These six titans are living icons of the sports world
From the Print Edition:
Catherine Zeta-Jones, September/October 2009
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The name Edison Arantes do Nascimento makes most of us shrug. We do know the nickname, Pelé, and more often than not associate it with the received opinion that he was the greatest soccer player of all time. He was already 35 when he came to the United States, joining the New York Cosmos. We have come to view these soccer transplants as serial attempts, mostly failed, to establish soccer as a spectator sport in America. That said, Pelé's three-year sojourn to America provided a window into what he once was.
We witnessed the insanely adept dribbling that left two and three defenders appearing ungainly and drunk. We saw him firing upside-down scissor kicks or rising above the scrum to head corner kicks into the net. Pelé was alien because his game and acrobatic skills were alien. We knew we had never seen anything like it.
His athletic repertoire was honed in Brazil, where he grew up in poverty. A world audience first got a glimpse of him in 1958, with the first international broadcast of the World Cup. Just 17, Pelé ran around seasoned veterans. He scored two goals in the final, as Brazil slammed Sweden 5-2. Scoring six goals in the final three games, he gave Brazil its first cup since the tournament began in 1930.
Brazil won again in 1962, when Pelé was injured for all but the first two games. With Brazil in pursuit of a third straight cup in 1966, Pelé was again hurt and Brazil was eliminated in the first round. In 1970, Pelé, then 29, had something to prove. "I wanted to put to rest once and for all, the idea that I couldn't enter a World Cup series without getting hurt." He netted four goals and added six assists, including the opener in the finals as Brazil topped Italy 4-1. On a crossing shot 30 minutes into the game, Pelé and Italy's defender Tarcisio Burgnich jumped for the ball. "We jumped together, then I came down, but he stayed up there," said Burgnich. Pelé headed in the ball to give Brazil a two-goal lead. "I thought Pelé was made of flesh and blood like me," Burgnich said. "I was wrong."
By 1974, the man known as the "Black Pearl" played his last game for Brazil's Santos, a mid-level club team when he joined them in 1957. He wished to retire, but with financial concerns he inked a three-year deal with the Cosmos for $2.8 million. His presence alone boosted league attendance by 80 percent, from 7,597 per game in 1975 to 13,584 in 1977.
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.
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