These six titans are living icons of the sports world
From the Print Edition:
Catherine Zeta-Jones, September/October 2009
Maybe they appear once a century, legends of the sporting world, athletes who take their sports to levels of achievement never seen before. They stand tall, even among sporting giants, and their achievements are immortal. Joe Namath defied the football gods by guaranteeing a win against the mighty Colts, and backed up his words in the greatest Super Bowl upset of all time. Willie Mays ran madly toward the Polo Grounds fence, to the right of the 483-foot sign, and made "the catch" that turned the 1954 World Series. Michael Jordan scored a layup, stole the ball from Karl Malone, and sunk a 15-footer—all in under 40 seconds—to finish the Utah Jazz in the 1998 NBA Finals. Pelé made grown men look like children as he darted down the pitch, flipping upside down to bicycle the ball into the net. Wayne Gretzky glided on ice with unparalleled grace—once scoring 61 goals in 50 games—and tore up the old hockey record book. Jack Nicklaus shocked the world at the age of 46 by shooting 30 on the back nine at Augusta, becoming the oldest Masters winner in history. These legends in all fields are the standard-bearers, the living, breathing benchmarks of their endeavors.
In sports, as in the world beyond arenas, 1969 was a year when everything seemed possible. Men hopped on the moon in July. Half a million people descended on Max Yasgur's farm for the Woodstock Festival in Bethel, New York, in August. In October, the Mets, once the doormats of the National League, beat the favored Baltimore Orioles in five games. But let the record show that the year of infinite possibility began on January 12, 1969, when the New York Jets upset the Baltimore Colts.
It was a time when sports could still surprise us in a good way. The Jets' embodiment of possibility was Joe Namath, a man who irked staid observers from the get-go. Four years before, his salary of $427,000—and a Lincoln Continental—was unprecedented. He was a renegade, a shaggy-haired roué who treated bachelorhood as a badge of honor and enjoyed living up to the name "Broadway Joe." "He was just a magnet," says teammate John Dockery. "It was like traveling with a rock star."
So much has been made of Namath's singular style, but substance served him better. His abiding virtue was courage, a deep courage built on creaky knees that wouldn't do his bidding in later years. He played football B. C.—Before Chivalry—before refinements to the roughing-the-passer rule could save your ass against the likes of Buck Buchanan and Deacon Jones.
But the name Namath will forever be associated with Super Bowl III, a game that is different from all the rest. The NFL and the AFL were leagues apart. Since that day 40 years ago, the name Joe Namath has been synonymous with the word "upset." The Colts were favored by 18 points, the largest of all Super Bowl spreads. Sorry kids, learn your history. Don't listen to the media: the Patriots beating the 14-point favorite Rams in 2002 doesn't even begin to measure up to what the Lilliputian Jets were facing two generations ago. Consider: the Colts were 13-1, outscoring opponents 402 to 144, meaning they dusted their opposition on average by 29 to 10. By comparison, the 11-3 Jets were thought by many to be just the third best outfit in the AFL, behind the Chiefs and Raiders, who both finished 12-2. In Earl Morrall the Colts had the leading passer and MVP. His backup was Johnny Unitas, a three-time MVP, who missed much of the regular season with an elbow injury. To make matters worse, the Green Bay Packers had destroyed upstart AFL teams by a combined score of 68-24 in the first two Super Bowls.
No wonder one columnist predicted a 55-0 Colts victory. Oddsmakers couldn't decide whether the spread should be set at 18 or 20 points. At a Miami Touchdown Club dinner three days before the game, Joe Namath fired back at a heckler in the audience, "We're going to win Sunday. I guarantee you."
From Baltimore's vantage point, Namath's words carried over eerily. From the outset, the Jets looked crisp and confident. Just a 49 percent passer for the season, Namath mixed his aerial and running attacks seamlessly. Eight tosses to end George Sauer gained 133 yards. Matt Snell, the 220-pound fullback, plucked 40 more yards from Namath's spirals and bulled for 120 yards on the grass, including the only Jets touchdown, a four-yard plunge that provided a 7-0 halftime lead. Three Jim Turner field goals stretched the lead, unbelievably, to 16-zip. A remarkable but undersold fact is that the Colts didn't score until 56 minutes and 41 seconds had elapsed.
By delivering on his prediction, Namath infused the AFL with respect and notoriety.
After the epoch-making 16-7 victory, the AFC set out on a decade-plus of dominance as the Chiefs, Colts, Dolphins, Steelers and Raiders won 10 of the next 12 Super Bowls, many of them blow outs. The lone NFC team to win was Dallas.
To observers who denounced Namath as some one-hit wonder, there was a game for the ages three years later. Baltimore, who had won perhaps the most important game in league history—the overtime victory over the Giants in the NFL championship at Yankee Stadium in 1958—could not shake the embarrassment of the loss in Super Bowl III. A spirit of vendetta filled the air when the two teams played, and Baltimore had won the four regular season tilts since the epic loss. But the September 24, 1972 game was epic in its own fashion.
It was a heavyweight bout, with Unitas and Namath firing at each other in "take that" fashion and connecting. Namath rent the air for 496 yards and six touchdowns on just 15 completions. Unitas connected on 26 passes for 376 yards and two touchdowns. The two combined for 872 yards passing, an NFL record. But no individual distinction could replace the game of games, the colossal upset that showed the limits of long odds and how perfect a quarterback can be in a given game. Those who saw it expect nothing like it again. That's how good it was.
It was more than half a century ago that Leo Durocher spoke with reverence of a "five-tool" ballplayer. Those five tools—running, throwing, fielding, hitting for average, and hitting for power—were the precious metals that composed Durocher's statue to the baseball gods. Durocher, who played with Babe Ruth in the 1920s and managed for 27 years, most of them with the Dodgers and Giants when New York was the capital of baseball, made it clear that Willie Mays was his idea of a five-tool star. Mays tracked fly balls as though he had radar, ran as few sluggers could, and smacked more than 50 home runs in a season, as he first did in 1955. And he did all of this with irrepressible exuberance. After games at the Polo Grounds he would play stickball with kids on 155th Street, then treat them at the soda shop.
Willie Mays is baseball's greatest living player, and a monument to the vulnerable way that athletes once competed. In decades past, great athletes faced two opponents—their competitors and the ominous footsteps of father time. So there was Mays on my baseball card in the spring of 1968, with 564 home runs, all alone in second place, only Ruth looming on the horizon, 150 ahead of him. Mays had a chance, if only his reflexes and strength held up. But Mays did not catch Ruth, for he turned 37 that May and over his last six seasons his body would no longer do his bidding. The physical specimen who once hit homers in clumps of 40 and 50 now hit only 16 per year over his last six seasons in the sun. He finished with 660, hanging on with the Mets until he was 42.
To understand Mays, you must understand the way he attained his achievements. Mays sped past Mantle (who, in typical self-effacing fashion, said, "You have to look at the bottom line, and Willie's bottom line was way better than mine"), passed 500, sailed by Ott at 511, Williams at 521, and Fox at 534 to arrive in second place all alone. Players such as Mays who retired in the 1960s, '70s and '80s faced their mid-30s without the elixir of performance enhancing drugs to rescue their declining abilities. Now we hear sportscasters telling us, without a word of context, of Gary Sheffield reaching 500, of Alex Rodriguez passing Reggie Jackson's 563, and Manny Ramirez catching Mickey Mantle at 536. But their achievements are tainted and utterly meaningless. All told, seven of the last 11 players to reach the once-exclusive 500-homer club have been cited for using performance enhancers.
Baseball is still great, but the current stewards of the game—players, union officials and the commissioner himself—are poor, poor curators of it. No wonder then that a Harris Interactive poll showed that 42 percent of Americans declare football to be their favorite game, compared with only 15 percent for baseball. In addition, the television rating for the 2008 World Series was the lowest since ratings were first kept in 1969. It was quite different in Mays's time. Now 78, Mays deserves the appellation "greatest living player." His five-tool kit puts him ahead of Hank Aaron and Stan Musial, two other living greats who honored the game with their work ethic. I've heard Joe Torre claim that Aaron was as good as Mays, only Aaron wasn't as flashy. This cannot be right. Torre played with Aaron for eight years on the Braves, and players often defend their longtime mates in these kinds of comparisons.
The difference between the two, however, is surely not a matter of Willie's cap (which he wore a size too small on purpose) falling off while careening around the bases, nor his signature basket catch in center field. We're not counting style points here but genuine distinctions. Once you see that their offensive achievements are a virtual dead heat—with Mays ahead of Aaron by a mere .002 in slugging average and .10 in on-base percentage—then the debate is over before it starts. It must be, since Mays was by all accounts a superior fielder as well as base runner. The fielding superiority is evidenced by such metrics as range, fielding percentage, and put outs. Base running also favors Mays, the first power hitter to lead the league in steals, something he did four consecutive years in the 1950s. Some believe that Aaron's edge of 755 home runs to Mays' 660 is significant. It isn't. Consider: Mays played in just 34 games in 1952 and 1953, losing 270 games to his Army commitment. To best him by 95 more home runs, Aaron would require nearly 1,500 more at bats.
Being the greatest living player doesn't mean that Mays is without blemishes. In four World Series, Mays hit just .239 without a home run. He didn't pitch like Ruth and his .557 slugging average is miles behind Ruth's .690. But Mays is still the living standard for baseball excellence. He played with an élan and aggression seen in few, if ever.
The achievements of immortals such as Mays and Mantle, Aaron and Musial, Frank Robinson and Pete Rose, Tom Seaver and Bob Gibson now look better than ever because of baseball's immoral excesses since they retired. In a game where numbers equal merit, they attained their merits the hard way. Mays is our exemplar of a national pastime that was.
There is not now, never was and never will be another basketball player like Michael Jordan. Just as the term IQ stands for "intelligence quotient," we can coin a term "AQ" and let it stand for athletic quotient. The way I see it, AQ would stand for the sum of the attributes that make up athletic talent—speed and quickness, agility and jumping, size and strength, and even mental attributes such as sequential thinking and poise. If that be allowed, then it can be said that no hardwood savant has ever possessed a higher AQ than Michael Jordan.
The early medieval philosopher St. Anselm defined God as the "greatest conceivable being." Jordan is not the greatest conceivable player, but he is the greatest actual player. He is basketball's preeminent player since the merger of the BAA and NBL formed the NBA in 1948, the most outsized talent since the game's invention in a YMCA gymnasium in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1891.
Jordan's high AQ reminds us of what Bob Cousy once said about him. Other great players had weaknesses, Boston's cagey guard explained, but Jordan had "no weakness." Consider: It's been more than a decade since Jordan secured a sixth title for Chicago in 1998, and since that time people rarely bother to make an argument for Jordan's supremacy. In 1999, a panel of sports journalists (appointed by ESPN) voted him the athlete of the century. So his No. 1 stature is considered obvious. But shouldn't we make a case for Jordan? Among sophisticated observers Ruth is considered the greatest baseball player, but we still gather evidence for him: namely, his 94-46 record as a pitcher, followed by a record-setting offensive career and the amazing degree to which he dominated the statistical legacy of the game. So shouldn't we do the same for Jordan, especially since some commentators have been pretty chirpy about recent challengers for the No. 1 ranking?
Kobe Bryant and Lebron James are the two most mentioned as Jordan's rivals. But Bryant and James own pieces of Jordan's game without possessing the whole. Like Jordan, they can both create around the hoop and Bryant is a frightening streak shooter. But the record shows that neither possesses the defensive skills or the perimeter game of Jordan. Jordan owns the highest ever points per game average (30.1), compared with Bryant's (25) and James's (27). Both trail Jordan's 50 percent career field-goal percentage, which was even higher when he was younger. He also led the Bulls to six titles, and copped nine All-Defensive first-team defensive awards.
In addition, when a Jordan-led squad made the finals, they won—six of six. Byrant saw his Lakers knocked off by the Pistons in five games in 2004 and by the Celtics in six in 2008. Jordan took his game higher in the postseason, bagging MVPs in six finals, shooting 49 percent, while tallying an all-time best 33.4 points per game, Bryant has won but one finals MVP, and his 46 percent accuracy and 25.5 points per game are well off Jordan's markers. In his six seasons, James' postseason average is 29 points, but his accuracy goes down to 45 percent.
As great as James is, at times he seems to be three-quarters greatness and the remaining quarter finely orchestrated marketing. The 23 on his uniform number is his homage to Jordan, as is his pregame ritual of making a fog of talc— something that Jordan did to toy with the late Red Kerr in Chicago nearly two decades ago. So what has he done that Jordan hasn't? He has been hyped to Saturn and back. Yet in six seasons—and in Bryant's 13—both have done what Jordan never did: played poorly in postseason exits.
Jordan was glorious, even in defeat, but in the 2007 finals versus San Antonio James shot a miserable 36 percent (32-90) as his team was swept. Bryant shot only 53 for 131 (40 percent) against Boston in the 2008 finals. Try finding a similar poor performance in Jordan's body of work. Even while the Chicago Bulls were losing to the Pistons, Chuck Daley proclaimed, "Jordan is embarrassing the league." To curtail the embarrassment, Daley devised the "Jordan Rules," a set of roughhousing tactics to bang Jordan around. It never stopped him.
That appellation "The Next Michael Jordan" is a badge of honor, yet even great ones such as Bryant and James have not deserved it. Jordan remains the gold standard—better even than Oscar and Wilt and Kareem. Pat Riley once claimed that teams that lost to the Bulls in the '90s could look back with "an excuse" as to why they had lost. That excuse was Jordan. At his best, Jordan looked as if he were playing in a different gear than the other nine players on the floor.
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.
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