42 to play with. “Isn’t this the way you like it?” one ref asked another. Manning’s third-and-five Houdini escape from a rush and David Tyree’s circus catch for 32 yards set up a slant-and-go 11-yard touchdown to Burress. Even Brady couldn’t maneuver with 0:39 remaining. The Giants sacked Brady five times and knocked him down 23 times.
Four years later, Manning started on his 12, trailing 17–15 with 3:46 remaining. He redialed the Tyree moment, dashing left from the pocket and arching a 38-yarder along the left sideline to Mario Manningham, who caught it fully extended and righted his feet to stay in bounds. Manning couldn’t have handed it to Manningham any better. Aerials to Manningham and Nicks and runs by Bradshaw gave the Giants a 21–17 victory.
Amid discussions of his status as an “elite” quarterback—and, later, an absurd ranking by his peers as just the 31st best player in the league—Manning delivered again. His 15 passing touchdowns in fourth quarters broke the record of brother Peyton and John Unitas.
The “Sixburgh” Steelers
Could it be that Steel Town—following the ’70s juggernaut of Bradshaw, Harris, Swan, Stallworth and a skeleton-rearranging defense—didn’t win for another 26 years? Super Bowl XL between Pittsburgh and Seattle was a sleepy affair, won by Pittsburgh 21–10. With a setlist that included “Start Me Up” and “Satisfaction,” the Stones were the liveliest act that day.
Pittsburgh triumphed again in 2008, as Santonio Holmes recorded a postseason for the ages. Against San Diego he returned a punt for 67 yards and a touchdown. The Ravens were victims next, and Holmes hauled in a 65-yarder from Ben Roethlisberger. He saved his best for the Cardinals.
With 2:47 remaining, the Steelers started on the 12, and Holmes caught passes of 12, 13, and 40 yards. With :42 left, he hauled in a laser and tapped both feet in the corner of the end zone for a 27-21 win. Pittsburgh (now “Six-Burgh”) owns a record six Super Bowl wins. The greatest ever? They aren’t. Around since 1933, Pittsburgh was titleless over their first 41 years. Green Bay owns 13 titles—the Bears nine, the Browns and the Giants eight apiece.
A Streak Ended
It wasn’t merely 53 years without winning. This wasn’t ordinary futility; this was existential futility—futility so galling that Sisyphus would run from it. Just years after their third cup in 1940, the Rangers plummeted to the abyss. They lost one mid-1940s game 15–0. One Ranger goalie was so permeable that he registered a 6.20 goals-against-average.
The Islanders, the babies who entered the league in 1972, not only stole their Manhattan uncle’s lunch over the next decade, but ate it right in front of them. It started with an upset of the Rangers in the 1975 playoffs and ended with the Islanders snatching four consecutive Stanley Cups from 1980 through 1983, evicting the Rangers three times in the process.
Even with Messier, the Blue Shirts finished sixth in 1993. But with Richter between the pipes—and a team best 112 points, a franchise record 52 goals by Adam Graves and stellar defense from Conn Smythe winner Brian Leetch—the Rangers came through. Messier’s victory guarantee against the Devils in game six lives on in sporting lore. The parade and the countless “I can now die in peace” sentiments that followed shook our still unharmed city.
19. Messi v. Ronaldo
Since Lionel Messi plays for Barcelona and Cristiano Ronaldo leads Madrid, a competition between the two squads often leads to a Mantle-versus-Mays-style debate about which player is the best. Nicknamed La Pulga Atomica (“The Atomic Flea”) because of his diminutive 5'7" stature (compared to Ronaldo at 6'1"), Messi was FIFA player of the year from 2009–2011. He topped out with 74 goals and 27 assists in 68 games for the 2011–2012 campaign.
By contrast, Ronaldo, a physically imposing winger, is more adept at finishing with the head than Messi, who produces most of his goals left-footed. Messi is the superior dribbler: the ball can appear glued to his feet, even while maneuvering in tight situations. His edge is his chemistry with Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta. Ronaldo has been criticized for going it alone. He may shoot from impossibly difficult angles and great distances, even when his mates are better situated to score. Who is best? Ronaldo says it is like “comparing a Ferrari with a Porsche.”
Farewell to those passing from the scene over the last 20 years, including Wayne Gretzky and Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Bird, Stockton and Malone, Johnson and Nolan Ryan, Lemieux and Ken Griffey Jr., Ripken Jr. and Maddux.
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