Twenty for Twenty
The 20 Greatest Acts of Sport Since 1992
From the Print Edition:
Jeremy Irons, March/April 2013
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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.
3. Tiger Woods
A Career in Two Acts
Since 1997, Tiger Woods has won 14 majors. Runner-up Phil Mickelson, as tiny as a bug speck in Woods’ rearview mirror, has four since 1997. That said, the “Is Woods back?” query is fatuous.
Consider: He seemed a lock to surpass Jack Nicklaus’ Ruthian standard of 18. In Act Two he hasn’t won any of the last 18 majors played. By the 2013 Masters, his 17th professional season, he will be 37 and five years removed from his last major win.
Even before his drought I found the “athletic” praise given to a practitioner of cow pasture pool to be excessive. “He is the greatest athlete of any kind in any era,” a gushing Jim Nantz once said to Don Imus. Greatest athlete? No. Whenever one thinks of the greatest athletes ever, how can you skip over Jordan and Gretzky, Jimmy Brown and Babe Ruth and go straight to the guy who hits a ball lying still?
Reasons abound as to why Woods is major-less since the Bush Administration. Personal distractions. Age. Inconsistent play. Yet Woods ranks as the second greatest who ever toted clubs—thus joining the company of other second greats: Ted Williams, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Mario Lemieux. Tell me, what’s wrong with that?
4. The Yankees
A Dominant Dynasty
The Yankees’ sixth dynasty included four World Series won between 1996 and 2000—the most dominant act in baseball since Oakland’s three straight from ’72 to ’74. This wasn’t success hatched from payroll excess; it was homegrown. Most valuable were Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Paul O’Neill, Bernie Williams and Andy Pettitte. Only O’Neill arrived via trade. Rivera, the greatest reliever ever to draw breath, and Jeter are Hall of Famers; the other four multiple All-Stars. Jeter stands—behind Honus Wagner, but with Ernie Banks, Robin Yount and Cal Ripken Jr.—as one of the five greatest shortstops.
5. Dallas Cowboys
Peerless Balance in the '90s
The last Cowboys dynasty boasted the “Triplets”—Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin. That constellation of preternatural Hall of Fame talent gave Dallas the firepower to win the Super Bowl three times between 1992 and 1995.
Another Hall of Famer was Jimmy Johnson—the first coach to win a NCCA championship and a pro title. During a galling 1–15 season in 1989, Johnson, on a morning jog, brainstormed about which players were expendable. He chose Herschel Walker, a risky move since he had been the dismal team’s leader in yards from scrimmage for three years. The Vikings wanted Walker and received four draft picks, while Dallas grabbed six—used to pick Smith, Darren Woodson, and defensive standout Russell Maryland. Known as “The Great Train Robbery,” the largest deal in NFL history involved 18 players.
Just three years later, the Cowboys crushed Buffalo 52–17 in Super Bowl XXVII, 30–13 the next, and took Pittsburgh two years later. They won the three by a comically lopsided score of 119 to 47. Besides quick strike and ground-it-out offense, Dallas’ defenders included Ken Norton Jr., Maryland, Jim Jeffcoat, Charles Haley, Tony Tolbert and Woodson.
Dallas led the league in parties in the locker room, but all was forgiven. “Super Bowls act as a big headache pill for the city of Dallas,” said cornerback Kevin Smith. “No matter how we behaved, the people would forgive us. Why? Because we gave them Super Bowls.”
6. New England
Tom Brady Driving
New England won three titles in four years, eaking out each by three points. They lost to the Giants by three in 2007 and by four in 2011. They have thus played in more thrilling Super Bowls than any other team.
As Brady drove toward a second Super Bowl victory against Carolina, a Pats’ defender, slumped in exhaustion, bellowed, “We’re not losing because we have Tom Brady.” The game deadlocked at 29 with 1:08 remaining, Brady played the drive of two years before—when, against 14-point favorite St. Louis, he completed five passes for 53 yards before Adam Vinatieri kicked a 48-yard field goal with 0:07 remaining for a 20–17 victory. Now he mixed slants to Troy Brown and Deion Branch to reach the 23-yard line. Vinatieri booted a 41-yarder for a 32–29 victory.
By 2004 New England had won a record 21 straight games and opposed Philadelphia. First they dunked the Colts 20–3. Against Philly, Brady hit 23 of 33 for 236 yards and was not intercepted in his third straight Super Bowl. While Ravens’ coach John Harbaugh insists that the Pat’s three championships have been “stained” due to “Spygate,” the lasting image of this New England team is Brady, driving naturally.
7. Maddux and Martinez
Strong Arms in Cheating Times
“Home runs were once special,” Reggie Jackson said in a sonorous voice. He described taking his daughter to the Hall of Fame and pointing proudly to his 1993 bronze plaque reading: “563 home runs rank sixth on the all-time list.” He returned years later. He then ranked thirteenth, behind five pharmaceutically enhanced imposters who used performance enhancing drugs: Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmiero and Alex Rodriguez. Jackson was suspended by the Yankees, his employer, for claiming, truthfully, that Rodriguez’s home run totals were tainted.
All told, 21 of the last 80 MVP and Cy Young Award winners tested positive for performance enhancing drugs. Against this quarter-century backdrop of cheating, highest praise goes to Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez. In 2000 Martinez posted an ERA of 1.74, 2.84 times better than the league average of 4.91—the best ratio since 1900. His career mark of 219–100 (.687) is second only to Whitey Ford (.690) among 200-game winners since 1900. Like Martinez, Greg Maddux was a tour de force of surgical precision. He won 15 or more in a record 17 consecutive years. Will any active pitcher match his four consecutive Cy Young Awards, from 1992 through 1995 or his 355 career wins?
The Last Hoops Trifecta
In this millennium of basketball parity, Los Angeles was the exception, running off three titles from 2000 through 2002. For those fond of insisting that Kobe Bryant is Jordan’s equal, I offer these title years as Exhibit A. The indomitable Laker was Shaquille O’Neal, who won all three finals MVPs and eliminated the Pacers, the Sixers and the Nets, who couldn’t stop him with a tuna net and a pistol.
The Lakers lured Phil Jackson out of retirement. The Zen Master believed that O’Neal could play a more complete game, especially with rebounding and defense. O’Neal posted an MVP season. Los Angeles steamrolled playoff opponents at a 15–1 clip in 2001. In 2002 O’Neal averaged 36 points and 12 rebounds against a tag team of Nets centers totaling 47 fouls on Shaq. Los Angeles won the last trifecta, even if Indiana, Philadelphia and New Jersey weren’t historic opponents.
9. Serena Williams
“Beauty Queen” read the text in a national magazine promoting the “fortnight at Wimbledon.” Maria Sharapova was shown kissing a Wimbledon plate. An old photo really, since the 6'2" femme fatale by way of Ngayan, Russia, hasn’t held that particular plate since 2004. Any hopes that she would buss the silver fell short again, as losing in the fourth round spared her the indignity of flailing at a lethal first serve rising to 126 miles per hour, courtesy of Serena Jameka Williams.
As muskets gave way to rifles, so did the tennis we once knew give way to Williams. The dainty serve-and-volley style of yesteryear appears like a museum curiosity now.
In a chilly eviction of Victoria Azarenka in the semis at Wimbledon, Serena served a record 24 aces. “Two of the greatest shots of all time are Federer’s forehand and Serena’s serve,” McEnroe observed. She completed the rout by beating Agnieszka Radwanska. In the Olympics Williams laid an unholy butt whipping on Sharapova 6–0, 6–1 in the finals. Sharapova looked flummoxed, utterly. “When she’s fit, when she wants something, no one can stop her,” said broadcaster Mary Carillo. Williams finished two months of magic, winning the U.S. Open, overcoming a 5–3 deficit in the third set to beat Azarenka for her fifteenth grand slam title. She trails only Steffi Graff (22), Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert (18 each) in the open era.
10. Detroit Redwings
Cups Runneth Over
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.
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