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Twenty for Twenty

The 20 Greatest Acts of Sport Since 1992
| By Ken Shouler | From Jeremy Irons, March/April 2013

When Cigar Aficionado first showed its face on a newsstand in 1992, the deity of the sporting universe was one Michael Jordan, a 29-year-old who had already touched the ether. Since that time, football, a violent but enthralling game, has cemented its standing as America’s national pastime, replacing baseball, now tattered and corrupted, having devolved into a faint image of its former self. The past 20 years have bore witness to a host of acts of sporting dominance and excellence, none greater than the 20 we have assembled here.

1. Jordan
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?
8. Lakers
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
Canon Fire

“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.

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.

14. Boston
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
Forever Unequalled

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
Two Upsets

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.

17. Pittsburgh
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.

18. Rangers
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
Who Rules?

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.”

20. Farewell
Warriors Departing

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.

Stockton and Malone remain forever linked with their pick-and-roll. So were Bird and Magic joined at the hip. Montana had no equal in the post-season. Nolan Ryan packed a bionic arm. Gretzky’s stature as the standard bearer for his sport remains unscathed. He joins Jordan, Montana, Federer, Phelps and Bolt as the best to ever come down the pike.

Kenneth Shouler is a regular contributor to Cigar Aficionado.