Friday, November 21, 2014

All-Time Greats

Keith Olbermann's recent commentary about Gordie Howe 

got me to thinking.

Not just about Howe, a giant of my sports childhood (and he was on the downside of his career then,  although with a decade yet to play), but about something Olbermann says during his tribute. That Howe dominated his sport at his peak like few other athletes, save for Babe Ruth and "one or two others."

So, who are the others? I'm not looking for a sabermetric analysis here. Neither am trying to determine who the greatest athletes were, regardless of their sport (so no Jim Thorpe or Bo Jackson). But if we take Olbermann's proposition as accurate, that Howe and Ruth dominated and influenced their chosen sports like few others, who might those other one or two (or more) be?

An unspoken part of the equation is when Olbermann describes his encounter with Howe when Keith was just ten and Number 9 demonstrated the amazingly fast hands that enabled him to flip wrist shots and jab opponents with aplomb. So, while Ruth and Howe were undeniably gifted athletes, we can also presume that they also had a unique skill set that allowed them to rise above their peers in their particular sport.

The final consideration is that, while I do have a historical understanding when it comes to some sports, I lack meaningful knowledge regarding legendary figures of many others, and so my perspective in those competitions is  largely limited to my personal observations.

The first athlete that came to mind was Bill Russell. But while Russell was the dominate defensive player of his or any time, he was not an offensive powerhouse like Howe or Ruth who essentially changed the way their game was played.  Michael Jordan on the other hand was dominant at both ends of the court and did change the way the game was played, even down to how the players dressed and whether or not they had hair. He played defense, was impossibly creative offensively, and shared with Howe an insatiable desire to win.

After basketball, I considered football and soccer players that could enter the Howe Pantheon. Those sports are so team oriented, and have so many players on the field at one time, that  they don't lend themselves as easily to finding the seminal, game-altering athlete as hockey, baseball, and basketball do.

In football I considered Johnny Unitas and Peyton Manning as possibilities. But did they really change the way the game is played? Otto Graham may well be worthy of consideration but his generation was several before mine and I don't feel empowered to make that call with him.

Lest we forget, however, American football didn't used to be the quarterback-centric game that it has become. And that leads us to an athlete who likely belongs at the the peak: Jim Brown. Brown's combination of speed and power had never been seen before in a running back. Add in the fact that he likely more radically changed lacrosse than football, and I'm comfortable with placing his name in Valhalla with Howe and Ruth. 

In soccer I have only read about or seen grainy highlights of old-timers like Alfredo Di Stefano and Stanley Matthews and really even Pele. The latter seems most likely to fit the bill. He was bigger and stronger and more skilled and more imaginative than any other player of his time. By a long shot. Of course I'd add Lionel Messi to the conversation. But even I can't make the argument that Messi has been the game changer that Pele was.

Perhaps the "safest" best for unique athletes is in the Olympic sports, where performance is easiest to assess. But given modern training techniques and full-time devotion to what was once an avocation, it's too easy to just say that because someone has run or swum or jumped the fastest or highest or farthest now is the best of all time. Measured against competitors of the day and time, though, who clearly stands out as the best ever. Who changed their sport?

Bob Beamon, the Olympic long jumper, is an obvious choice. Beamon's world record jump at the Mexico City Games in 1968 stood for nearly 23 years and shocked the world. His jump of 29 feet 2 1/2 inches broke the existing record by nearly a foot. The record was taken from Beamon in 1991 by Mike Powell (who jumped 29 feet 4 3/8 and who still holds the crown - longer now than Beamon's time at the top), but Beamon's jump is still the Olympic record 46 years later, and is still the second longest in history.

Beamon in flight in Mexico City
(photo from

Michael Phelps certainly deserves consideration for the way he dominated swimming in multiple disciplines for a decade. But there's something about Phelps (and I like the guy, despite his screw-ups) that's just so far from Howe and The Babe and Jim Brown that I refuse to include him in that group.

The last name for consideration is Usain Bolt. No sprinter has ever dominated for as long or as completely as the aptly named Bolt. He holds both the 100 and 200 meter world records and has won both events in the last two Olympics. He has the fastest and second fastest times ever in the 100, along with the Olympic record. And, to show that he's a team player, he has been part of two consecutive 4x100 gold medal winning relay teams and has part of the world record in that event as well. It appears self-evident that he is the greatest sprinter of all time, and probably the greatest track and field athlete ever.

Howe and Ruth says Keith, and I agree. Jordan, Brown, Pele, Beamon, and Bolt. That's my list. Who did I miss?

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