Two years ago, when ESPN asked me to be a panelist in its Sports Century project, Muhammad Ali was my No. 1 choice for athlete of the century, narrowly ahead of Babe Ruth. About 10 days ago, I told Kornheiser--also a voter--that after much obsessing, if I had it to do all over again, I'd vote Jim Thorpe No. 1. Two nights ago, after watching the half-hour biography of Ali for the second time, I changed my mind and concluded I'd keep Ali No. 1, put Jim Brown at No. 2 and Thorpe at No. 3.
Then, I put my original list away for good, and decided I'm not going to agonize over it anymore. I've come to the conclusion that a strong, convincing case can be made for any of the following people to be No. 1: Ali, Thorpe, Brown, Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan (who won the voting) and maybe Jackie Robinson. And therein lies the point of which we all need to be reminded as this debate rages on. Several people are worthy of the honor. It's an honor to be voted in the top 50. It's an honor to be considered at all.
The thing that really irks me is when I hear somebody say, "So-and-so was robbed! How could you vote him No. 5? What an insult!"
How can you insult somebody by saying to him or her, "You're one of the top 10 athletes on this continent in this century?" You can't. It's praise at the highest level imaginable. As long as folks don't take themselves or their positions too seriously, it's one of the most entertaining sports discussions imaginable. ESPN got exactly what it wanted. The Sports Century top 10 has been the sports conversation for the past month.
When I first ranked my top 50 at the end of 1997, I took about six weeks to put together a list, ponder it, scratch folks off, add others, rethink it some more, then rework a final list before submitting it. I'm embarrassed to say I didn't have John Elway in my top 50, but remember the voting took place before his first Super Bowl victory--I'd put him in the top 20 now--and that I had Wayne Gretzky No. 20. I should have had him in the top 10, as well as Babe Didrikson Zaharias--who is for my money the least appreciated great athlete ever. This, however, is with 20-20 hindsight and two years to dwell on every single ranking.
In the interest of full disclosure, here's my top five in order: Ali, Ruth, Joe Louis, Michael Jordan, Jim Brown. (I had Wilt No. 6, Carl Lewis No. 9, Joe Montana No. 15.)
We were told not to consider social significance, but there is no way to separate some athletes and their performance from the cultural context in which they competed. How great a baseball career would Jackie Robinson have been if he'd been free to just concentrate on his sport?
My criteria: The people in the top 10 had to dominate their sports. They had to be arguably the best to ever play their sport. Longevity mattered. And I gave big points to people who played multiple sports competitively at the collegiate or professional level. Jim Brown scores big because in addition to being perhaps the greatest football player of all time, he was unarguably the greatest lacrosse player of all time. Babe Ruth was Greg Maddux before he became Babe Ruth. He pitched for five years. It wasn't until his eighth season that he had 500 plate appearances. Babe Ruth swinging a bat from Day 1 would have hit 1,000 home runs. Joe Montana was such a great high school basketball player, he could have played ACC hoops at North Carolina State. Robinson's credentials don't stop at social significance. He earned a spot in the baseball Hall of Fame, but baseball was his fourth-best sport at UCLA, behind football, track and basketball. I don't count Jordan's stint in minor league baseball; his sustained brilliance in one sport was quite enough.
I voted for very few Olympians who had one or two great competitions because I felt that would be penalizing those athletes who had to compete every day, every year. So, Mark Spitz appears nowhere on my list. Carl Lewis and Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Al Oerter do because they competed in so many Olympic Games. And I have no idea why people voted Jesse Owens ahead of Lewis. The Owens confrontation with Hitler may be the best moment of the century, but it shouldn't vault Owens ahead of Lewis on a list of great athletes.
Wilt is way ahead of Russell because Wilt doesn't have to play the other Celtics in this poll.
Willie Mays is way ahead of Mickey Mantle because Mantle's early-career injury and self-destruction reduced his athletic ability and career.
I didn't vote for Tiger Woods. But if we had two years left in the century he would be in the top 25, 10 years left and he'd be in the top 10.
We also voted on best coach (for me, Lombardi), greatest event (Ali-Frazier I ahead of the Miracle on Ice) and most influential person (Roone Arledge by a hair over Marvin Miller and Branch Rickey).
Two others who were totally overlooked but deserve consideration: Darrell Green, who may be the single greatest athletic marvel in the history of professional football, and Dave Winfield, who could have played four sports professionally.
It's frightening how little alleged sports fans under 35 know about anything that didn't happen in their lifetimes. They have no idea that Ruth wasn't always fat, that Jack Johnson was an extremely literate, well-traveled man who was Ali 40 years too early, or even who Thorpe is. You say "Thorpe" to a 25-year-old now, he thinks you're talking about Otis. How sad.
I am proud to say I did not, bestowed with such an honor, waste my vote on a horse. Kornheiser did. On his tombstone it should read, "Here lies a man, when given the chance to participate in the ranking of the 20th century's top athletes, voted Secretariat No. 8, ahead of Jesse Owens, ahead of Walter Payton, ahead of Bill Russell." Ballots that included horses should have been disqualified. Kornheiser should have to wear a locket with a picture of Mr. Ed in it around his neck for two years.
A rap on the knuckles should also go to Sports Illustrated, which compiled a list of the 50 greatest sports figures in every state . . . but ignored Washington, D.C., just left it out like the District didn't exist, or as if there are no great sports figures in the nation's capital. It's bad enough not to have a vote in the U.S. Senate; now we don't even rate a mention in SI? Are folks in D.C. left out when it comes to paying their subscription bill? SI's list assigned notables to the places where they first made their marks. So using that criteria how about this: Red Auerbach (he went to college at George Washington and lived in D.C. the entire time he coached and ran the Celtics), John Thompson, Elgin Baylor, Dave Bing, Adrian Dantley, Patrick Ewing, Fox TV's James Brown, Pauline Betz-Addie, Lee Elder, Clark Griffith, Georgetown lineman Al Blozis (who was killed in World War II before he got a chance to make his mark in the NFL), Monk Malloy (now the president of Notre Dame) and the one and only Shirley Povich.
Boy, you start compiling lists and you're back to square one, agonizing, crossing off, adding on.
I know I said I wasn't going to stress over the Sports Century ballot anymore; I lied. You know what separates Ali from everybody else?
Ruth, Brown, Wilt and Jack Johnson all changed their sports. Jordan changed not only his sport, but commerce. Robinson and Billie Jean King changed the country. Only Ali changed the world.