Thursday, June 20, 2013

Greatest of All Time? You decide

       When I see these stories or hear talk on TV, or in a newspaper sports department, or anywhere, about "the greatest" in whatever category, I try not to pay attention.
       It's a stupid discussion, thank you.
       Here's my point: Who is going to decide? You might see Sports Illustrated or Sporting News or ESPN, or any other media outlet or individual, do a survey or make its own choices and I say, it doesn't matter.
       It's all subjective ... unless God makes the ruling, or Moses returns with those tablets that give us the final selection.
       I bring this up today because I've seen recent references to LeBron James being the G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time) in basketball. Yes, LeBron and his Miami Heat teammates might win a second consecutive NBA title tonight, but LeBron as the greatest player ever?
       Hardly. Not even close.
       Frank Deford, who is on my list of nominees as Greatest of All Time in sportswriting, had his take on this subject a month ago: So he can write it more effectively than I can.
       But here's what I'm trying to point out. You've got LeBron, who still has a few championships to win before I'd even put him in my conversation. You've got Michael Jordan, who did lead six NBA championship teams and who many people think is the greatest ever. And those six championships are only five short of Bill Russell's titles as the Boston Celtics' center/leader.
       Was there ever a greater individual talent than Wilt Chamberlain, who once averaged more than 50 points a game for a season and another season played more than 48 minutes a game (think about that)?  
       You could pick Oscar Robertson, who could do everything well, and personally Jerry West was the player I most loved to watch.
       How about Lew Alcindor, certainly my pick as the greatest college player ever, and as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, perhaps the greatest college/pro ever (three national/six NBA titles) to Russell's two/11))?
       Those of us from Louisiana might go with Bob Pettit or Shaq or "The Mailman" (Karl Malone) or "The Big E" (Elvin Hayes) ... or the one and only Pistol Pete Maravich, a scoring/passing talent unmatched in college ball.
       So how the heck do you decide? Who decides the Greatest?
       Pick a "greatest" category:
       Hockey? The Great Gretzky. Movies? The Great Gatsby. Magic? The Great Houdini. Television? The Great Carsoni (the young Johnny Carson act ... OK, it's a reach). World dynasty? Alexander The Great. A structure? The Great Wall of China.
One of the "greatest" in my opion:
Sandy Koufax (
       Greatest home run hitter? Babe Ruth. Hank Aaron. Barry Bonds. Mark McGwire. We'll take the Babe, of course, because as my great friend Casey Baker always pointed out, he was so much better than his peers. And how else can you compare players from different eras?
       Greatest left-handed pitcher? Warren Spahn or Sandy Koufax or Whitey Ford or -- a distant fourth, in my opinion -- nasty Randy Johnson.
       OK, here's one that's not going to get any argument: Greatest left-handed Jewish pitcher?  A dandy named Sandy. Not Kenny Holtzman.
       Golf? Well, it's hard not to say Tiger Woods these days, but he might not be the greatest living golfer as long as Jack Nicklaus is still around. Ben Hogan. Byron Nelson. Gene Sarazan and, oh, yes, Bobby Jones, who never did turn pro.
       Back to basketball -- greatest NBA coach? Red Auerbach or Phil Jackson? Pat Riley? And, yes, Gregg Popovich, whose number of championships could change from four to five tonight.
       Don't believe John Wooden as greatest men's college basketball coach will get an argument. But if you read this blogger's post of 02/29/12 it said that Pat Summitt "is the greatest coach in the history of college athletics."  That did get some argument.
       And the blog post of 11/15/12 called Bill Snyder of Kansas State "the greatest college football coach ever." Ha. I think Alabama fans now have two men they could nominate for that.
       (See, I can have my own stupid opinions.)
       I could go on and on, but let's turn to greatest quarterbacks.
       When I worked at the Florida Times-Union in the late 1980s/early 1990s, we had a group of writers who often argued about the greatest QB in NFL history. Often? No, every day at lunch, and as they came back to into the office after lunch? Every day ... for about two years.           
       They -- Pete Prisco, Jeff Fries, Ray McNulty, and sometimes Gene Frenette, Frank Frangie, Garry Smits -- are probably still arguing Dan Marino vs. Johnny U., Bart Starr, Joe Namath, Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach, Dan Fouts.
       A few of those writers were huge Marino fans -- and they're still waiting for his first Super Bowl title.
       I could have told them Bradshaw or Staubach, although Unitas -- in my mind -- was the role model for any QB that followed him.
       What I did tell them was how stupid their argument -- their every-day argument -- was ... who was going to make the final decision so we wouldn't have to listen to them anymore?
       They never even considered or talked about Joe Ferguson ... unless I brought it up. Totally partial here, but we know Joe is the greatest high school quarterback of all time. If you want to argue that, check with Chuck Baker of Alma, Ark., or with A.L. Williams or J.W. Cook or any of the thousands of 1960s Shreveport Woodlawn faithful.
The cover says it all about Ali

       I have saved boxing for last because it's a double-sided argument: (1) the greatest heavyweight of all time and (2) the greatest pound-for-pound fighter of all time.
       In heavyweights, you've got Jack Dempsey, Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Joe Frazier, George Foreman ... and one other guy. Pound-for-pound, it's Sugar Ray Robinson or maybe Roberto Duran or Sugar Ray Leonard, but Floyd Mayweather -- unbeaten and still going -- might be the pick.
       But The Greatest? That was what he called himself.
       First, he was known as Cassius Clay, then he became Muhammad Ali.
       For a few decades, he told us and told us and told us, "I Am The Greatest ... the greatest of all time." He can't tell us anymore, but if  you don't believe it, just watch this:
      Hey, this is my choice. You make your own choices. We can all believe we're right.  And that's just ... great.          


  1. From Marty Mule': The one flaw in your discussion on Ali is that HE didn't consider himself "The Greatest," although he used it as a self-description. Ali admitted Sugar Ray Robinson was the fighter he always wanted to be. And his manager, Angelo Dundee, also said in story I did on the athletes of the 20th Century that Sugar Ray was the best boxer he ever saw.

  2. From Tim Looney: Good one, Nico. The Babe for sure. I'd go with Jordan for sheer ability in NBA. The Pistol was AMAZING in college. Ali is probably The Greatest boxer. I'd pick Jim Brown in pro football. Joe Montana as best QB. How 'bout Secretariat as best race horse -- his Belmont win was probably the most dominant performance in sports history!

  3. From Jimmy Russell: Good thoughts on this one. A lot of people in your former profession want to jump on the best player they have seen. They know little history about some of these but anyway What about Rocky Marciano as the greatest of all time in boxing. He could and would put you to sleep and NEVER LOST.

  4. From Tommy Canterbury: Good stuff. Love your choice of Ali. Some -- very very few -- are just clear-cut above the rest in their sport: Jordan, Tiger, Ali, Secretariat, Jesse Owens. Those that do it in a one-man, individual sport are special. [In team sports] it may be hard to make comparisons, but the purist of sports, boxing ... well, Ali just toyed with the competition. What would he have done if the military draft fiasco had not interrupted or what if the liquor had not slowed Mickey Mantle, etc. Great, great players are still humans and deal with crap as we all must, I suppose. Anyway, good stuff.