These six titans are living icons of the sports world
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His statistical legacy supports his fame. At the age of 29 he scored his 1,000th goal, an unprecedented achievement in his native land. In all, he scored 1,281 goals, a total recognized by FIFA (the Fédération Internationale de Football Association) as the highest achieved by a pro footballer. It's up to some other player to bump him off the throne.
It has been 10 years since Wayne Gretzky closed out his brilliant 20-year hockey career. At the time of his retirement in New York he held or shared a breathtaking 61 NHL records. Little has changed. No one has ever played hockey in Wayne's World—and don't hold your breath waiting for it to happen. In 1999, a media panel appointed by ESPN selected the 100 greatest athletes of the century. The panel chose Wayne Gretzky fifth, behind Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown. I thought then, and now, that Gretzky should have been third or higher. Mind you, the next hockey player in line, Gordie Howe, finished 21st on the list, which provides some idea of the Grand Canyon that separates Gretzky from anyone else playing on frozen water.
Gretzky should be ahead of Brown, the preeminent NFL running back, because Brown's dominance was not as long-lived as Gretzky's. Before he ran wide at age 29 to leave football and make the Dirty Dozen, Brown led the league in rushing in eight of his nine seasons. Yet Gretzky led the league in assists in an insane 14 of his first 15 NHL seasons (1980-1994) and in points for 12 of those seasons. To this day, he owns the six most essential single-season and career markers in NHL history: goals in a season (92 in 1982), assists (163 in 1986), points (215 in 1986), career goals (894), assists (1,963) and points (2857).
For that reason he cannot be behind Brown, or Ali, whose sport required no more of him than to do battle 61 times in 21 years—less than one fight per season. Ali lost five of those 61 fights, so unlike Gretzky he does not own the most dominant record in his own sport. A case could be made that Gretzky is the most dominant team athlete in history, even ahead of Jordan and Ruth.
Aside from his virtual lock on hockey's legacy, there is something deliciously unremarkable, even unassuming about this native of Brantford, Ontario. He seems smaller than his listed six-feet and 185 pounds. A wiry man of grace and peerlessly fluid motion, Gretzky could only be separated from others of the same ilk by a trained eye.
What exactly was it that made him singularly special? For one, Gretzky had an unwavering determination to succeed. His father made him a skating rink in the back yard—"a great rink," the younger Gretzky recalls excitedly, "with ice seven inches thick." At seven years old Gretzky would be on the ice at 7 a.m., all day Saturdays and Sundays, until "Hockey Night in Canada" came on television at 7:30 p.m. No wonder, that this skinny kid of 11 years old, playing with bigger and older kids, scored 378 goals in 69 games.
From there it was off to the races. Entering his fifth season in the league he owned records aplenty but no cups. The New York Islanders were Lords of the Rink, having won four consecutive Stanley Cups and an incredible 19 consecutive playoff series. Even an Edmonton machine that included Mark Messier and Paul Coffey, Glenn Anderson and Jari Kurri and cranked out 424 goals in 1983—an incredible 5.3 per game—got swept by New York. Gretzky remembered walking by the Islanders' dressing room and noticing that they were exhausted and wounded, while the youthful Oilers felt fine.
When they met again the following spring, the Oilers had studied the Islanders' methodical discipline and defensive ways and blitzed them in five games to end the New York dynasty and start their own, winning four cups in six seasons. As years passed, Gretzky's legend took off. He possessed uncanny perceptual powers, seeing all the players on the ice at once, and where they were going, like some grand master who looked at a board and didn't just see individual chess pieces but sequences of moves.
So special were his gifts and drive to excel that no one has come close to taking his measure.
You can prattle on about your best front nine, putting percentage, and ball striking ability, but when the tallying is done one metric wears the pants in golf: the number of major tournaments you won. When Jack Nicklaus took the Masters in 1986 he collected his 18th and last major championship. A distant second in his rearview mirror was Walter Hagen with 11. That was then. With the PGA Championship still to be played in 2009, Tiger Woods has been playing for 13 and three-quarter years—just more than half the length of Nicklaus's career. Woods has won 14 majors, and is just 33 years old. At his current pace, Woods could quit at Nicklaus's retirement age of 46 and win 27 majors.
But until that happens, Nicklaus is the man. The legend's start was surely inauspicious. After insisting that he wouldn't turn pro, the heavyset Nicklaus left Ohio State late in 1961 and entered the Los Angeles Open in January 1962. He scored a 289, leaving him 21 strokes behind the winner. For his efforts he earned $33.33.
But before that year's U.S. Open, Arnold Palmer said, "Everybody says there's only one favorite, and that's me. But you'd better watch the fat boy." Having already won four majors, Palmer seemed to have matters in hand, leading by five strokes with 12 holes left. But Nicklaus roared back, making up all five strokes between the seventh and 13th holes. In a playoff he shot par, three strokes better than Palmer. Nicklaus was on his way.
The timing of that event parallels Tiger Woods's historic win at Augusta in 1997, taking the first major he entered by a record 12 strokes, finishing 18 under par, and, at 21, becoming the youngest ever to win the Masters.
It seems inevitable that a golfing specimen such as Woods will eventually overtake the Golden Bear. In all likelihood, Woods should reach 18 majors by the age of 37. Even if that were to happen, Woods and Nicklaus would be sharing a perch high above the rest.
Kenneth Shouler is managing editor and chief writer for Total Basketball: The Ultimate Basketball Encyclopedia.